August 13, 2015

Tea in Taiwan (and China)

Oolong - the Black Dragon - and other teas

If you think of a drink in Taiwan or China, you are probably very likely to think of tea - we westerners tend to associate China and Taiwan with tea - and for a good reason, a big part of the tea we drink in the world is had in the Chinese speaking world - if you read the stories tea has been around in the Chinese culture for around 5000 years - if not more. 

Tea Plantations in Alishan
There are whole ceremonies surrounding the tea drinking, and we are not talking the teabag in a cup, hot water from the kettle, and some milk. You rarely drink milk with your standard teas in China and Taiwan, at least not the tea you have with your food - no one but a barbarian would think of putting milk in their tea that comes with the food. And very few would dream of using a tea bag, especially for the tea that is served with the food. If you get tea made with a teabag in Taiwan or China, you are most likely in a foreigner's home, or with someone who is international and is trying to adjust to you (or have tea for breakfast). In Taiwan and China you get tea by the pot, and you drink it out of small cups.

When it comes to dinner, I try and drink tea the way the Chinese and the Taiwanese drink their tea. In tiny cups and with frequent refills. Save the big mug for your European style morning tea.

Real tea doesn't come with milk.

Yes, there is the "Bubble Tea", 珍珠奶茶, zhenzhu naicha - "Pearl Milk Tea" as well, very common in Taiwan, where it has the roots, and spread to the Western world, but Bubble tea is more of a refreshment, almost like a soft drink, and only if you are lucky there might be some real tea in it, often there are just fruit juice extracts. Bubble tea comes in big cups, contains a lot of sugar and in the original there is milk, and tapioca pearls. And yes, black tea, but nowadays, it's just as often a sweet juice with tapioca pearls. That doesn't count. Bubble tea is not tea.  Not tea the way we think of it. And I have, to be honest, not even had bubble tea in Taiwan, it's spread out enough over Europe, and I had it here. I am not a huge fan. I like proper tea. Why not Oolong tea, at least it has a great name.
Tea, real tea, is something very different from Bubble Tea, the Chinese speaking world are as particular about their teas as the Germans and the English are with their beers and the Swedes with their coffee - it's a social glue and something you socialise over Many political and other important discussions have taken place in a tea house or over a cup of tea in some ones home. 

And teas are also the most common drink to have with your food, and also there you have rules surrounding the tea drinking; Never pour yourself tea first, always first pour some for the person left and right of you (and start with the most prominent if there is a difference - the old grandmother before the young grandson for example, or the president of the company before the secretary). Sip your tea slowly, look at the other tea drinkers, in some areas you never drink your tea alone, you always drink it with the others. 

Drink slowly because they will keep filling up your tiny cup, and you don't want to run to the bathroom all the time - but that's more my advice than any cultural rule. 

Good teas are always lose leaves, never teabags - teabags are especially for the little leaves that don't make the quality requirement and are too small to be filtered without a teabag - and the good teas come with an instruction on how warm the water is supposed to be, how many times it is supposed to be filtered, and many other things.    

In Taiwan the best teas grow high up in the mountains, and up in the Alishan mountains and in Ruilie - which I wrote about 2014 - where the days are warm and the nights chilly and full of fog, you'll find the very best ones. 

Very famous is the Oolong tea烏龍, or 烏龍茶  (where there last character is "cha" - tea. Keep your eyes open for that character, you will see it a lot on menus in Taiwan and China).

Oolong, 烏龍, means "Black Dragon". The Oolong tea is an oxidised tea, where the leaves are rolled up by hand - quite a special process, where only the top quality leaves are used for the famous Oolong tea.

Read more about tea in Taiwan on "Teamaster's Blog". The Oolong tea is typical for southern China and Taiwan, in other parts of China there are other teas that are more common, the Oolong tea needs the warm days under the sun to become Oolong - because the leaves grows on the same bush we get the normal black tea and the green tea from, it's just the processing of the leaves that is different. 

The Oolong tea is said to be full of antioxidants and said to be very good for you. If you trust the health websites, the tea is supposed to cure everything from heart problems to problems with digestions - and it's supposedly good for weight loss as well. Personally I just believe you can't eat as much if your belly is full of tea, but that's my personal opinion - I drink tea because it's tasty, not because tea is supposed to have some special effect on you. Oolong tea is also fascinating as it can be filtered more times than black tea, without getting bitter - if you listen to the real experts it's even supposed to be filtered several times, to make it extra good, extra special, and extra healthy. 

Tea in Taiwan or China should be tested up in the mountains, in the evening, when the air is starting to cool down, and you can hear the cicadas and maybe even see the fireflies playing, with no other sounds than nature and an engaged discussion from somewhere far away being heard.
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A side note: If you DO go and visit the tea plantations in at least Taiwan; Bring a book. This is not where you go for night life. Night time you sip your tea and read your book, or have a good discussion with your fellow travellers. Daytime is different, then you can enjoy nature, go for a hike. However, if you go to Ruili - avoid the Youth Track. Possibly the toughest hike I ever did.  

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