Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Leena Lim recalls going to afternoon tea — a regular ritual she misses.
“Everything just slows down,” Lim noted about relaxing over teatime. Called high tea in Malaysia, but more akin to afternoon tea in British culture, it’s popular throughout Southeast Asia, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan. Teatime can both be fancy or casual.
Malaya Tea Room — pronounced Ma-LAY-a, and not to be confused with the Tagalog word meaning freedom — is a reference to the name of Malaysia during British colonial times. British rituals, such as afternoon tea, became commonplace in Malaysia, and although the country later became independent, tea culture remains something that “almost everybody does,” Lim said.
Lim opened her tea room on a quiet, mostly residential street in Alameda last September. The room is cozy and well-decorated, with fine bone China teacups, gold spoons and tea stands lining the tables. Pre-COVID, it also served teh tarik, or pulled tea, a hot beverage made by pouring milk tea between two containers until it’s rich and frothy. Lim was also looking forward to hosting tea parties. “I had everything ready, different sets of teacups.”
For six months before the pandemic began, Malaya’s three daily seatings were booked every weekend, and the business also had gigs catering garden parties, weddings and other celebrations.
With in-person parties of all sizes on hold, Lim had to quickly transition what she offered. She began selling to-go tea boxes, which she calls Afternoon Tea in a Box.
Lim said that while she’s bringing in much less revenue since having to close for in-person dining, the tea boxes are helping keep her year-old business open for now. Fortunately, her space is small, so maintenance fees are still manageable.
“It helps to pay the bills and whatever we need to stay afloat until this gets better,” she said of the tea box concept.
While wrapping up the contents of an afternoon tea for takeout can’t compare to the dine-in teatime experience, Lim said she tries her best to make the offering feel special. Almost everything inside her boxes are made in-house, such as the scone, lemon or katsuri lime curd and laborious clotted cream.
Lim’s tea sandwiches are both British and Malaysian-inspired. Her British versions include smoked salmon and chive cream cheese, cucumber and marmalade fillings. The Malaysian sandwiches have curry chicken, rendang chickpea, kaya (coconut jam) and butter, and bak kwa (pork jerky) inside.
“Malaysian food is so rich and tasty, so I wanted to put that in the sandwiches,” Lim said about what inspired her to make sandwiches with Malaysian flavors.
Tea boxes also include a slice of Lim’s light, fluffy pandan chiffon cake (full-size cakes are available as special orders) and a delicate macaron, made for Malaya Tea Room by Oakland-based baker Macarons by Natalie.
Malaya makes a limited number of Afternoon Tea in a Box for pickup on weekends. Each box is $25 and comes with one style of sandwich, one savory canapé, a scone with curd and clotted cream, two desserts and a choice of tea — Golden Monkey black tea, green tea with dragonfruit flowers or chamomile with lemon or mint. The box is meant to be enjoyed by one person or shared as a light snack. Additional sandwiches and scones can be added for $4.50 and $3.25 each, respectively.
Lim says customers often take her tea boxes to picnic at nearby Washington Park or the beach. Malaya Tea Room can also prepare tea in a to-go cup by request.
Malaya is not yet open for outdoor dining, but Lim is staying busy. She continues to add new dishes to Malaya’s tea boxes, such as a black sticky rice and coconut milk pudding topped with coconut flakes, pandan shavings and rose petals. Malaya also now offers Malaysian-style shaved ice as an add on for $12 to tea boxes — Lim makes the dessert to order just before pickup. Called ais kacang or ais batu campur (ABC), it features a mound of finely shaved ice with beans, sweet cream corn and grass jelly, topped with gula melaka (jaggery), rose syrup and condensed milk.
“Making food makes me happy,” Lim said, “introducing people to delicious food, different flavors and spices, all that makes me happy.”
Malaya Tea Room’s Afternoon Tea in a Box is available for curbside pickup, between 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. on weekends. Orders must be made at least one day in advance by emailing email@example.com.