Venturing out for an afternoon tea is a leisure-time activity that’s gone the way of the great auk. Pouring a cuppa once paired well with extending one’s pinky and leaning in for a confidante’s confession.
A set of parameters, beloved by many, defined the experience. Delectable finger sandwiches lined up side by side on mismatched china. Ramekins filled with clotted cream, lemon curd and jam standing at the ready for scone-time slathering. Pots of steeping, deep-black tea enlivened with splashes of milk and the square perfection of sugar cubes.
Americans now have plenty of time to nestle in at cafes for cozy, midday chats—but the pandemic divides us into our separate, virtual rooms. In this country anyway, afternoon tea has been an “occasion,” rather than a cultural habit imprinted upon our psyches. We traveled across town to malls for frozen yogurt, boba tea or tin-pan buffets. But when inclement weather landed on big city boroughs and tiny villages alike, the British could duck inside a tea room to warm up with magical elixirs and snacks. After their prolonged, emotionally pent-up separation, no other quintessentially British milieu could offer more melancholic comforts to Miss Kenton and Stevens’ reunion in The Remains of the Day.
Six months before the pandemic started, one Alameda storefront aimed to recreate the experience of a refined, tea-drinking afternoon. A couple of years ago, while working as a publicist, Leena Lim asked herself, “What could I be doing for 12 hours a day and still be happy?” Malaya Tea Room is the answer she came up with. “I’ve always loved cooking,” Lim says. “My family is in the restaurant business back in Malaysia. Growing up, I did work part time at them.”
But apart from her love of coming up with recipes, the tea house also sprang up from a sentimental memory. “Afternoon tea is such a huge thing in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia,” Lim says. “My mom and I would go shopping and then we’d go for tea.”
Back home, going out for tea can be very casual or very fancy. Either way, people make time for it. Lim loved the whole experience of sipping tea from fine china and eating the sandwiches and the little, savory canapes. “And then, just having a conversation and relaxing. That’s why it’s memorable,” she says.
At the start of the pandemic in March, Lim closed Malaya Tea Room for three months. When the restaurant reopened, she had revised her approach. For a time, they tried outdoor dining, but it wasn’t exactly the same experience. “When you come for afternoon tea, customers expect a certain service,” she says. “Have you seen Downton Abbey? They want everything to be perfect like that.” And so does Lim. She’s keenly aware of the fact that serving tea isn’t the same as selling a deli sandwich or a bowl of noodles. Without being able to host an indoor gathering, she decided to put her peaceful oasis in a to-go box.
When you pick the white box up (I’d recommend one per person), you can see the order through a clear pane on top. The colors inside are vibrant and inviting. There’s a dollop of purple mashed potato piped onto a cracker. A slice of chiffon cake tinted green from the use of pandan. And a bright yellow macaron custom made for Lim by the Oakland-based dessert company Macarons by Natalie. Before the county lockdown, Lim included five English sandwich choices and five with Malaya flavors. The cultures overlap on the menu.
The Malaya Tea Room was originally designed as a semi-formal dining room, as a nod to the British. But there’s a deliberate infusion of Southeast Asian flavors. “English food can be bland,” Lim says. “But in Malaysia, the food is so tasty; I wanted to incorporate that.” Although the Malay “pulled tea,” teh tarik, isn’t currently available to go, Lim adds proudly that she does make the clotted cream and tart lemon curd in house. “Our lemon curd is actually calamansi lime,” she says. “Back home, we call it kasturi. We use it more than lemon.”