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Across countless cultures, cheese has played a hearty role in the human diet, whether as artisanal, carefully ripened wheels or mass-produced, fluorescent-orange spray from a can.
But the people of Asia have taken their love of coagulated milk even further, and are hoping that the US is ready for their latest, Instagrammable contribution to the cuisine: cheese tea.
No, that wasn’t a typo. A typical iced tea (oolong, green, etc.) is capped off with a healthy layer of sweet or salty cream cheese thoroughly whipped to a frothy consistency reminiscent of whipped cream.
The appeal of the drink lies within its balance of flavors, with the underlying sweetness of the tea pushing against the saltiness of the cheese to create a unique yet satisfying flavor. Though it’s served with a straw, you’re better off skipping the slurping tube and drinking straight from the cup. In this manner, the cheese and tea come together in your mouth in an alchemy of taste and texture.
The exact origins of this exotic elixir remain contentious: Hey Tea, a beverage company in mainland China, purports to be the mastermind, even though many credit Taiwanese street vendors starting around 2010. Originally, the drink was topped off with powdered cheese instead of real cheese. As it grew in popularity, popping up at higher-end establishments, the processed additives were jettisoned in favor of the fresh whipped cheese, often with a touch of salt.
Everyone agrees that the drink is young, and that it’s since developed into a viral sensation, drawing lengthy lines at stores and serious buzz on social media. In Guangzhou, customers queue up by the hundreds, waiting several hours for a cup of the curious liquid. The 21st-century selfie benefits have had no small role in the phenomenon: Thousands of #cheesetea hashtags have appeared across social media. And who could resist? The yellow-stained mustache that the foam leaves behind makes for an irresistible, LOL-able photo op for today’s digital age.
After conquering major Asian cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, it was inevitable that cheese tea would end up on US shores. As of now, however, it remains an isolated, coastal phenomenon, with Happy Lemon in New York, Boston and Cupertino, California, and Little Fluffy Head in Downtown Los Angeles among the first to hop in front of the emerging trend.
“At first we were kind of slow, but we’ve been picking up fast,” said Xochitl Paredes, manager of Little Fluffy Head, which opened in August 2017. “It’s an artsy neighborhood. They see us outside, waving samples, and they want to come in and try something new.”
Little Fluffy Head even developed a special lid that allows customers to get a taste of both tea and dairy in every sip. The LA shop had to add American flourishes to the Chinese drink, of course, as well as concessions to the American palate.
“We have a drink called the Camouflage, which is a matcha with creme brûlée topping, so it’s more dessert-y,” Paredes said. “We also have a cheddar-cheese topping, and you can taste pieces of cheddar in the drink.”
Still, skeptics abound.
“I don’t understand how that could even taste good,” said tea connoisseur Nikki Glendye. “I’ve been drinking tea my entire adult life, and that isn’t tea. It’s just gross.”
Feature photo courtesy of Little Fluffy Head
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