Tea drinking has been part of Malaysian life for hundreds of years, although exactly when the habit started is unclear. The most likely explanation is that it was brought to the country by traders from China. The word for tea in Malay is teh, derived from Hokkien, the dialect spoken in the Chinese province of Fujian, and by many Malaysian Chinese. Confusingly enough, in Kuala Lumpur, the most widely spoken Chinese dialect is Cantonese, in which the word for tea is cha.
Whatever it is called, when you ask for a cup of tea in KL, for the most part you will get it hot, strong, milky and sweet, unless otherwise specified. Teh tarik (literally pulled tea) is the classic example of this, and well worth trying at least once. Sweet black iced tea (teh o ais) is also a popular drink, and a perfect refreshment for pit stops during a hard day’s sightseeing or shopping in KL.
The exception to the above is what can loosely be called “Chinese tea”, where you get a pot or glass of loose leaf tea (without sugar or milk). Many Chinese eateries will have a selection of leaf types to choose from, such as jasmine of green tea. Cafes where you can sample rarer, more expensive varieties, are much less common than in China, or the UK for that matter.
What KL is well served by though are dedicated shops where you can buy everything from delicate pots to rare tea. Naturally enough, most of the best of these are located in Chinatown. My three favourites are Kean Guan, Purple Cane, and Wisdom Arts.
Starting with age before beauty, Kean Guan have been attending to the needs of tea connoisseurs since 1945, truly ancient for a shop in KL. This place, located at the end of Petaling Street furthest away from the market, is very old style, where customers can expect quality tea at reasonable prices, rather than a warm welcome.
At the other end of the scale is Purple Cane on Jalan Sultan, part of a growing local chain of shops and more recently cafes too. This is an excellent place to go for an attractive tea-themed present, rather than for bulk purchases of quality leafs. But even if you do not end up buying anything, it’s a great place to browse. It also has a pleasant cafe round the corner on Jalan Panggong.
Last but not least is Wisdom Arts, a place that combines the knowledge of Kean Guan with the design standards of Purple Cane. Although they give a friendly welcome to tourists, their core customers are ethnic Chinese connoisseurs, both from the diaspora and China itself.
Their most expensive product is pu’er, the only tea which improves with age, like a fine wine. The blocks on display go for as much as 190 ringgit. Much more affordable are the beautifully packaged loose-leaf tea, and the flowering jasmine balls, which make lovely presents.
If you only go into one tea shop in KL, make it Wisdom Arts. But if you have the time and the inclination, all three shops are well worth a visit.
Kean Guan Tea Merchants
160 Jalan Petaling, Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur
T: (03) 2078 5306
Purple Cane Tea Shop
11 Jalan Sultan, Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur
T: (03) 2031 1877
Purple Cane Tea House
3rd Floor, 6 Jalan Panggong, Chinatown Kuala Lumpur
T: (03) 2072 1349
Wisdom Arts Tea Shop
135 Jalan Tun HS Lee, Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur
T: (017) 384 2029 (mobile)
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 26th February, 2015.