A Permanent Fixture in a Changing City
Although hipster coffee shops have taken Taipei by storm, the teahouse retains its timeless charm and appeal, especially for an itinerant traveller in search of a more rooted authentic taste of local life.
While coffee tends to be knocked back in ten minutes for a quick (often sugar-loaded) caffeine fix, tea is worthy of a slower, more contemplative appreciation of subtle tasting notes. Instead of the omnipresent glow of laptop screens and glossy magazines in cafes, in Taipei’s teahouses you’re more likely to find a rich collection of antique hardbacks nestled among the lust-worthy tea ware on the shelves, and technology is almost entirely absent except for the cash register.
Thus it’s not unusual for teahouse guests to occupy a table for several hours at a stretch, soaking up the atmosphere of a distraction-free, secluded, pristine retreat within the city while quietly conversing and dreamily philosophizing. It’s interesting to note that teahouses do not usually provide comfortable sofas to sink into; you’re more likely to find yourself kneeling on a tatami or perched on a wooden bench or stool. The point is not physical relaxation, but rather to guide you into the alert, engaging state of mind that the tea ritual demands, from the brewing right through to mindfully observing the nuances of the tasting notes. In short, Taipei’s teahouses are where people go to actively recharge (bonus points for combining it with a trip to the hot springs).
There are now Taiwanese teahouses to serve every taste: takeaway tea store chains are the kings of convenience, offering pre-brewed teas mixed with all the flavors under the sun and more; and English-style high tea offerings for modern ladies of leisure who like to nibble on tiny cakes while nattering over dainty cups of milky tea and sugar cubes. But the quintessential qualities of a true tea house are still possible to find, and when you dig up a good one, the experience is worth lingering over. When you know what to look for, you’ll start to see why this past-time has retained it’s almost cult-like status among those in the know.
Thankfully tea drinking culture does not have to be as elegant and ritualized as the Japanese or Chinese high culture, so laden with social conventions and symbolic meaning – so there’s no need to fear seeming like a bumbling ignorant tourist. If you’re not sure how to properly prepare your tea with all the beautiful utensils placed in front of you on the tea tray, the service people are generally more than willing to give you a brewing demonstration and introduce you to the varieties of teas they serve. So get settled in and enjoy.
The Five Quintessential Qualities of a Top Teahouse
1 – Good Feng Shui
A teahouse should be a soothing refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city, so a peaceful ambiance is key to a relaxing and restorative experience. Some teahouses hit the nail on the head with an elegant Japanese aesthetic; low tables and tatami mats, paper walls, wooden sandals, and fish swimming in a pond outside. Others create a calming atmosphere with large carved wood windows overlooking leafy serene central courtyards, antique furniture, and traditional Chinese calligraphy and paintings hung on the walls. Some tea houses have a more contemporary feel to them, but that sense of undisturbed tranquility is what keeps us lingering for hours.
2 – Tasty Snacks
Some teahouses will provide full-blown set meals, but others serve delectable little snacks which stave off your appetite so you can focus on your tea rather than a rumbling stomach for a long, undisturbed session. Our favorite tea houses have homemade delicate pastries and savory mouth-size bites, perhaps some dried fruits and salted nuts (with little dried fish to be extra-Taiwanese), or a glorious mix of Hong Kong style dim sum, Japanese appetizers and “QQ” desserts.
3 – Fresh Spring Water
The more selective among the connoisseurs may choose to bring their own teas to a teahouse, but, akin to a corkage fee for wine, they still have to pay a water fee per person. This is because teahouses take great care to provide top quality spring water – one of the factors which greatly affects the taste of a tea, and why when you take any leftover tea home it may not taste the same. The staff will provide you with an alcohol burner and a full kettle of water, so you can refill your teapot at your leisure.
4 – Beautiful Tea Ware
An elegant tea ware set completes the sense of ceremony. A good teapot should only ever be rinsed with water (never soap), because the oils from the leaves build up a layer within the pot which adds to the flavour of each new tea. That’s why Taiwanese people loyally ”cultivate” a beloved teapot. A set of ceramic or clay tea cups, a beautiful hand-crafted bamboo tea spoon and a carved wooden tea tray in which to drain away excess water, and you’re set. Taiwan has a long history of pottery and tea ware making, which you can find out more about if you visit the renowned ceramics village of Yingge to the South West of Taipei, and make a trip to the excellently curated Yingge Ceramics Museum. Just like it’s tea, Taiwan’s tea ware industry is a vibrant fusion of Chinese and Japanese influences, and the masterful craft of pottery-making is still going strong, meaning you can get your hands on some real beauties.
5 – Awesome Tea
Because, after all, we didn’t come for mediocre tea. That’s what supermarket tea bags are for. When we go for loose leaf tea in a teahouse, we expect flavors which captivate our attention, and astound us with unnameable tasting notes and that balanced mouth-feel which will have us unconsciously sipping and steeping until the brews start to lose their flavor. Make sure to ask whoever is serving you to instruct you on the best way to brew this tea, paying careful attention to the quantity of leaves, temperature and steeping time your tea requires, as these factors will have a huge influence on the taste. No one wants expensive tea to taste scalded, bitter and over-brewed.