Tracing Tea-time: A Bite Into The Langham’s History of Afternoon Tea
June 16, 2023
Fresh off a limited-run menu celebrating quintessential British afternoon tea, Chef Andrew Gravett of The Langham London and The Langham Hong Kong’s very own Chef Tin brought their interpretation of the classic afternoon tea experience for a limited three-day run — reimagining childhood British snack favourites, such as a Bounty bar and Wagon Wheel cookies, through elevated techniques and ingredients.
Joining hands, their collaboration came after a residency exchange, whereby Chef Tin had a short stay in London and was later joined by Chef Andrew, who took a trip to Hong Kong. The menu marks a meeting point for different flavours and culinary influences that have become part of the story behind our favourite addition to the day. The Beat Asia spoke to the two chefs on how the fascinating history of this meal has culminated in the varied treats that are served to dazzle us today.
A Brief History of Afternoon Tea and How it Came to Hong Kong
First, let’s take a look back at the tradition of afternoon tea. It all began in the 1830s with Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford.
Evening meals were served fashionably late, long after the sun had set as was customary of upper-class households of the time. Entrepreneur that she was, Anna could not stand for such a tortuous delay between lunch and supper and often requested a snack of bread with butter, biscuits, and tea to curb her aching hunger. Soon, she began inviting friends to indulge in these light cravings with her, and eventually, the idea of “afternoon tea” trickled into the consciousness of the upper-class.
Nowadays, afternoon tea is a staple across the United Kingdom, often consisting of dainty finger sandwiches, tea cakes, pastries, and warm scones. In an average suburban home, afternoon tea menus might be something as simple as a biscuit or a small cake, accompanied by a simple kettle-and-teabag cuppa.
Thanks to our longstanding colonial history with the United Kingdom, the afternoon tea tradition has found another life in Asia. Peek into any Cha Chaan Teng at 4 PM and observe the surprisingly busy floor, with “Tea Set” menus taped to walls or slid under glass table panes. While it’s not the three-tiered tower we’re used to seeing on Instagram, the idea remains very much the same.
For hotels and established western restaurants, afternoon tea is a pinky-finger-up kind of affair, with diners opting to let their cameras eat first. Fanciful desserts that glisten like multi-coloured gems in small finger sized bites rest on the finest plates, posing for sound of the shutter.
Join us at Palm Court in chatting with Chefs Andrew on adapting traditional tea-time for modern times, and Chef Tin Lai on tracing the evolution of the ritual and its current popularity amongst our city’s gourmands.
First of all, what would you consider to be a misconception about “afternoon tea”?
Chef Andrew: Outside of London? That it's only for the rich. I think everybody should get to enjoy afternoon tea. It's a time where people enjoy simple company, with one another, [having] friends together. It's a time for people. People propose, people come for their anniversaries, for their birthdays, young people, old people — anyone can enjoy it.
What was it like working with each other? Have you encountered any new inspirations from being in a different environment than The Langham branch that you call home?
Chef Tin: I had learnt quite a few things from shadowing Chef Andrew. There are some differences between both the technical aspects and the culture of dessert-making along with preparing afternoon tea. Little details like how we use vanilla sticks, small things like that can make a whole lot of difference in taste. You could say that these were trade secrets not many people would know about, and those learning experiences was a very precious moment for me.
Chef Andrew: When Chef Tin came to London with three other chefs from The Langham Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Hefei, I thought “Why are they coming to learn from us? The things that they’re making are just as good, if not, better than the things that we are doing.”
Still, I had suggested they came over, because for us as The Langham chefs, it was a way to share the things that we do, the different cultures that we have, and to spend time with each other. I learnt a lot from them, not just about cakes, but about culture and how we work differently. For them, when they came to London, it was to see the heritage of the original place that afternoon tea was served.
Could you tell us more about how the early days of serving afternoon tea plays a role today?
Chef Andrew: We were the first people to do afternoon tea in the world at The Langham. And we don't talk about it enough! It's something, I think in the next few years, you're going to hear more about.
We started afternoon tea in 1865. We were the first place to serve it. And there's absolutely loads of history within the hotel. Going back to your [previous] question, I think that [history] was more important for the chefs to see when they came to see us. Recipes are [like] cakes. You mix flour, water, sugar, and butter, and you make a cake and it's done. But the history that they could see, however many thousands of kilometres away from home, is something they can bring back.
Chef Andrew, you’ve only been in Hong Kong for a short while, is there anything about Hong Kong’s own afternoon tea culture that was a new discovery for you?
Chef Andrew: It seems very visual, or more visual than for us in London. I’ve seen the cakes that Chef Tin does, they’re very visually attractive and they taste good. But for us in London, the focus really is on the flavour. In the case of the taste, the flavour is there and then the presentation comes [later]. [Here,] it seems we need photos, photos, photos. It’s very trendy and fashionable. I understand that’s a big difference.
Have you had a chance to try any Hong Kong sweets yet?
Chef Andrew: I have! The amenities in the hotel were very Hong Kong-based. I have no ideas of their names. Tin?
Chef Tin: So, this selection was especially chosen for Chef Andrew, as something a little different from the usual cakes and pastries. We have walnut cookies (核桃酥), “smiling” sesame balls (笑口棗), soft fried dough twists (麻花), sesame rolls (芝麻倦), pineapple bun (菠蘿包), and sachima (馬仔). These are all traditional snacks with deep ties to Hong Kong culture and could help us spark a question of how we can look at them with dessert-making in mind.
As chefs, how do you approach designing dishes and desserts for an afternoon tea menu?
Chef Tin: When I was speaking to the other visiting chefs in London, we agreed that in Asia the first element to make an impression was usually sight and visuals rather than taste, which made me think about how we create items that lead with different senses.
Chef Andrew: After meeting all the chefs, I think there's so much history in The Langham that we haven't touched, haven't spoken about, and haven't been inspired by. It got me thinking. There's loads and loads [of history], we don't just have things just because we like the look of it. There's a reason behind everything in the cakes that we are doing. Nostalgia, good memories — I'm sure there's people with some great memories about The Langham. It just woke me up to start thinking more and more about that.
As this special menu was based off some of Chef Andrew’s favourite childhood snacks, what nostalgic Hong Kong snacks would you use to create a local version, Chef Tin?
Chef Tin: As much as I loved hot and spicy potato chips, that would be a little difficult to incorporate! I might use sweets that are quintessential to representing Hong Kong, like white rabbit candy. Maybe even Hong Kong milk tea. There are so many ways to reinterpret these ingredients into new textures, turning them into decoration, or cooking them into cream and milk to add a new flavour.
We’ve taken a look back into history and a glimpse into the present, let’s look into the future! What are we going to see for afternoon tea at The Langham?
Chef Andrew: I can say that in London, there's projects and projects and projects, and it doesn't stop! One of the bigger ones is we're going to completely change the way that it's served. Something very early 2024, we hope.
Chef Tin: All The Langham’s around the world will be celebrating our 158th birthday. So, there will be some new items and desserts to create.
We can’t wait to see it (and taste it, of course). Thank you for speaking with us!
Chef Andrew & Chef Tin: Thank you!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Chef Tin’s responses have been translated from Cantonese.
Where: Palm Court, Lobby, The Langham, 8 Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon
To keep up with the latest afternoon tea menu at Palm Court and book your seating, click here.
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