One of my favorite activities as a girl was to play tea party. Each day at precisely 3’o’clock, I would dress my teddy bear to the nines, apply lipstick to my dolls’ plastic faces, drown in my mother’s 80’s blazing blue shoulder padded dress, and rummage our fine China cabinet for the most floral, breakable teacups. “Mothah dahhh-ling, would you cay-uh for a cuppa tay?” I would ask innocently imitating my father’s British accent when she walked in on my happy chaos.
2 decades later, the enchantment of tea time is still alive in my heart. Thus, when a friend raved that I must try the Shangri-La Hotel’s ritzy vegan high tea, I instantly scribbled it onto my Paris bucket list. This Hong Kong-based hotel chain has carved its reputation into the city of love through its notoriety as a global hotspot for vegan high tea.
My second reaction after inserting it into my bucket list that had now expanded to several pages in length: What exactly is high tea, and when did the veganized version become a thing? Ironically, high tea began as a meal for British commoners who could not afford to indulge in afternoon tea. As I recalled from my English grandparents’ punctual afternoon tea ritual, this mini-meal was served as a social event to break the stretch between lunch and dinner. Each day at 3 pm, my grandmother would habitually brew a pot of PG-tips English Breakfast Tea and deliver it alongside milk, sugar, and sweet biscuits to her guests who lounged in the conservatory. However, historically, English working-class families could not always afford to dish out their pounds and pence on anything more than the necessities. Tea was expensive but deemed essential by most loyal to The Crown. Thus, instead of preparing tea as an additional daily meal, working-class families lumped it together with their evening meal and served it at the dinner table after finishing their 9-to-5 jobs. This fusion of tea and dinner was named “high tea”, and often included bread, vegetables, cheeses, meats, potatoes, and savory pies. Eventually, the upper class re-appropriated high tea from the working class, adding rare game and fresh fruits to the menu and consuming it as a special occasion treat.
Today in England, afternoon tea continues to be a ubiquitous daily experience in the parlors of locals and in many traditional English cafes. On the other hand, high tea is primarily an indulgence only for tourists who can afford to spend a late afternoon at the Ritz or other high-end spots in London. My meal at Shangri-La in Paris lived up to every ounce of pomp and circumstance (and price) in the name. The hotel had the feel of a plush Victorian ballroom, and the luxuriously spacious tea room was sandwiched between two their two signature Michelin-star restaurants. Classical piano music danced delicately in the background, created by a live performer dressed in a tux. A lush interior jungle decorated the room’s center, and Parisian summer sunlight flooded atop it, nourishing its dark green leaves. A snow-white chandelier of angel’s wings dangled from the ceiling and antique Chinese vases topped the overhangings on the sky-blue walls. I sat on the plush red cushion of my booth, inhaled the scent of fresh-cut flowers, gasped when I glanced at the price of tea, and plastered on a smile to order the special.
The high tea menu at Shangri-La rotates with the seasons, but it always follows the same format: a hot pot of tea, scones with strawberry jam and vegan “cream”, finger sandwiches, sweet biscuits, and intricately-designed desserts from their patisserie, all served on a three-tiered cake stand. For 45 Euros per person, this meal is a jaw-dropping one to remember.
Yet even after finishing my decadent vegan high tea, my second burning question still raced in my mind: Is vegan high tea even a thing? After much meditation, reflection, and deep contemplation, I have come to the perfectly formulated conclusion that I don’t know, but it should be.
As I learned as a child and verified as an adult at Shangri-La, the act of tea is a magnificent affair. The magic of tea never fades when we grow old, and, in fact, it may even increase when alcohol is added into the mix. Whether or not vegan tea is a thing, “adult tea parties” certainly are. With new and remarkable tea cocktails being imagined each day by mixologists, there are so many ways to spice up a traditional tea time yet add elegance to the out-done format of a dinner party or afternoon gathering.
I’ve successfully crossed vegan high tea at Shangri-La off my bucket list, and as of today, I have added hosting the world’s best vegan tea party (on a budget) to my life goals. Below are my step-by-step ideas on the stunning art of the trade. Any takers to be guinea pigs for my first guest list?
Set the scene
Elegance is the guiding rule for tea parties. Break out your grandmother’s China, and prepare your kettle, teapot, tea cups, and three-tiered cake stand for use. Or rummage thrift stores until you find sufficient vintage platters to serve your guests. No need to worry if it’s mismatched, chipped, or tarnished. Flaws will only give your tea set more character.
Master the finger food
Savory nibbles are a necessary must for your high tea experience. Simplicity is the key, but a burst of rich flavor will make your creations memorable. Try classic cucumber, sweet onion & hummus, or roasted red pepper & pesto as flavors to top crustless bread cut into two fingers-width slices (check out these recipes listed on Walflower Kitchen).
Bake your heart out
Light, floral desserts are easiest to wash down with afternoon tea. Vegan date & walnut scones are my favorite “cream tea” option, served alongside almond butter and strawberry jam. Crispy cookies, like vegan shortbread biscuits or chai-spiced snickerdoodles can be deliciously dunked in hot tea (we’re all adults here, no judging). Heaping, fluffy-textured sliced of cake – like this recipe for lavender apricot earl grey cake – are also classic teahouse items. Finally, delicately crafted vegan tarts, like vegan fig curd tarts with lavender chamomile cream or no bake lemon cookie fruit tarts, bring mouth-watering glamour to the tea scene.
Up-level the tea
Of course, you can go the classic route and brew a hot pot of Earl Grey or English Breakfast tea to be served with non-dairy milk (oat milk is my tea-milk of the moment), lemon, and sugar. Alternatively, tea cocktails can bring a touch of spice to your vanilla-steeped life. Tea cocktails can be served hot or cold, depending on your mood and the season. No need to recruit a mixologist to design your ideal blends. Get creative with flavors, and try combinations like chamomile honey bourbon, earl grey champagne, matcha mint juleps, Jalisco high tea (lemon verbena tea with tequila and Cherry Heering), or white rose tea martini with floral confetti.
Choose your tunes
If you can’t afford to hire a jazz band or even a live solo pianist, recruit Spotify or bribe your little brother to sing.
Capture the moment
After all the hard work you invested in making your vegan tea party a thing, photos are a necessary must. Ensure that your tea has been set up near the biggest window in your house to capture the moment with ample light. Snap away, sip away, and savor the moment.