By Lim Yann Ling
AT TOP of One, a French restaurant in Taichung, don't be surprised to be served a tea-flavoured ice cream for dessert. For in Taiwan, which is steeped in tea culture, the brew of winter or spring crop provides an endless source of conversation.
Traditionally, art, poetry, calligraphy and tea are intertwined in Taiwan. Over piping hot tea, your teahouse hostess serves up paper and ink as readily as tea snacks, and many a friendship has been forged over impromptu jottings of poetry.
Little of this tradition has changed at the 20-year-old cultural teahouse, Wu Wei Cao Tang. With walls of its tranquil pavilions decorated with poetry and oil paintings, it has fed generations of aspiring artists.
Handed down from father to son, or to daughter in this case, the eight types of fine tea are served with a masterful demonstration of the art of tea preparation.
For most people, however, the place to hang out for tea is the Chun Shui Tang (Spring Water Teahouse). This outlet is synonymous with the birthplace of Taiwan's trademark "bubble milk tea".
Not just a new version of tea, it is also a revolutionary method of brewing tea.
The bubble milk tea is the antithesis of everything traditional. Tea is catapulted from hot, brewing teapots to iced cocktail canisters of milk and syrup blends - barista style - to be consumed through straws.
Drinking chewy black tapioca "pearls" mixed in sweetened milk tea has become a pastime after the invention was featured in a TV show in Japan in the 1990s. The poster-boy hit Pearl Milk Tea is now a national drink.
Creativity in tea ceremonies is not new to Taiwan.
In the 1980s, English High Tea found its way to Taiwan, popularised by the establishment of the American Club and the now-defunct Hilton Hotel Taipei.
The Grand Formosa Regent is one of the few remaining pioneers that still serves delicate pastry on elegant silver tiers, limited to 24 sets a day, unless upon request.
Today, the Grand Formosa is better known for its Taiwanese tea buffet.
The Brasserie Buffet is the largest buffet available in Taipei. Its $20- price tag is like an unlimited train pass.
The smorgasbord is organised in "stations" like dim sum station, sushi station and, the most interesting of all, the health-conscious food station.
"Drinking tea is also associated with a refined break, so people love to drink a cup of tea when they want to relax," says Ms Fiona Yang, an executive of the Eslite Corporation Food Service Division.
The Eslite Tea Room, nestled within the landmark 24 hours Eslite Bookstore, is modelled after an 18th century French salon and offers high teas from the 155-year-old French brand, Hediard.
With furniture and lamps imported from France, it is a coveted spot on New Year's Eve night, as it faces the Taipei 101 tower from which fireworks are launched during the year's final countdown.
Art and games
The appreciation of tea as art for its health benefits is growing stronger, and Chun Shui Tang is returning to tradition to capture the market of growing tea connoisseurs.
This year, the company opened its first traditional Qiu Shan Tang Tea Room, designed for collectors of fine Taiwanese tea.
A trip down memory lane takes one to the most famous teahouse of all, the Wistaria Tea House at Xinsheng South Road.
The historical site has served as a gathering place for scholars, artists and political dissenters as well as the location set for Ang Lee's movie Eat Drink Man Woman.
Over at Chi Nan Road, the more traditional Yau Yueh Tea House stays open all night. Over poker or a board game, university students and younger workers wait patiently for their tea as they unwind after a hard night out.
They gather from all walks of life, much like the tea that comes in all shades and temperaments, from green to black, hot to cold, summer to spring.
This trip was sponsored by Taiwan Visitors Association (Tourism Bureau).
Ancient teahouse turns puppet theatre
CULTURAL teahouses often get a second life in their later years.
At Xi Ning North Road in Taipei, an 80-year-old teahouse is home to the Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museum and TTT Puppet Centre.
The museum has a collection of some 6,000 artefacts acquired from all over the world and houses a DIY Vietnamese water puppet theatre.
It also offers puppet shows, puppet-master demonstrations and workshops such as puppet carving, children's puppet theatre and training in traditional puppet techniques.
To promote both traditional and modern puppet theatres, two theatre troupes were formed in 2004 - the traditionally oriented Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company and the contemporary Nadou Theatre Company.
Italian puppeteer Massimo Godoli Peli, 47, who has performed with the latter for seven years, says the company is a rare and important incubator for aspiring puppeteer artistes.
"The Italian version of puppetry is more interactive and incorporates audience participation. Despite the difference in artistic style, I have found more support here than I could even imagine back home," he says.
For details, visit www.taipeipuppet.com
This article was first published in The Straits Times by Special Projects Unit, Marketing Division, SPH on September 16, 2008