We think of afternoon tea as being the quintessentially English event. Well, in fact if we were to be purists we would say that it’s a traditionally Chinese occasion. Tea is, after all, Chinese, although India can lay claim to commercial production for mass export. The British were not even the first Europeans to appreciate tea.
The tea timeline runs something like this:
2737 BC. The second emperor of China, Shen Nung, made the first cup of tea when leaves accidently blew into his cup of hot water.
400 AD. Tea is now called Kuang Ya in the Chinese dictionary. Instructions on how to make a good cuppa are given. During the T’ang Dynasty tea becomes a popular beverage in China and is prized for both its flavour and its medicinal properties.
1589 Europeans first take an interest in tea when a Venetian author suggests that the long lives of the Chinese are due to tea drinking.
1635 Tea becomes trendy at the Dutch court and in 1650 they introduce tea to New Amsterdam, which later becomes New York.
1706 Thomas Twining serves tea at Tom’s Coffee House in London.
1773 The Boston Tea Party marks the end of the American love affair with tea. Colonists disguised as Native Americans board East India Company ships and throw hundreds of chests of tea into the harbour. Had history been different then New Yorkers might now be ordering a cup of delicate Taiwan Oolong Osmanthus instead of a “cup o’ Joe” (I never have discovered who that “Joe” was.)
1840 Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, introduces Afternoon Tea, which eventually becomes the English ritual we know today.
We see that our love of tea has endured for several centuries, but the Chinese have been enjoying its qualities for thousands of years. Ask Mr. Wong, the restaurant manager of Grand Imperial, for advice on which teas might be the best for you. They have a marvellous selection here so take advantage of expert advice and try a couple.
Oriental Afternoon Tea at Grand Imperial is remarkable. It has the formal elements of a real English afternoon tea but the fare on offer is unmistakably Chinese, with a contemporary and chocolatey twist. There are regular cups and saucers and, yes, the traditional three-tier stand, but those plates are piled with delicious morsels that are much more exciting than a curly sandwich of white sliced and a wedge of Victoria sponge.
Fresh black cod rolls, wrapped in Kataifi pastry formed part of the top layer of delicacies. That pastry is a fine vermicelli-looking, crunchy coating, covering a light and melting white fish interior. They were joined on the scrumptious summit by my absolute favourite of all Chinese snacks, Char Sui Bao. Those who visit Chinatown will recognise these from dim sum steamers. They are snowy-white and fluffy steamed buns which are filled with the traditional aromatic pork. The ones at Grand Imperial are moreish.
Concubine Chicken Wrap and Shredded Duck Wrap were the savouries on the second plate. They were both well flavoured and thoughtfully presented. I had imagined that a wrap would involve bread but the Concubine Chicken (I doubt that the chicken was really a concubine) was served on a crisp lettuce cup, and the shredded duck on a concave disc of large and substantial prawn cracker-like base. Both very light, summery and flavourful.
Chocolate Dim Sum on the lowest plateau was almost too beautiful to eat …almost. All of these miniatures had, obviously, chocolate as a theme but each was an individual work of culinary art: crescents of almond pastry, crunchy minuscule pumpkins, intricate Canton crackers and the memorable coconut doughnut, which is my personal pick of the platter.
The Oriental Afternoon Tea is a very reasonable £20 per person including tea. If you feel like treating yourself after a long day of retail therapy then consider instead a sparkling wine afternoon tea – with Balfour Brut English Rosé – for just £28 per person.
Grand Imperial is my oasis of classy calm in Victoria. I can think of few places in that neighbourhood where I would prefer to spend an afternoon. The restaurant is striking. One is never hurried or pressured by overzealous waiters. The staff are charming and the food never disappoints. Other guests will include Chinese visitors; they are better judges than I of the authenticity of the food here and they always seem content. Enjoy a leisurely afternoon tea …and perhaps linger for dinner.
Asian restaurant review: Grand Imperial Chinese restaurant
101 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W 0SJ
T: 020 7821 8898
Visit Grand Imperial here
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018