Food & Drink



High Teas: A Potted History

The high tea culture is a longstanding one. From one afternoon tea experience to another, Kenny Rosmi explores its history and listed KL's top spots for high tea.

by / Published: 30 Apr 2013

High Teas: A Potted History

Afternoon tea at Carcosa Seri Negara

Tea became a mainstay in eastern and western culinary culture for many centuries before the custom of taking afternoon tea became part of social culture. Tea drinking customs date back to the imperial China era. It was first made popular in England by King Charles II when he married Catherine de Braganza, a Portuguese princess who brought in the custom from her native country, Portugal. Over time, the princess established herself as an eminent figure in England after adopting English customs and fashions. The princess however, didn’t take much liking to British cuisines and introduced tea into the royal menu from her native land of Portugal. Tea, which was considered exotic and luxurious at that time, became the early culinary habit in the British royal court, soon to the aristocratic circles and then to the wealthier classes.

But really, the credit should go to the 7th Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell who was the main inspiration behind the afternoon tea tradition in the year 1840. It all began one day when the Duchess made a small complaint to her butler at Woburn Abbey about having that "sinking feeling" during mid-afternoon, due to the British custom of having their evening meal fashionably late at 8pm following the introduction of gas lamps. The trend of eating a late dinner by the lights was a popular practice in wealthier homes. To ease her hunger pangs, the Duchess would request a menu centered around light snacks and of course, tea to be served privately in her boudoir to between lunch and dinner.

The Duchess then decided to turn her new favorite routine into a social affair. When she returned to London, she started sending out invitation cards to her friends asking them to join her, including her lifelong friend Queen Victoria. Once the idea was introduced to the Queen, the Duchess gained herself a very influential follower. It was only when Queen Victoria engaged in the afternoon tea ritual that it became a formal occasion on a larger scale, known as ‘tea receptions'. Inviting friends to tea in the afternoon was quickly picked up by other hostesses. From then on, a new social event was born which became a favorite pastime of the upper classes and society women, especially in the summer. Hostesses would usually send “At Home” invitations for afternoon tea to her friends and relatives, and everyone would dress in pastel colored gowns with long gloves and fancy hats.

Formal English afternoon teas usually started with punch served in champagne flutes. Guests would mingle while waiting to be escorted to their seats for tea, which was usually served in the drawing room at 4pm with some entertainment and light music by a harpist in the background. Afternoon tea parties became the norm and spread gradually from home and out into society in general. Tea rooms and tea gardens became important to upper class Victorian women. They sprang up everywhere and instantly became an institution of fine British culture and tradition.

When high tea is mentioned, it will automatically conjure up images of an elegant afternoon occasion. This is, however, a misconception of the term. It is far from a glamorous elite social gathering. The term ‘high tea’ was first used in 1825. Traditionally, it is a combination of afternoon tea and evening meal for working class served between 5pm and 7pm. Hearty foods such as shepherd’s pie, steak and kidney pie, pickled salmon, potatoes, onion cake, baked beans, cheese casseroles as well as baked goods like toasts and crumpets would be served at the main table or “high table” as the English would call it. These foods were practical and filling for farmers, laborers, miners and the like when they came home from work—a perfect reward after a day of hard labor. This of course was washed down with tea.

The term ‘low tea’ on the other hand was used as a way to refer to afternoon tea. These two terms are in fact very different and refer to the old social structure of British society. From my understanding, the terms ‘low’ and ‘high’ refer to the height of the tables from which either meal was served on. A low tea is so-called because guests were seated in low armchairs with low side-tables such as a coffee table on which to place their cups and saucers. In the 1830s, according to Georgina Sitwell, there was no gathering for afternoon tea. Most ladies took an hour's rest in their rooms before dinner. It was not until much later, presumably after the Duchess of Bedford started the afternoon tea trend in the drawing room it was made an institution. Over time, the teas were no longer served on low tables in the less formal sitting room, but reserved for the best parlor in the house or in the formal gardens.

The Tea Lounge at The Majestic Hotel

Generally, a traditional afternoon tea consists of neat little sandwiches, scones served with clotted cream and preserves and other cakes and pastries. Interestingly, scones were not a common feature of early afternoon tea and were only introduced in the 20th century. However, Manners of Modern Society, written in 1872, recommended “ripe red strawberries and jugs of rich cream, cakes of various kinds—plum, rice and sponge, hot muffins, crumpets, toast, tea-cakes to be served for afternoon tea. “The sideboards is the receptacle of the weightier matters, such as cold salmon, pigeon and veal and ham pies, boiled and roast fowls, tongues, ham, veal cake. And should it be a very 'hungry tea,' roast beef and lamb be may be there for the gentlemen of the party.”

These arrays of indulgences were also presented on fine bone China and elegantly washed down with tea from India or Sri Lanka, poured from a silver teapot that was kept heated over a small flame. Only the best silverwares and best linens were used specifically for the event. Food and tea was then passed among the guests. A common pattern of serving soon emerged. An elegant easy way to present each course is on a tiered stand, in which the first course eaten is from the bottom tier usually reserved for sandwiches then work way up to the second tier where the scones are and finally the top tier for small pasties and desserts.

Recent years have seen an explosion of afternoon teas around the capital, usually enjoyed as an occasional indulgence or to celebrate special events. Ladies of leisure use afternoon tea as a way to meet and eat. Many brides (on budget) these days are choosing to serve tea instead of the formal sit-down meal. Even spas around the city are serving afternoon tea as part of their packages. Whether taking a break after shopping, substituting lunch or just meeting with friends, afternoon tea remains a focal point of the day for many, especially women. Perhaps seeing it as a lucrative trend, afternoon tea is now served at 2pm or 3pm with high-end hotels being famed for their delectable offerings.

The Lobby Lounge at the Ritz Carlton in Kuala Lumpur

Ritz Carlton, being one of the most popular ones, serves their afternoon tea in the classic Lobby Lounge. Guests will be spoilt for choice with a selection of over 40 different blends of tea to go with a wide selection of savory delicacies including the delightful Sunday roast. While you work your way through the goodies, you will be serenaded by a live afternoon harpist performance. Credit should be given to the staff who truly make the whole experience memorable by making every guest feel like a star. Their noble manner and eagerness to please reflect the finest of English tradition the hotel holds.

Carcosa Seri Negara on the other hand needs little introduction. Known as an institution by Malaysians for serving one of the finest afternoon teas in Kuala Lumpur, this former official residence of the highest British representatives of the Malay states exudes charm and makes for a perfect afternoon getaway in the colonial building. Afternoon tea at the Carcosa Seri Negara on a sunny day, sitting in The Drawing Room overlooking the hotel’s lush garden is nothing short of idyllic.

The city’s latest gem is the historical Majestic Hotel, an iconic 1930s heritage landmark. Brilliantly furnished with cozy arm and wingback chairs, classic grid ceiling, cut glass lighting with antique brass fittings and photographs of Kuala Lumpur in sepia, afternoon tea takes place in the Tea Lounge. This current “in” spot for afternoon tea was returned to its former grandeur by YTL. The tea set itself is legendary, embracing English tradition with a Malaysian twist, featuring The Majestic’s house blend tea—Boh Cameronian or your choice of tea with a selection of delicate cakes, buttery scones with clotted cream and fruit preserves and dainty finger sandwiches served on copper and glass tiered stands best shared by two.

An afternoon tea session in The Drawing Room with our beautiful and intelligent cover ladies this month was truly memorable. It is a perfect venue to catch up and make new connections while sipping a cup of tea. The Drawing Room or the gloriously beautiful Orchid Conservatory is another option for you to indulge in this fashionable tradition at Majestic Hotel. The Drawing Room is the epitome of sophisticated, relaxed ambience—long gloves and fancy hats not required.

Carcosa Seri Negara
Taman Tasik Perdana,
Persiaran Mahameru, KL
Tel: 03-2295 0888

The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur
5, Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, KL
Tel: 03-2785 8000

The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur
168, Jalan Imbi, KL
Tel: 03-2142 8000