Traveling with Tea: 5 Places I Learned to Love Through Their Tea

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

I began my tea-drinking habit early. At age 10, it was a handy excuse to linger at the dinner table and listen in on adult conversations. I drank Red Rose tea with milk and as much sugar as I could manage to toss in without my mom noticing.

As I’ve gotten older, tea has continued to be a reason to idle; I’ve visited more than 70 countries, and I’m sure I’ve had a cup of tea in every one. I’ve sampled and sipped my way through a wide and wacky assortment of brews around the world. Here are a few of my favorite tea times.

1. Milk Tea (aka Pantyhose Tea) in Hong Kong

Tea can be as soothing as a cat purring on your lap and as rousing as a cold shower, sure to get the cogs in your brain turning rapidly to cope with the demands of the day. The latter was the case in Hong Kong, where I tackled my jet lag with four cups of milk tea from the famous Lan Fong Yuen on Gage Street in the central part of the city.

It’s not much to look at — no more than a shack with a crowded seating area that is as loud as a jet plane taking off. Hard, short wooden stools underscore the “drink up and get out” message. But the milk tea — sometimes called pantyhose tea because the leaves are brewed in what looks like a long silk stocking — is so strong, smooth, and delicious that you put up with the lack of ambience.

Tip: A milk tea is deemed “good” if it is creamy and full-bodied, the result of adding evaporated milk or condensed milk. And if you are going to replicate Hong Kong milk tea at home, the key, in my opinion, is using Black & White full cream evaporated milk from Holland.

2. Coca Tea in Peru

Tea is also good medicine, as I found out in Peru. While visiting Puno in the Lake Titicaca region, I experienced altitude sickness, courtesy of its location at 4,050 meters above sea level. Imagine someone spinning you around on a bar stool, then trying to walk with the pain of a machete lodged in your head, and you’ve got a general idea of what it feels like.

The solution is plenty of coca tea, made from the very same plant that provides the world with cocaine. I was hesitant at first. What if my employer drug-tested me or drug-sniffing dogs pegged me at the airport just for sipping it? Thankfully, my hotel manager explained that the tea does not have a narcotic effect at all.

Many locals in this area travel with colorful pouches filled with the leaves slung over their shoulder; they chew the dried leaves as they go about their daily routines. I had mine in liquid form, and sipped it until I could stand straight again and not wobble like a drunken sailor. It had an astringent taste akin to green tea, and I got so accustomed to it that I brought a box of coca tea bags home to add to my well-stocked tea close.

3. Mint Tea in Morocco

I love being in countries where handing someone a cup of tea is like a handshake. In Morocco, some shopkeepers will give you tiny handleless cups of mint tea as you shop for rugs or leather goods.

(Image credit: Sara Kate Gillingham)

4. Masala Chai in Mumbai

In India, masala chai is available on every street corner and in every market. Made with black tea and spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger, it’s the thing that makes me miss India most. With one whiff of chai, I’m back in the crowded streets of Mumbai again.

Tip: To distinguish yourself from the rookies, never order “chai tea.” Chai means tea, so it’s redundant to ask for “tea tea.”

5. Afternoon Tea in Great Britain

I thought I knew a lot, until I reached England, which is like the Mecca for tea drinkers. Great Britain really does make the best tea — and bonus, it’s often accompanied by classical pianists and ladies in sensible pumps and hats accented with feathers. But don’t you dare let your spoon clang against your china cup as you stir in your milk and sugar!

I got a crash course in what goes into “a proper cup of tea” when I met with Steven Twining, brand ambassador of Twining, at the company’s tea shop and museum on the Strand in London. The sins I had committed in the name of having a cup of tea were numerous and egregious, but top among them: I was guilty of boilus interruptus by unplugging my kettle too early.

But it’s not all seriousness and doing tea “right”: At the Sanderson London, the Mad Hatter’s afternoon tea had a magical Alice in Wonderland feel to it. With black-and-white china, Queen of Hearts loose tea, mushroom-shaped sweets, rainbow-striped cakes, sandwiches dipped in green food coloring, a child’s jewelry box filled with sugar cubes, and tiny vials that said “drink me,” I really did feel like I had fallen into a rabbit hole — one filled with everything I have always loved about tea.

What are your favorite tea memories? Share in the comments!