She is happy to be called a "mad leaf scientist" and couldn't care less that she's betrayed Hong Kong's old-fashioned tea industry. Vivian Mak wanted to shake up her city's oh-so-traditional teahouse scene, so she ignored Chinese customs and went rogue.
Pairing specific drinks with particular foods has long been customary across the world. But now Mak is expanding the skill of matching cuisine to teas, and has looked outside China for inspiration.
Hong Kong teahouses have traditionally served Chinese dishes such as dumplings and moon cakes. It has been this way for centuries in Hong Kong and China, which claims to have discovered tea almost 5,000 years ago, and remains the world’s largest producer of tea leaves.
Now, however, this 53-year-old Hong Kong woman is teaching visitors to her teahouse how to balance the flavours of classic Chinese teas with alien tastes including Spanish cold cuts, Dutch cheese, Belgian chocolate and French pastries. This is all part of Mak's transformation from a designer and artist into a rebellious tea baroness.
I was surprised, in several ways, on the first of my two meetings with Mak, across two separate trips to this city. The previous Chinese teahouses I’d visited were set in graceful old buildings amid verdant gardens, like Heming teahouse in Chengdu, where I sipped a brew beneath swaying trees in the city’s gorgeous People’s Park.
This was the mental image I conjured when I initially read about Mak’s MingCha teahouse. On the day I first arranged for us to meet, I arrived at the location tagged on Google Maps. There was no park. There were no trees. There was no elegant old teahouse. Instead, I was in a concrete forest, surrounded by skyscrapers, staring up at a high-rise factory building.
I walked through the factory’s entrance, which was designed for trucks more than pedestrians, and got into an elevator alongside a courier delivering two giant boxes. When the lift stopped at the 12th floor, I alighted to find the surprisingly modern-looking MingCha.
In location, appearance and atmosphere, MingCha couldn't have been further from my expectations. Then, I began talking to Mak and things quickly made sense.
She shook my hand with surprising vigour, slapped a table to indicate where I should sit and then made a joke about my 197-centimetre height. It was funny, too.
As an Australian, I’m used to robust greetings, boisterous personalities and friendly gags about my appearance. I just didn’t anticipate any of that from the dainty female proprietor of a Chinese teahouse. Mak’s confidence, lack of pretension and outgoing personality suited me just fine.
We quickly fell into an easy, humorous conversation, in which she told me that regular teahouses were a bit boring. While she deeply respects the traditions and history associated with these Chinese establishments, Mak wanted to create something different. And she believed tourists, too, wanted something new.
It seemed she was right, based on how busy MingCha was with foreign visitors on this and my subsequent visit. Clearly, these tourists weren’t just there to buy packets of oolong or white tea. They could have done that at any of the dozens of tea shops in Hong Kong’s main tourist areas.
Instead, they’d ventured all the way out to Chai Wan, the last stop on the Island Line of the city’s MTR subway system, to experience Mak’s unusual approach to savouring tea. On my second visit to MingCha, Mak said she had a surprise for me. She’d come up with a new, offbeat idea.
When I arrived, waiting on the long wooden table that runs through her teahouse were three Chinese teas alongside an equal number of Spanish cold cuts. These were no basic meats, either. They were premium, aged meats imported from Europe.
As you would expect, the flavour of these aged meats was very strong. It was pleasant, then, how the comparatively subtle, fruity taste of the teas played off them and, eventually, refreshed my palate.
“It’s fun, isn’t it?” Mak said to me, as I washed the Wuyi Supreme around my mouth. “The flavours change and change.”
She was right. And, for about Dh170 ($46) per person, visitors to MinghCha can mix and match teas and other delicacies for 90 minutes under the expert guidance of Mak or one of her staff. They can see how the sweetness of Belgian chocolate is balanced with a more bitter tea, or how European cheeses like gouda, cheddar and comte react to this piping-hot Chinese brew.
It is these "tea pairings", as Mak calls them, that have helped drive the success of MingCha, even during the pandemic. Mak told me this month the crisis had hurt her business because of the absence of international tourists in Hong Kong.
But she had continued to offer tea tastings and pairings to local customers, and had even experimented with digital versions of both of those services.
Mak has also drawn some inspiration from the pandemic. With people around the world now more focused than ever on protecting their physical and mental health, MingCha created a new, 90-minute tea pairing workshop called Well-Being.
“Customers try five tea and flower combinations for the health of five different organs – kidney, livers, heart, lungs and spleen,” Mak said. “By experiencing these combinations with five different senses – sight, touch, smell, sip and slurp – one can find the right combinations to stay happy and healthy.”
As the world grapples with a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe, calming oneself with Chinese teas is an appealing idea. And once the pandemic eventually recedes, Mak plans to unleash even more unorthodox tea pairings on visitors from around the world.