It was Henry James who wrote in The Portrait of a Lady how “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea”. Taking the words to heart, Choy Yuin Yi ups the ante by quite a few notches, elevating said ceremony to a positively Peranakan experience at her family’s hotel, the Four Points by Sheraton Kuala Lumpur.
Lady Yi’s Tea House, named in her honour, is a labour of love by her father, Datuk Choy Wai Hin, executive director of the Masteron group of companies and CEO of Federal International Holdings Bhd. While dad sees to the design of the venue and the furnishings and fixtures, Choy, who is Masteron’s director of hospitality, is tasked with bringing the space to life.
The tea house is set on the seventh level of the hotel, at the opposite end of the reception. One’s eyes are immediately drawn to a stunning oil on canvas painting depicting a double phoenix — a symbol of virtue and grace to the Peranakan Chinese — by local artist Alice Chang. Choy handpicked a team of artisans and designers, including batik designer Fern Chua, who created the Peranakan tile-inspired cushions exclusively for the venue, to work on Lady Yi’s Tea House, originally scheduled to open in March this year to coincide with Choy’s birthday.
The inevitable delay due to the various lockdowns means that Lady Yi’s is just about ready to welcome its first patrons this week. “We opened the hotel in December 2019 with two F&B outlets — the bar Jann and all-day dining Quan’s Kitchen, named after my younger sisters, Yuin Jann and Yuin Quan,” says Choy. “It was always in the plan to dedicate this space for a tea house. And we only wanted to launch Lady Yi’s once [overall] operations had stabilised, since it was intended to be an exclusive outlet.”
As quite possibly the city’s first dedicated Straits Chinese afternoon tea experience, diners can expect to be served contemporary interpretations of classic Peranakan favourites. “The menu merges my love for Malaysia’s rich culinary heritage and my exposure to some of the western world’s best afternoon teas,” she says. The result? A modern and elevated take on Baba-Nyonya classics.
A tiered tray duly arrives, bearing an assortment of delicacies served on colourful Nyonya ceramics. The classic soybean pudding or taufufah is expressed through a feuilletine and a dab of mango gel; while pulut hitam, that wonderful black glutinous rice porridge served thick with coconut cream and palm sugar, is transformed into a dacquoise and accompanied by coconut pannacotta. Onde-onde, another Melaka classic, is reinterpreted and adorned with gold leaf.
For savouries, forget about boring cucumber sandwiches and instead let your palate be charmed by an otak-otak sandwich or perhaps a kuih pie tee topped with chilli prawn and coriander. And for those who can’t imagine afternoon tea without at least one crumbly scone slathered in clotted cream and jam, do know that Lady Yi’s versions — plain and cranberry-studded — are, instead, served with kaya, Malaysia’s ubiquitous coconut jam, and an addictive adzuki bean butter.
“The onde-onde, otak-otak sandwich and kaya spread are definitely my personal favourites on the menu,” says Choy. “My grandma and I share a common love for these three treats. There would always be kuih when she visited and it was our favourite way to share an afternoon. We both like our onde-onde with extra gula Melaka, our otak-otak should always be slightly charred while the kaya must be made with extra coconut and pandan. I personally worked with our executive chef Gerald Chong, to tweak these items to make sure they are exactly how I want them to be served at Lady Yi’s.”
Nibbles aside, the most pressing question remains: What teas can one find at Lady Yi’s? Staying true to her championing of local culture and heritage, Choy chanced upon a young Malaysian brand named Roleaf and decided to feature its teas. “They are essentially importers of premium Pu Erh. Of course we had explored other premium brands but I wanted something that could bridge East and West and, better yet, customise blends exclusively for us.” The result? Ten uplifting teas that range from a calming chamomile to the special Lady Yi’s Signature “11 Treasures” Blend and a visually-arresting Roleaf Blooming Flower Tea.
Considering the hotel is in the heart of Chinatown, it makes perfect sense that the offerings served at Lady Yi’s pay tribute to the locality. “I like to think that everything we do, in a way, promotes Malaysian and Chinese culture and heritage. I would love it if Lady Yi’s is seen as an inclusive space where all Malaysians can come to build more memories … the same way I forged my bonds with my grandma over teatime kuih.”
The Masteron Group of companies owns another stunning property — the Ardoe House Hotel & Spa, set in a 19th-century baronial mansion on 30 acres of stunning grounds in Aberdeen, Scotland. So, if you happen to be based in the UK and are unlikely to be travelling to Malaysia anytime soon, Choy says there are definite plans to offer the Peranakan afternoon tea at Ardoe House, most likely on a pop-up basis. Baba-Nyonya culture in the North Sea? We can hardly wait.
The Peranakan Affair afternoon tea launches on Dec 16 and is priced between RM98+ and RM128+. To book, call 03 2035 7333.
This article first appeared on Dec 13, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.