Taiwan Tea Bars
Taichung (táizhÅng), Taiwan is the often referred to as the birthplace of the modern tea house. Anyone who has spent any time in Taiwan has almost certainly visited one of the islands many tea houses. Modern Taiwanese tea houses are a far cry from the western stereotype of a tranquil setting involving an elaborate tea set. These traditional tea houses still exist (and the style of tea is usually gÅngfu chá), but they are not practical for the modern on-the-go urbanite looking for a quick pick-me-up.
The modern Taiwanese tea-house is more likely to be raucous than tranquil, often playing loud pop music. Others are more like lounges, playing jazz or classical music, and appropriate for business meetings. All offer as many kinds of mixed tea drinks as a bar's choice of alcoholic beverages.
For this reason, I refer to them as tea bars to disassociate them from the stereotype that most westerns picture when they read "tea house." Many visitors to Taiwan only sample a few of the most common drinks available and, because of language difficulties or timidness, never sample some of the more interesting and exotic concoctions. This lens describes some of the more common teas that foreign visitors to Taiwan often overlook. The Chinese romanization is given in parenthesis.
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The Tea Bar Basics
General Vocabulary You'll Need
As you can see from the introduction, I'm having problems getting the diacritical marks of Pinyin to render properly in this lens. So I've left them off. I hope to find a remedy soon.
No Sugar.........wu tang
"Half Sweet".....ban tang
green tea........lu cha
black tea........hong cha
medium...........zhong bei (sounds like "jong bay")
small............xiao bei (sounds like "shaow bay")
Best Books I Could Find - I could only find two books to recommend
It is so hard to find books about modern teas. You'd think all innovation regarding tea in Asia ended a thousand years ago. Those few that discuss flower and fruit teas, tend to be "herbal tea" and "health" guides. While I have not found any good recipe books for common, modern mixed teas, I have selected a very few, very good books, that go beyond the traditional.
This book does not address tea-bar style mixed drinks, but it is a gem of a book that will give you a good introduction to various varieties of black, green, and oolong teas. Wonderful illustrations.
Contains recipes for various kinds of teas. Not really representative to what you'll get in a Taiwanese tea bar, but this book will help broaden your horizons if the only tea you drink comes in a bag.
Reflecting the diverse selection of Taiwan's fruit markets, every tea house will offer a large selection of fruit teas. Taiwan's fruit teas go far beyond the dry teas with additives offered in restaurants in the United States, and are fun to experiment with.
Listed here are some of the more common fruit teas available. Most of these are best served cold, but they can usually be made hot if you prefer.
Sugar or syrup is usually added. In some of the better quality tea bars, however, the teas are only lightly flavored with fruit juice or pulp. You can also ask that they make the tea more or less sweet to suit your taste. Some can be made with either green (lighter taste) or black (more bitter) tea.
- passion fruit green/black tea (bai xiang hong/lu cha): lightly sweet and refreshing
- kumquat tea (ji cha): Very sweet and slightly sour. Served cold, it makes the perfect summer refreshment. It is also one of the few fruit teas that is also fabulous served hot.
- strawberry black/green tea (cao mei hong/lu cha): Light and refreshing. One of my favorites. Best with strawberry pulp and just a touch of sugar. Avoid the strawberry-flavored syrup. Unfortunately, this drink seems to have fallen out of style in Taiwan and is most tea bars do not offer it.
- lemon black/green tea (lin-meng hong/lu cha): Rather mundane, but made fresh, it certainly beats Lipton.
- guava black tea (shi-liu lu cha): A favorite among Taiwanese women, the tea has a strong, sour taste.
- apple black tea (pingguo hong cha): Hot or cold, this tea is a treat!
- coco milk tea (ye xiang nai cha): Smooth and cooling, lightly sweet.
- grapefruit (putaoyu cha): Slightly bitter, the grapefruit gives your tea a bit of zing.
- tomato-lemon (fanqie linmeng): This thick, sweet-and-sour tea is like V8 with caffeine. Darn! I should've had a fanqie linmeng cha!
Not as good as using the actual fruit, but many cheaper tea-bars just use the syrup. It can be hard to find fresh kumquat in the states.
You've looked at them, smelled them, and gambled your love on them. Now you can have them in your tea! Generally served hot. The fragrant steam floating up from the cup will have you stopping the smell the flowers. Note, most flower teas are not what is called "herbal tea" in the United States. They are frequently have a green, black, or oolong tea base. More often than not, flower teas are served hot and unsweetened.
- Rose tea (meikui hua cha): This tea tastes as good as it smells!
- Jasmine tea (molu mi cha): An old standby in restaurants and hotels throughout Taiwan and China. Almost as common as green and black teas. Used green or oolong tea as a base (black tea would be too strong).
- Preserved petals of sweet osmanthus (kuihua cha): Less common than the other teas mentioned here, but worth looking at.
- Chrysanthemum (chuhua cha)
Milk teas make a wonderful snack anytime day or night. Taiwan's tea bars offer much more than black tea with creamer added. Some of the following drinks may look strange and offer some interesting textures that you might not associate with tea, but many foreign visitors how have given them a try have developed new habits around these drinks.
- Milk tea (black or green) (nai hong/lu cha): This is just tea with milk in sugar. If you simply order "milk tea" (nai cha), without specifying black or green tea, black tea will be used.
- Taro milk tea (yu xiang nai cha): Don't let the purple color scare you off (not that Squidoo users are afraid of the color purple ;-). This is a heavy duty drink; thick, smooth, and sweet.
- Pearl milk tea (chen-chu nai cha): This thick, sweet tea with chewy tapioca balls is the unchallenged champion among tea drinks. Found in tea bars and roadside stands all over Taiwan. Sooner or later the foreign traveler discovers this drink; many become hooked.
The tapioca balls come in different sizes and you drink the the tea with thick straws, sucking up a line of the "pearls" from the bottom of the cup, along with the tea.
In recent years, this drink has caught on in America. It is quite popular in Hawaii and I've seen it sold in New York City. In the United States, it is usually marketed as "Bubble Tea."
Always served cold.
- Pei ya milk tea (pei ya nai cha): This drink defies translation. It's a thick, grainy, pulpy tea with a wheat-like taste. It is sweet and so thick that you actually chew on it. It is served both hot and cold.
Have a Pearl Milk Tea Party!
It may be difficult and expensive to enjoy some of the more exotic flower and fruit tea drinks common in Taiwan tea bars when you live outside of Taiwan, but Pearl Milk Tea is becoming a popular international drink and it is easy to buy everything you need to make it just as if you ordered it from a tea bar. It is still uncommon enough in the United States that I'll make a fun party drink. These are especially fun for kids!
Note, these straws are THICK. They are made to suck large tapioca balls. Some buyer have complained that they are too big in the vendor rating. They are supposed to be. They aren't for soda!
In Taiwan these shakers are used to make all kinds of tea drinks. This is a very affordable tea shaker. Nothing fancy.
- Ginger tea (jiang mu cha): A spicy sweet tea. According to traditional Chinese medicine, drinking this tea will help you get over a cold. But forget whatever horror stories you've heard about the taste of Chinese medicine. This is a medication that is easy to take.
- Lemon grass tea: a brisk lemon-flavored tea.
Taiwan Tea Products Available Now on eBay
It is always fun to see what pops up on eBay. I threw in the words "Taiwan Tea" and let it search across all categories. As this list is generated automatically, these are not recommendations from me. But often some real treasure surface on eBay that I would not have though to search for or which are simply unavailable on the big merchant sites.
Links to the Useful and Interesting - More About Taiwan, Tea Bars, and Tea
The list above by no means comprise a complete list of all the teas available in Taiwan's countless tea bars. Competition among tea bars is cut throat. Every day new concoctions are created. Each tea bar has its own special drinks and variations on the old standards.
Now you have no excuse for ordering the same tea over and over again. I encourage you to sample some of the many drinks available when you make your next visit to a tea bar.
For those of you unable to visit Taiwan, I hope to provide you with recipes and instructions for making tea-bar style teas and to highlight both pre-made teas, ingredients for making your own, and products to help make or enjoy the tea.
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