It’s Saturday night around 8 p.m. in Guangzhou, the capital of China’s southern Guangdong province, and I’ve just joined a line of about about 75 people in the basement of a shopping mall. But we’re not here to get our hands on a new pair of Yeezys, sneak into a trendy new bar, or standing as part of a larger piece of performance art. Instead, we’re queuing outside HEYTEA tea house, waiting to sample tea. But not just any tea; no, this tea comes topped with cheese.
Called zhī shì chá in Mandarin (meaning “cheese tea”), the concept has spread from the street stalls of Taiwan to China, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and even to New York’s Flushing neighborhood, where Happy Lemon serves the tea in four flavors, including chocolate. The West Coast has caught on, too: In Los Angeles, Little Fluffy Head Cafe specializes in small-batch, cheese-topped brews with names like Dirty Mess Milk Tea and Camouflage Matcha. Among the first purveyors of the concoction in China, HEYTEA churns out cups of matcha, oolong, jasmine, and black tea crowned with an inch of sweet and salty whipped cheese. In its assembled form, it resembles a macchiato.
We can do so many wonderful things with Chinese tea—this is only the tip of the iceberg.”
After about two hours, it’s finally my turn to order. I play it safe and choose the most popular variety: Kinfone Tea King ($3.50), a frothy, salted cheese atop Taiwanese oolong iced tea. There’s an option to customize with fresh fruits (like strawberries or grapefruit) or a low-fat, low-sugar cheese topping, but I go with the real deal. Since every cup is made to order—and some varieties take up to five minutes to craft—I’m handed a buzzer and asked to wait. About 30 minutes later, it vibrates and lights up. I jostle between a dozen other wild-eyed people, simultaneously racing to collect their prizes.
The first sip is a mouthful of whipped cheese. It’s so rich, I feel a little ill. But when I swallow the tea and cheese together, it’s like drinking a refreshing tea milkshake. This pairing actually works—the salted cheese plays up the tea’s floral notes, and the tea, in turn, tastes smooth and creamy. Though there’s no “right way” to consume the brew, a note stuck onto the lid suggests skipping the straw, so you can drink both flavors together.
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