September 4, 2014
As the oldest and one of the most traditional teahouses in Shanghai, the Mid-Lake Pavilion is a must-see for any Shanghai visitor, and a chosen destination for visiting dignitaries (Queen Elisabeth II visited the teahouse in 1986). Aptly named, the pavilion sits in the centre of a lake in Yu Gardens, which was built by a Ming dynasty mandarin, Pan Yunduan, in 1559. The spectacular garden architecture and intricate stone and woodcarvings offer any tea patron a charming view to complement their tea.
The Mid-Lake Pavilion was first built by cotton merchants in 1784 as a brokerage house and eventually converted into a teahouse in 1855. The exterior of the pavilion is vermillion red and upward curved eaves sit on all five sides of the two-storey building. Much effort was made to retain the original architectural decorations including the carved wooden brackets, inscribed name board and dark wooden folding screens connecting the space.
Tea is served in traditional clay teapots and small cups, or for individual servings, beautiful tea leaves and flower blossoms in beakers of boiling hot water to refresh new rounds of tea. If you’re at a loss as to what type of tea leaves to pick, my favourite is the famed green tea, longjing (or Dragon Well tea) widely produced in nearby Zhejiang and Jiangsu regions. For something stronger, try the black tea or puer from Qimen or tieguanying (Iron Guanyin) from An’xi. Guests are offered snacks such as small morsels of sweet glutinous rice dumplings, preserved plums and quail eggs. Chinese musicians and the general bustle of chatting patrons will give you a sense of the quintessential tea house atmosphere from back in the day.
Given the popularity of Yu Gardens among tourists, you’ll get the best view in the house by perching on the second floor of the teahouse, overlooking the crowds crossing the zigzagged bridge in the middle of the lake.
Address: 257 Yuyuan Road Tel: +86 021 6373 6950
Cha Mi Living is a modern and Zen-like interpretation of the traditional Chinese teahouse, retaining the core elements of China’s tea brewing culture. Founded by a Taiwanese woman whom patrons have noted to be warm and knowledgeable, Cha Mi’s motto is about portraying Chinese tea heritage in a contemporary fashion, and most importantly reflecting a simple and “good” life.
Cha Mi Living has a few branches but the Taikang Lu shop is most idyllic given its location in a traditional Shanghai neighbourhood lane, just a few blocks from the more touristy Tianzifang shopping area. On a balmy day, the doors of the teahouse are left wide open and guests line the bar counter where enthusiastic young tea “baristas” talk through the variety of tea leaves on display with discreet information tags.
I was helped by a young man in studious spectacles who explained at length the characteristics and origin of my chosen tea – a chrysanthemum puer tea – as well as the specific brewing techniques to best bring out the aroma and flavour. It was served in a neat porcelain cup, no elaborate accoutrement necessary, on a small wooden tray. I was recommended a rose lavender cake that was light and not too sweet. My companion had a very traditional kung fu tea tray to enjoy his dark puer tea that required several soaks to bring out the deep woody taste he prefers. We sat on the second floor loft overlooking passing patrons, enjoying the quiet yet airy flow of the lanes. The staff are always attentive and polite, replenishing your tea with hot water to while away the afternoon. Tea is served both hot and iced for the sweltering summers and the pastries are made based on seasonal ingredients.
Cha Mi Living has an established and sophisticated brand for its packaged tea that sells throughout Asia; a pink flower wrapped around a lilywhite box. But the highlight for those who love to browse is the sleek and modern porcelain or cast-iron teaware on display. The functions of the teaware – from pot to cup – are quintessentially Chinese but designs reflect a more Japanese minimalist touch. The prices reflect the quality of production. I would know, I picked a modest tea set years ago as a gift to an old Shanghainese artist staunch in his ways of enjoying tea and he has used it ever since.
Address: Lane 200, Taikang Rd, Building 3, #113 Tel: +86 21-64731086
Located in an old alley house in the wonderfully atmospheric former French Concession, Song Fang is a tea saloon opened by a Parisian native specialising in French and Chinese teas. Upon entering, one is greeted by a floor-to-ceiling display of large proletariat-blue tea canisters with the colourful Songfang logo. Here, you can purchase tea leaves individually packed by helpful staff.
Head up the stairs to the second and third floors of the café, where comfortable wicker chairs, hanging wooden birdcages and soft jazz sets a calming and relaxed tone. Song Fang combines nostalgia and simplicity, evidenced by old Shanghainese biscuit tins displayed on shelves and folk art frames hanging on bright white walls. Bench cushions and even the tea cosy are made from the same colourful floral peasant prints.
Depending on what you order, French-origin tea grown in China, India and Sri Lanka is served in Song Fang’s self-designed white or blue porcelain tea sets, which you can pick up as great souvenirs. Song Fang’s French blends are very palatable and complementary. I recommend the China Blue, a white tea infused with coconut, blackberry and orange, or Moonlight; a green tea dotted by red fruits, tropical fruits and flowers.
For the more traditionally inclined, enjoy well-brewed tea with leaves picked from China’s famed tea plantations of Fujian and Yunnan province such as tieguanying, oolong and jasmine. Unlike the French tea, traditional Chinese clay teapots are served atop a kungfu tea table to be relished in small cupfuls. Lastly, my favourite part of the Song Fang experience has to be their French teacakes (served warm), financiers, and cookies that are so light it will never overpower one’s tea – French or Chinese.
Address: 227 Yongjia Road, Xuhui district. Tel: +86 21 6344 8283
Qiuping’s sumptuous pre-fixe multiple-course meal is a perfect introduction into the medicinal and culinary qualities of tea used in Chinese cooking. Located north of the Bund in a non-descript art district building, guests are welcome to partake in tea demonstrations and workshops in Qiuping’s beautifully decorated reception room where red lanterns and emperor yellow umbrellas hang from the ceiling. You can also enjoy the museum-like layout of the owner’s antiques housed in glass displays, and a showcase of historical tea preparation apparatus and select tea samples.
Qiuping is the first teahouse in China to focus exclusively on incorporating tea into Chinese cuisine – its cumulative menu spans as many as 100 unique dishes, all carefully prepared and exquisitely presented. The appetisers were a rich selection of nuts, mushrooms and fresh vegetables such as spinach and minced tofu. The dishes that came after were even more delicious: red-braised pork seeped in black tea from Qimen; savoury, golden shrimp fried with oolong tea leaves; elegantly wrapped dumplings, as well as steamed fish cooked with tea leaves to eliminate any related grease and smell. Almost every dish is garnished with intricately carved vegetables that flourish into a rising phoenix, or well-placed pavilions, lotus flowers and even a fisherman reeling in a fortuitous catch.
We were very lucky to have the founder and owner Madam Liu Qiuping, a widely respected authority on tea, join us halfway through dinner to listen to her many philosophies on tea and dao (the way) of life. After our meal, Madam Liu gave us a small sample of expensive Anxi tieguanying tea leaves, which I enjoyed on a balmy morning in London a few weeks later. Remembering Madam Liu’s words, I emptied out a splash of my first brew in the small cup and inhaled deeply to fully enjoy the aroma of the leaves. The first sip, as expected, was heaven.
Address: No. 687, Dongdaming Road, Hongkou district. Tel: +86 21-62125758
Sue Anne Tay is a photographer and author of ShanghaiStreetStories.com, which focuses on the heritage, architecture and community life of old Shanghai neighbourhoods.
Header image: Richard Fisher/Flickr©