Saturday, April 28, 2012

The House of Bitter Tea (苦茶之家)

The House of Bitter Tea
(Chang'an Road Branch)
苦茶之家: 長安總店
244 Chang'an Road (corner of Chang'an and Chongqing roads)

I've always been a fan of old-fashioned Chinese sweet shops.  There are a bunch in Hong Kong that look like time capsules from the early 1960's.  The best of the bunch successfully combine neon lights, bright colored plastic fixtures, and delicious sweets.  The best time to go is right after work in the late afternoon.  It feels delightfully wicked to spoil your dinner.

In Taipei, the best sweet shop I've found is called the House of Bitter Tea.  The original shop is located in a strange little shopping wasteland north and west of Taipei Main station.  It's a pleasant walk from the underground K-mall, the Zhongshan MRT, or even Ximending.  If you're approaching from the south, you can see the old Qing dynasty guard tower that stands ignored and unloved beneath the highway.  I've always thought that it would be an awesome place to squat.  If someone tried to evict you, you'd be in a guard tower - right?

Bitter tea is a cooling beverage.  In Chinese medical/food theory, certain foods are 陽 (yang) "hot"; they will add heat to your body, keeping you warm in the winter or helping when you've developed a cold-based illness.  There's an interesting list here that helpfully explains which fruits (papaya, dragon eyes, lychee, betel nut) vegetables (garlic, certain mushrooms, hot peppers), spices, and meats (basically all red meat, including dog) qualify as yang.

Similarly, there are other foods that qualify as 陰 (yin) "cool".  There are many cooling fruits, such as watermelon, bitter melon, citrus, grapes, and strawberries.  Honey and yoghurt are also cooling, as are many kinds of fish.  Bitter tea, known as 24 herb tea in Hong Kong, is considered to be a powerfully effective cooling beverage.*

But why is this such a big deal?  Well, for those that subscribe to the theory of hot and cold foods, an imbalance of heat is bad - especially for women.  Hot foods are thought to be especially bad for the skin.  A big meal of red meat can cause digestive problems and unsightly breakouts!

In Hong Kong, bitter tea stands dot the streets of Central.  At night, elegant, willowy women form lines in front of these shops.  Each cup is poured from a large metal canister into a small porcelain bowl and consumed at the counter.  When things aren't so very busy, bowls of tea are pre-poured and covered with a thin pane of glass.

Although I've been to the House of Bitter Tea at least a dozen times, I've never seen anyone order the bitter tea.  Well, except me.  It's fine, I guess.

But the desserts are quite excellent.  A personal favorite is the 四季寶 (sijibao) "Treasures of Four Seasons":

I reckon that the white wood ear mushroom represents winter, the cherry spring, lotus seeds represent summer, and the preserved date is fall.  The whole thing is served in a sweet soup - either hot or cold.  It's delicious.  I've also had a variant with sweet potatoes.

Another delicious choice is the 洛神湯 luoshen tang.  My web research has yielded the fact that luoshen hua  洛神花 is an old-fashioned name for rose fruit.  This is used in some recipes for the more ubiquitous 酸梅湯 suanmei tang (sour plum tea).  My guess is that luoshen tang is a rose fruit-based drink.  In any case, it's tart and delicious with a color akin to a deep merlot.  Plus it comes in this cute cup:

Interestingly, the mascot for the shop is a Luohan.  Luohan, also known as arhats, are mystical figures in Buddhism.  Often hiding in caves or other isolated places, they appear to travelers as deformed, mad hermits.  In stories, an arhat will confound/annoy their visitors to the point where they say an unkind word or otherwise offend them.  At that point, they suddenly display their magical powers.  Sets of luohans became a popular theme in Chinese and Japanese art in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Those with exaggerated features like the gentleman shown above are in the tradition of the monk 貫休 Guanxiu (832-912).

Although luohans and their trippy transmogrifications have long ceased to occupy the imaginations of most Chinese and Taiwanese people, the logo has endured.  It is a remnant of another era - not so surprising as the shop was founded in 1928.  With no website to be found, I'm not sure whether it has always been in the same place, but the romantic in me hopes so.  The shop is on the edge of the Dadaocheng neighborhood.  Although it is a bit inconvenient now, it was a lively shopping district during Japanese occupation period Taipei.

As the summer rains and their associated heat begin to descend on Taipei, it's not hard to imagine the shop eighty years ago.  In my mind's eye, I can see lines of elegant ladies in summer yukata (浴衣, ゆかた) or cotton qipao lining up for a quick cup of bitter tea after dinner. Of course, we men would still be sweating.  But we'd probably be wearing hats.

*By the way, 24 herbs is also the name of a Hong Kong rap outfit.  I'm a big fan of their remix of Roman Tam's "Middle of the Laser Light".

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