March 31, 2011
Tea and Maokong
Tea and Maokong
Tea is an important part of the culture in Taiwan, so what could be better than enjoying a cup where it's grown?
Although there are indigenous varieties of tea to Taiwan, the tea industry really only began in the 19th century, thanks in part to the efforts of British merchant John Dodd. Although that's another story, you can get hold of a re-print of his diary here. Farming increased in the late 19th to 20th centuries, and new varieties were introduced and new hybrids developed. Exports boomed and Taiwan tea gained a reputation for quality worldwide. A number of Taiwanese friends have told me that a variety of Oolong tea was a favorite of Queen Victoria, who, it is said, gave the variety the English name "Oriental Beauty" (known as Bai Hao Oolong in Chinese and available everywhere in Taiwan).
Exports dropped off in the 1960s, but local consumption started to grow and has continued to do so with the introduction of things like pearl milk tea. Go into any convenience store and you will see that a large proportion of the soft drinks are tea based. Then there is tea ice cream, cookies, candy, cakes... Well you get the idea, tea is big in Taiwan.
There are of course a huge number of tea shops and tea houses in Taiwan, where tea shops are perhaps more informal and tea houses more traditional. You'll find many in the cities, but if you can the best place to enjoy a fresh cup of tea in my mind is in the hills and mountains where the tea is actually grown. One of the most famous areas in Taiwan, Maokong, happens to be close to Taipei City.
Maokong has become a very popular tourist area due to the views of Taipei (especially on clear nights), cooler climate (especially in the summer), and the many tea houses where you can sit and drink tea overlooking tea plantations and the aforementioned views of Taipei. Actually hiking and biking are popular in the area as well, but it's quite a climb if you cycle up.
Being out of the city, the teahouses are spacious and comfortable and you can often choose to sit outside or inside.
You can get food in most of the teahouses, but the main reason to come is for the tea (although the tea snacks such as dried mango and pistachio nuts are essential I think). I recommend trying the full-on experience, which involves making the tea yourselves. If you haven't done that before, the staff will be happy to show you what to do. There are variations, but essentially you will be given a small clay teapot, some dried tea leaves, as many small cups as in your party and various tools to help in getting the tea in and out of the teapot.
It's usual for one person to make the tea, and it's fairly involved. You can make a few pots with the same tea leaves (keep going until it gets too weak), but again I recommend asking the staff to show you how to do it. It's more fun that way as well.
It is quite easy to get to Maokong, depending on how you handle heights. The Maokong Gondola runs from close to the Mucha Zoo MRT station to Maokong, and the views are great. It's just a bit high, which I suppose is a good thing for a cable car. Some of the cars actually have glass bottoms if you are really brave. Check the website for details. If you don't fancy that, then you can take the Brown 15 bus from the bus stops outside the zoo (so you can also take the MRT to Mucha Zoo).
I certainly recommend a trip at any time of the year, but it will be colder than the city so go prepared. If you can't make it, however, I highly recommend Wisteria teahouse in Taipei City. The website is only in Chinese but I will write more about the place in future posts (the address is Xinsheng South Rd., Section 3, Lane 16, No. 1).
One last thing, whatever you do, don't ask to add milk to a proud farmer's green tea. It's a long fall down the mountain!
•Previous article: Taiwan's spirit of transformation
•Next article: Gongguan and Taida