'Have you had tea yet?' goes the standard greeting among the shop-house owners of Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown. Between Sultan and Tun H.S. Lee streets, where the footpaths teem with coffee joints, tea houses and stores selling all manner of tea-making paraphernalia, the reply invariably is: 'Yes'. Although skyrocketing rents have forced many tea houses out of the tourist-populated Petaling Street in recent years, finding a quiet place for a pick-me-up beverage, away from the squabbling durian sellers and chicken-rice vendors, is the least of your troubles. Deciding what to order from their extensive menus can be much more tricky. Purple Cane Tea House 3/F 6 Panggong Street Hours: 10am-11pm Ride a battered lift up to a darkened landing, and push through a swing door into what might be the realm of a secret society. A smiling waitress points to a sign that says: 'Please take off your shoes', then motions towards a wide and breezy tea salon where huddles of high-school students and young professionals with loosened ties lounge on cushions at low tables set over a polished, raised wooden floor. Swirling Chinese pictograms share the peeling walls with posters promoting tea. Plum green? Lychee black? Bubble green? Orange black? The waitresses come to the rescue every time. 'Try the fragrant rose tea, it's good for novice drinkers,' they'll say. Finish off with a fruit platter from the light-snack menu. The fresh rambutans come from the nearby Petaling Street market. Old China Cafe 11 Balai Polis Street Hours: 10.30am-11pm There's refuge from the Malaysian capital's intense afternoon heat in the dark and aromatic depths of the Old China Cafe (right), a minute's walk from the Purple Cane. Pull up a bentwood chair at one of the half-dozen stone-top tables, order a pot of smooth Malaccan coffee or a chilled glass of zesty orange black tea, and contemplate the tropics from the cool side of the swing doors. With its low-voltage billiard-hall lamps, ceiling paddle fans and portraits of Chiang Kai-shek, this is what a 1900s Shanghai tea salon might have looked like. A General Electric fridge, circa 1970, still sees action as a cold store for freshly squeezed fruit juices. Light meals are available, but most customers head straight for the sweets. Try the sago dessert with its lashings of coconut flakes and gluey palm sugar. Washington Cake House Corner of Sultan and Petaling streets Hours: 6am to late afternoon Opening onto two of Kuala Lumpur's busiest streets, the Washington Cake House is Chinatown's hardest-working cafe. It exudes all the charm of the city's old British-built Central Station, with its coughing steel pots and billowing steam clouds and the lively chatter of its elderly patrons. Try the house speciality: a beer glass of condensed milk topped with crude oil-strength coffee. It looks like a B52 cocktail on ladies' night and packs a similar punch. The Cake House also offers the usual spread of morning noodle dishes - won ton and chicken kway teow included - but its banana fritters, called pisang goring, are the real hot sellers. Koong Woh Long Tea House Opposite Washington Cake House, corner of Petaling and Sultan streets Hours: 10am-10pm Pull up a drum-shaped stool, order a cup of fragrant jasmine tea and watch the madding tourist crowds fight their way out of the Petaling Street market. Two enormous polished copper urns stand gleaming at the entrance and serve as this herbal tea shop's sole advertisement. Kwu ling go jelly, made from 18 varieties of herbs, is the store's bestseller. Counter the extreme bitter taste with the small pitcher of honey served on the side. Purple Cane Tea Art Centre G/F 11 Sultan Street Hours: 10am-10pm This is the head office and main store of Purple Cane Enterprise, which, with three other outlets in Malaysia, operates the tea house on Panggong Street. Tea drinkers can pick up everything they need to brew the perfect cup, from elaborate tea sets to handmade clay pots and cups, and dozens of tea varieties from Japan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and China. The Tea Art Centre also provides a tasting area at the rear, where customers can sample these varieties, study tea-making techniques or simply complain about the tropical heat to the tea master as he brews up a storm. If, by this stage, you're feeling peckish, follow the exotic aromas outside back to the raucous Petaling Street market restaurants. The chicken rice there doesn't get any better.