Leena Lim grew up going out for afternoon tea with her mother at the Shangri-La Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the tradition of sitting down for scones, clotted cream, and a pot of BOH tea in the afternoon was a remnant of British colonialism that had simply become a part of everyday life for many Malaysians — not the special occasion that it tends to be in the U.S.
When Lim opened her own tea room, Malaya Tea Room, in Alameda this past September, she wanted it to be a place that would, for instance, make its own clotted cream from scratch in the traditional British way. But she also wanted it to be a little less kitschy and floral, and a little more casual, than some of the other tea spots around the Bay. More than anything, though, she wanted to incorporate bold Malaysian flavors into the traditional format of finger sandwiches, cakes, and scones — to put rendang curry and kaya jam into the finger sandwiches and pandan into the chiffon cakes.
While COVID-19 threw a wrench into many of Lim’s plans, the good news is that customers can still experience Malaya’s unique Malaysian-British style of afternoon tea in the form of a $25 takeout box, which is available for pre-order for curbside pickup, usually every other weekend — and by special request, with a minimum order, any day of the week. Each box is meant to include everything customers need to throw their own afternoon tea party at home or, weather and air quality permitting, to have a little tea-and-scones picnic at a nearby park.
Lim tells Eater SF that even in Malaysia, the hotels where afternoon tea is typically served tend to feel very British, both in their ambience and their offerings. But Lim says she wanted to bring some “Malaysian flair” to the tradition — to offer an alternative to the food that’s usually sold at traditional British-style tea rooms, which she tends to find quite bland. “In Southeast Asia, the food is just so tasty and rich,” Lim says. “I just decided to combine both worlds.”
So Lim serves a traditional British scone, and she believes she’s one of the only tea rooms that’s actually making clotted cream from scratch in the traditional way, cooking each batch of cream in a low oven for 12 hours. But her repertoire of finger sandwiches includes one with housemade kaya (i.e. coconut) jam and butter, one with sardines in tomato sauce, and yet another that features a rendang-style chickpea curry — all big, bold flavors. Sweets might include a pandan chiffon cake or, for this week’s menu, chilled black sticky rice with coconut cream. While the weather’s warm, customers can also add on an order of Malaysian-style shaved ice — ais kacang, or ABC.
Lim herself is the one who developed all of the recipes, and, with a few exceptions, nearly everything that comes in the box is made in-house at the tea room. Meanwhile, the tea menu is a bit simplified for the takeout boxes — a choice between a black, green, and white/herbal tea that Lim selects each week. She says she’ll take special requests too — if a customer is throwing a more elaborate tea party, for instance, or if they’d like the boxes to be kid-friendly.
Even more than the average restaurant, a tea room like Malaya leans on the in-person experience that it’s able to offer — the fine bone china, the fancy cutlery, and the opportunity to get dressed up if the mood strikes. Lim says that’s why she just shut the business down entirely when the shelter-in-place order hit — a devastating blow, since the shop had gotten off to such a promising start. Available since June, the afternoon tea boxes have been a way for Lim to employ her kitchen staff and to stay connected with customers.
“It’s nothing compared to dining in the space,” she says. “But it’s a way to keep our business going.”
Malaya Tea Room typically offers its afternoon tea boxes every other weekend, for curbside pickup between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. With a minimum order, customers can also request boxes on other days. See the menu here, and pre-order via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.