Drinking Tea in Taiwan

My first cup of tea in Taiwan was at a massage parlor.

It was our first weekend in Taiwan, and we had gone on a long bike ride with our friends Dave, Wendy, and Kyla that morning. By the time we returned in the mid-afternoon, we were so worn out (me + non-padded bike seats = not friends) that a massage was just about the only thing tempting enough to get us off the couch.

Dave and Wendy escorted us down to a bustling massage parlor in the neighborhood, and booked themselves in for foot massages while Jacob and I were shown to adjacent beds for back and shoulder massages. We had been warned in advance that a Taiwanese massage was not meant to be relaxing. These masseuses are experts in pressure points, have a preternatural ability to find knots you didn’t know you had, and make liberal use of their elbows. I wouldn’t call it an enjoyable experience, but the euphoric sense of well-being afterwards is worth it. I practiced Lamaze breathing throughout the massage, proud of myself for being able to manage the pain without complaining.

I was doing fine until the petite masseuse (who had been digging into my back with her elbow for the past ten minutes) moved on to new pressure points – on my butt. Now I don’t know if you have ever experienced someone poking at these pressure points on your butt (more like the side of your upper-leg, below the hips bone), but oh man. It hurts. At this point my resolve broke down and I channeled my pain by alternately laughing and going, “Ow. Ow. Ow. OW. OW. Ow.” All the masseuses working at the row of beds started giggling. I don’t make for a dignified massage patient.

Once released from pressure-point torture, the masseuse sympathetically brought me a paper cup of tea. It was a revelation. Made from roasted then boiled barley, the tea was nutty, cereal-y, complex, and refreshing all at once. And this, come to find out, was just one of the run-of-the-mill teas available in Taiwan, inexpensive and widely consumed. It was addiction at first sip.

A few days later we were on the tea-hunt in the mountains above Taipei, heading to an area called Maokong, well known for its tea fields and tea houses. Getting to Maokong was a picturesque trip in itself. After a subway ride to the Taipei Zoo, we boarded a gondola that took us high up into the mountains, passing lush jungle, temples, and tea fields on the way up. It was remarkable to be in such a quiet and peaceful place so close to Taipei.

Maokong is clearly set up for tourism, and offered us more to do than we had time for in one afternoon. We immediately trekked out to the Tea Promotion Center to visit a free museum on how tea is made, and drink a complimentary cup of red oolong tea. The museum was small and quiet, it’s main attraction (aside from the free tea) being its gorgeous surroundings and proximity to several hiking trailheads. After perusing the museum and drinking our tea, we started down one of the trails, passing through tea fields, bamboo groves, and meandering streams. The tea fields were a surprise to us.

I couldn’t say exactly what we were expecting, but it certainly wasn’t a field of very average looking bushes with thick, hardy leaves. Who was it who went around boiling leaves until they discovered that some leaves produced exquisite drinks? Who took it even further and decided to start drying, sorting, and rolling the leaves? Having had a small glimpse into the tea production process, our next goal was to experience a bit of tea culture.

I will confess that I know hardly anything about tea. I know that it has as rich and nuanced a culture surrounding it as wine, coffee, and chocolate. It is something you can develop a palate for, is steeped (hah, look! A pun!) in tradition and ritual, and can cost you tens of thousands of dollars if you are a connoisseur. I know that there are some types of teas I like more than others, but that is where my knowledge ends. If I wasn’t going to get a full master class on tea in Taiwan, at least I could experience some of the centuries-old tradition that can still found in Taiwan’s tea houses.

All of our research led us to Jiufen, one of northern Taiwan’s most famous destinations for tea houses. Jiufen is an old gold-mining town built onto the side of a steep hill overlooking Taiwan’s east coast. The town’s famous old street is a narrow lantern-lined passageway that winds it’s way uphill, weaving between rickety old wooden shops, tea houses, and occasionally opening up into beautiful panoramas of the coastline below.

Jiufen’s most iconic building is the Amei Tea House, which has become even more famous as the real-life inspiration for Miyazaki’s 2001 anime masterpiece, Spirited Away.  

When we arrived in Jiufen, after about an hour on the bus, it was overcast and bitterly cold from the wind kicking up along the coast. We dove immediately into the crowded old street, and started looking for food. There was a place we had read about, near the top of the town, that was famous for its taro ball soup.

As excited as Jacob was for the taro ball soup, I was skeptical. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth as it is, and a sweet soup didn’t sound very exciting to me. We got one bowl to split, tried a spoonful, and I immediately changed my mind. The soup was hot, fruity, and sweet, filled with chewy balls of sweet potato and taro mochi. On a cold day, it was the best thing I could have asked for. We ate our soup ridiculously fast, as I informed Jacob that we needed to come back for another bowl before we left Jiufen that day.  

Warmed up from our soup, we started exploring a bit more enthusiastically, checking out tea houses as we went along. We had a bit of a dilemma. As much as we wanted to try a tea house, Jacob and I balked at the idea of going anywhere too touristy. At the same time however, we were completely lost anywhere that didn’t have pictures on the menu. It was a catch-22.

Eventually we stumbled upon the famous Amei Tea House, queued up to take a picture, and noticed a tiny and sketchy looking stone passageway immediately next door.

We shimmied sideways through the narrow entrance, and ducked our heads through a cobwebbed low stone passage that looks like it had been untouched since Jiufen’s mining days.

Coming out the other end of the passage, we found ourselves in a quiet courtyard, standing in front of a massive old wooden tea house. This, we decided, was it.

We went inside the tea house, occupied only by the owners and a set of old women drinking tea. We were led to a table on a covered verandah, whose ancient windows shook and rattled whenever a gust of window hit the tea house. The hostess came to our table and lit a fire in a massive cauldron on the floor next to the table, then set a kettle of hot water on the fire.

She disappeared for a moment, and returned with a tray of clay dishes and wooden utensils. She set the tray on the table, and began to show us how to prepare the tea.

She started by scooping oolong tea into a tiny pot, placing the pot into a larger bowl, and then filling the pot until overflowing with water. Next, she placed tiny cups, hardly larger than a thimble, into the bowl, and poured the tea out over the cups. Using a pair of wooden tongs, she rinsed the dishes in the tea, then discarded the liquid. After she had placed the warm cups on a cloth outside the bowl, she poured more water into the tea pot, let it sit for about 30 seconds, then poured it a pitcher fitted with a strainer. From the pitcher the tea was poured into the thimble-cups. Next, a small bowl (our actual tea cups) was inverted over the cups, then flipped. Lifting the cup so the tea poured into the bowl, she held the cup up for us to smell, then presented us with our bowls of tea. We watched the entire process in awe.

This, she indicated to us, is what we were to do (more or less) to prepare the tea. Tossing the first water poured over new tea leaves was to wash off any impurities, after which the tea could be re-steeped roughly 6 times before it should be replaced with new tea. The oolong tea, even to our uneducated palates, was exquisite. It was light and floral, with a soft, almost creamy quality. The first cups were always the best, before the tea began to take on the slight bitter edge that I am familiar with from (likely sub-par) green tea.  

We spent the remainder of our afternoon in the tea house, listening to the wind rattle the windows, and drinking cup after tiny cup of tea. This, we decided, was a better tea experience than we could have even hoped for – a beautiful tea ceremony in an old, decidedly non-touristy tea house, and a few leisurely hours watching the storm clouds roll over while the lanterns lit up on the streets below.