What do Ovaltine, Horlicks, and Milo have in common? They were born in the West (Switzerland, US, and Australia respectively, if Wikipedia hasn't failed me, although today Ovaltine and Horlicks are owned by British companies), are very popular in the East (in addition to their birth countries...and...elsewhere), and less so in the US. They're all powder-based malted milk drinks, although Ovaltine and Milo are chocolate flavored and Horlicks isn't.
I can recall at least one instance where a Chinese friend was surprised when I told her that I didn't grow up drinking these beverages. "AREN'T YOU CHINESE?" she asked. (And yes, she asked in caps.) Does that go to show how imbibed these drinks are in Chinese culture? Even when I lived in Taiwan where I recall seeing a lot of Milo, I was never interested in trying it. It was only when I started living in New York City and frequented Chinatown's bakeries that I noticed these malted milk drinks on the menu alongside bubble teas.
A few weeks ago after eating at Sheng Wang, my friends and I went to Hon Cafe for desserts and drinks. I usually go for nai cha (sweet milk tea), but since Greg and Kathy were both getting that and I didn't want to order the same thing, I looked for another cheap, hot drink.
Me: What does Ovaltine taste like?
Greg: Like chocolate milk.
Me: That sounds boring.
Greg: It's a kid's drink with extra vitamins and stuff in it.
Me: ...That still sounds boring.
Yet, lured by the $1 price tag, I ordered it anyway. And Greg was only partially correct: Ovaltine doesn't taste just like chocolate milk, but like a sweet, mildly chocolate-flavored beverage with undertones of cereal. Ooooh. It may not taste as good as Momofuku Milk Bar's cereal milk (which I have yet to try), but it's certainly a better deal. I became addicted kind of...immediately.
It wasn't until a week later that I got to buy a huge jar of the powered stuff from a Chinese supermarket in Flushing, its location inexplicably on a shelf above the aisle of vegetables and not in any kind of beverage section, powdered or not. Is Ovaltine as important as vegetables? Maybe. I did look for Ovaltine earlier in non-Chinese markets and found it at a few bodegas, but it was the American version, not the red and yellow-clad Asian version. Whether there's much of a taste difference between the two, I have no idea, but I think the American one said to mix with milk while the Asian one said
mix with water (update) I LIED, HAR HAR, UH it says mix with milk. Poop on that.
I've only made a few cups of Ovaltine so far, mostly to soothe my sickly throat, but I definitely didn't use as heavy a hand with the sugar as Hon Cafe. My homemade version was less magical. :( If you've never tried it before, it might be good to try it first from a Chinatown bakery/cafe (I assume most of them serve it) before making it yourself. You can tell I have no culinary prowess when I can't even make a good cup of Ovaltine. (I will gladly take your Ovaltine-making tips.) Not that what I made tasted bad—it was perfectly fine. I just need to work on my Ovaltine-making skills.