A look at how a culinary remnant of colonial might remains one of the most popular products in Commonwealth countries and ex-colonies like Hong Kong

Say "malt" and most people would think of malt beer, or perhaps whisky. That is, unless, you grew up in Hong Kong or other former British colonies such as India, Nigeria or Malaysia, in which case you might remember childhood malt-based treats such as Ovaltine, Milo or Horlick's.

All malted milk-based products that were produced in Switzerland, Australia, the US and the UK, these three brands were essentially initially seen as nutritional supplements, making them especially popular in third world countries that had difficulty in supplying their population with all the nutrients needed, making them far more popular than in their original countries of origin. The historical curiosity is that while these former colonies have taken its place on the first-world stage (Hong Kong, Singapore) or rapidly becoming countries to be reckoned with (Brazil, India), these humble malt-based products have retained their popularity despite the easy access to more luxurious produce.

Asia Tatler Dining take a look at three of the most popular brands, many of which are still served in Hong Kong cha-chan-tengs. Although Hong Kong is now one of the richest cities in the world, these malted drinks remain a major part of our culinary landscape, a curious historical holdover from a time when chocolate or even milk were luxuries.


Made with malt extract, sugar, cocoa and whey, Ovaltine was first developed in Switzerland, under its original name Ovomaltine. When it was exported to Britain in 1909, a misspelling caused the name to be shortened to Ovaltine. It became hugely popular in England and it is likely that when the British came to Hong Kong, Ovaltine was brought over as a reminder of home. Here, it became a fixture on the menus of cha-chan-tengs, the local version of a diner, where it is served both hot and cold. The local version is made without sugar, leaving locals to sweeten it to their own taste. Although the British factory that produced Ovaltine at Hertfordshire has since closed down, Ovaltine's popularity continues unabated not only in Hong Kong and the product that we now import is produced by Associated British food, which produces Ovaltine in Switzerland, China, Thailand and the Philippines. Over the years, quite a few upscale restaurants with an eye on the past and for local ingredients have reinterpreted this staple and created an Ovaltine ice-cream, an exceedingly delicious and nostalgic treat.


A relative newcomer to the field of malted chocolate drinks, Milo was invented in Sydney in 1934. Named after Milo of Crotona, a famed Greek wrestler from the 6th century BC, Milo from the beginning marketed itself as a sort of sports drink, with the label depicting sporting activities from swimming to football. Popular in Hong Kong and extremely popular in Malaysia (where it has a 90% market share), it is sold as a beverage at local cha-chan-tengs in Hong Kong and at Indian Muslim bevereage stalls in Malaysia. It is also popular in other former colonies including Nigeria and the Carribean. In a curious twist, just as it was the former colonisers who introduced these malted products to the colonies, it is immigrants from these former colonies that are now re-introducing Milo to the West. In immigrant-heavy areas of east Canada such as Ontario, people who migrated from ex-colonial India, the Caribbean and Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s brought with them their love of Milo and it was sold mainly in ethnic food marts and stores. Now produced by Nestle, Milo is the brand that has diversified the most, putting out products such as Milo chocolate bars and Milo cereal, as well as a canned energy drink, available from vending machines in Japan.


Although popular in the British commonwealth, Horlick's actually originated in Chicago in the US as an artificial infant food in 1873 by the immigrant Horlick brothers from Gloucestershire. In 1890, James Horlick returned to London to set up an office and in 1906, Slough (more recently of The Office fame) was selected as the UK factory site. Unlike Ovaltine and Milo, Horlick's is the one malted milk product that is not blended with chocolate, presumably one of the reasons it is less popular with children. Rather, it is a blend of milled malted barley and wheat flour to which dairy powders are later added. This is then fortified with vitamins and minerals, lending some credence to its claim to being a healthier drink. For unscientifically proven reasons, Horlick's is also believed by many to be a sleeping aid and many of us may remember its slightly beany smell wafting from mugs as our mothers vainly try to put us to sleep. In Hong Kong, Horlick's are another staple of cha-chan-tengs, where much like Ovaltine, it is served with milk, both as a hot or a cold drink. However, even Hong Kong does not compete with India as the biggest fans of Horlick's. On the subcontinent, Horlick's reclaims its roots and is marketed as "The Great Family Nourisher" and is made with buffalo rather than cow's milk, in deference to the Hindus' reverence for the cow. Although harder to find nowadays, Hong Kong locals over a certain age may still remember when Horlick's also came in candy form: milk chocolate flavoured mini discs in paper packets, Those looking for these nostalgic treats can head to Malaysia, where they are still manufactured and sold as Horlicks Malties.