Without a doubt, one of the wonders of Taiwan is the tea stall or tea shop. They can be mesmerising though. How can they offer so many drinks with so many options? Must you be thinking the same as me?
How to order tea in Taiwan? Have courage, learn some basic Chinese and then have fun trying out the different flavours on offer!
In this guide, I will walk you through the steps required to be able to order tea like a local. This article is not meant to be a super, in-depth guide to tea drinking. Many blogs specialise in tea if you look for them, and I will link some of the better ones at the end of this article.
What is a tea stall?
Tea stalls and Taiwan go together like Barbie and Ken. They are everywhere you go. I’m sat in my apartment as I write, and I’m counting how many tea stalls there are within a five-minute walk. And, the answer is… Well, I stopped counting at ten. What’s more, each one is a different business. You must be asking yourself, “How can I learn to order from so many different kinds of stall?” Don’t panic, they all operate similarly and have almost identical options.
So, a tea stall is little more than a shop front with a counter serving customers street-side. They rarely, if ever, have any seating other than for the customers who are waiting for their tea.
Opening hours vary but, on average, they are open from 09:00 until 22:00. Don’t expect to get up early for your morning walk and buy tea at a stall, 7-Eleven’s would be your choice in this case.
In most cases, the menus are all in Chinese. Very occasionally there is an English version.
How do I approach this?
It helps to prepare before you step up to the counter. Familiarise yourself with the options available:
- What kind of drink do you want?
- What size cup would you like?
- Hot or cold?
- If you choose cold, then how much ice do you want?
- How much sugar do you want? (not just one spoon or two)
- Do you want bubbles in your tea?
- Do you want milk?
- Do you need a plastic carry bag? (1NT$ extra)
Tip– A lot of the companies will allow you to use your own cup. This not only helps the environment, but maybe you have a snazzy cup that can keep drinks hot or cold for longer.
If you don’t have a snazzy cup, you could consider buying one. Taiwanese department stores usually have a large selection!
What types of drinks will be on offer?
Expect to find a lot of choices, somewhere in the region of fifty different drinks. They serve both hot and cold beverages with some of them offering fruit juices too. You will have to use trial and error to find out what you like as individual tastes vary as do the different tea stalls. Part of the fun is the experimentation. Don’t be boring and order the same thing over and over. You can do that when you get home. You are in Taiwan, explore it!
Can I use a translation app?
Yes, you can use a translation app, but it may not help you too much. You will undoubtedly get a rough idea of the type of drink, but it may just say something like, “Four seasons green tea.” If you want green tea, then go for it!
Translation apps can also provide a bundle of laughs when you least expect it. It should be bubble green tea.
Assam black tea (阿薩姆紅茶)
Assam tea came originally from India but, the Taiwanese version grows centrally in the Nantou area. It has a rich, sweet taste without too much bitterness.
Green tea (綠茶)
Green tea has not undergone the same processes given to black teas. They are not withered or oxidised. Some say they have many health benefits such as providing resistance to cancer and an aid to weight loss. I can testify that green tea didn’t help much with my weight problem though!
Oolong tea (烏龍茶)
Oolong tea is probably the most famous tea in Taiwan. It is also known as “Qing Cha” in China, and it translates to black dragon in mandarin. It is a semi-fermented tea.
Its flavour is fresh with a flowery fragrance and a touch fruity.
Tea Latte (茶拿鐵)
Tea latte is very similar to its coffee counterpart except that it uses tea instead of coffee. Usually, they are made with steamed milk. There are many different varieties of tea latte with matcha green tea being one of my favourites. The tea used in this process is usually a concentrate or strong-brewed tea.
They can be served hot or cold. These drinks can contain sweeteners so if you don’t want that you must say 茶拿鐵 – bù jiā táng.
Bubble / Pearl milk tea (珍珠奶茶)
There is no short way to do justice to the Taiwanese bubble tea. There are so many varieties that I could write a complete article on bubble tea alone. It started out as a drink for school children back in the 1980s and has become ever more popular over the years.
One thing is for sure; you will never forget your first bubble tea!
The basic ingredients are tea ( often black or oolong), milk or fruit, a sweetener and then the “bubbles” which are called QQ in Taiwanese cuisine. Typically QQ is made of tapioca pearls. They have a strange, chewy texture. It’s a “Marmite” moment; you will either love it or hate it. For readers that don’t know Marmite, it’s a British yeast extract spread.
The exciting thing is that these Tapioca bubbles can be added to make hundreds of different flavoured drinks, so you have to play around and try lots of different shops if this version of tea floats your boat.
There are drinks here that I never would have dreamed of. You are probably familiar with Yakult, the drink that they claim does good things to your stomach, well you can often get drinks that use Yakult combined with fruits or yoghurt.
Ice cream topped teas are also popular, and occasionally I will indulge if I’m not worrying about my waistline.
So what else do I need to know?
The measuring system. Even now, I struggle with this one as they seem to use different words for similar amounts. Chinese is just not the same as English. If in doubt use your hands to show how much you want.
We measure sugar by the teaspoonful in the west. Here in Taiwan, they have a much more advanced system.
Much along the lines of the sugar, there is a scale.
Just when you thought that things were getting easier, next on the list is the milk.
I thought that it would help to add a few example menus for you to look at. These come from a chain of tea shops called 50嵐 (50 Lan)
Have Fun and Enjoy the Tea!
There we have it, a brief introduction to buying tea at a tea stall in Taiwan. The main thing to take away is don’t be afraid to try the many different drinks they have on offer. If you keep a diary, write down the teas you have tried so that later you can compare them.
Tea is big business in Taiwan and rightly so, they are very proud of their tea heritage. I have visited several tea plantations over the last few years and I would definitely recommend you to go to one if you get the opportunity. You will get to try some great tea and get to see the beautiful scenery too!
Q: Do you chew the bubbles in bubble milk tea?
A: It’s up to you. I like to chew them!
Q: Is bubble tea fattening?
A: It can be, yes. If you want to cut the calories then ask for no sugar and for the best milk option they have.
Q: Is tea expensive in Taiwan?
A: No, generally tea is not too expensive at tea shops. A large cup of Oolong typically costs less than 1$.
You can of course visit a tea merchant and buy large amounts of tea. Then the sky is the limit!