Eira Lee – Taiwan Tongue
A blending wit and insider expertise, Taiwan Tongue is an online magazine that aims to share a love of Taiwanese food with the world. taiwantongue.com
Taiwanese people use the Seven Necessities (firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea) to signify the basic materials of daily life. All seven are ordinary objects, with the exception of tea, which they invest more time in making and more money in buying. Even if their teaware is not the most refined, the Taiwanese will buy the highest-quality tea because tea represents a more important role: it is a medium that links people together.
Indeed, preparing tea to welcome guests is more time-consuming than simply offering water, but in Taiwan, the meaning of tea goes beyond the extra steps needed to brew it. The process of “presenting tea” and “receiving tea” connects two parties as friends or family where once there was no connection.
In Taiwanese engagement ceremonies, a bride-to-be will offer to her fiancé’s elders a cup of “sweet tea.” Besides tea leaves, the tea cup will also contain red dates to symbolize the early birth of a son (in Chinese, “date” is a homophone of “early”), longan to symbolize riches and prosperity (in Chinese, “longan” is a partial homophone of “riches”), and rock sugar to symbolize sweetness. After drinking the tea, the groom’s family places a red envelope with new dollar bills into the cup and returns it to the fiancée, and the engagement ceremony is complete.
From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, cigarettes were luxury items in Taiwan, so at the end of the wedding
banquet, the bride would hold a tray of cigarettes to offer to departing guests. Now that cigarettes are an everyday commodity, this practice has become rare.
Candied and fried
Glutinous rice cakes filled with osmanthus jam
Glutinous rice balls fermented, fried, and coated with maltose and sesame
Soaked in syrup, coated in powdered sugar, and dried
Tangerine & longan
Seasonal Taiwanese fruits
Taiwanese tea culture is diverse. At times, tea is the protagonist of refined tasting ceremonies; at others, it plays a supporting role, coupled with snacks to make conversation more fun and engaging. Unlike wine and coffee, tea has a very mild taste, so it works well at combining the flavors of a variety of foods.
In Taiwan, snacks that are paired with tea are usually dry and sweet to complement the increased salivation that tea induces. Because Taiwan is an island overflowing with produce, seasonal fruit is also common.
The custom of offering sweet tea at engagement and wedding ceremonies is widespread throughout Taiwan, so different recipes naturally exist.
Although all versions choose fruits and sugars based on auspicious homophones, the contents vary slightly. The sweet tea pictured here is brewed with rock sugar, red dates, and longan, but some recipes use lotus seeds to replace the longan or black sugar to replace the rock sugar. In Taiwan, some brides opt for no tea at all, preparing instead a sweet soup of longan and red dates.
PREPARING SWEET TEA
In a tea bowl, add a small amount of rock sugar, tea, red dates, and longan, and fill three-quarters of the bowl with hot water. Most tea used in preparing sweet tea is fully oxidized or semi-oxidized, such as oolong, tieguanyin, or pu-erh tea. Unoxidized tea is relatively light in flavor, so it is typically avoided.
A red envelope filled with new dollar bills is an essential gift in wedding celebrations, but preparing one isn’t as simple as just stuffing an envelope with money. In Taiwan, an odd number of bills is reserved for funerals, so only even numbers should be used for weddings.
Additionally, the number “4,” though an even number, is a homophone for “death,” so it is frowned upon as well.
THE COLOR RED
Not only does the color red symbolize good fortune, but it is also thought to avert disaster. Red, therefore, plays a vital role in celebration; it can appear in the architecture, in garments or decoration, and, of course, in food. Sweet tea containing red dates to celebrate a marriage, red eggs to celebrate a newborn child, and leavened cake dyed red to celebrate the New Year are all very common.