In Pinglin, outside of Taipei, I came across a Buddhist monk feeding fish in the river that runs through the tiny town. The monk was accompanied by an American man, who looked surprised to see me but happy to have someone to speak English with. He was in town to try the tea.
Pinglin is famous for tea, specifically for a honey-flavored variety called bao chung. The town is decorated with tea-themed trinkets; the main street is lined with tea shops; the big attraction in town is the Tea Museum. The American man was a tea connoisseur, and traveling around Taiwan sampling different types. After chatting for a bit, I bid the two farewell and went to explore the rest of the town and to try some tea.
As I mentioned there were several tea shops, with fronts open to the street, so I picked one at random. I figured I would buy some tea as a souvenir to take home with me. The woman behind the counter greeted me warmly, but didn't speak any English. I pointed to one of the cheaper bundles of tea, and the woman pointed to a chair in front of the counter.
To my surprise she opened the bundle and then began to perform an elaborate preparation process. She rubbed some tea leaves between her fingers and let me smell them. Then she added some tea to the cup and poured hot water over it so that it overflowed and spilled out. She swirled it around and poured some out. She then gestured for me to smell the steeping tea. This went on for a while in two different cups, before allowing me to taste the tea. It was good, though I didn't detect any honey in the flavor. The woman drank from the second cup, and refilled mine when I finished. I thanked her and took out some money to pay for the tea, but she refused. No matter how I tried to give her money, she shook her head and refused to take any. After thanking her profusely, I went back out to the main street in search of some food.
Not much farther down the road I found what I was looking for. In many countries with Buddhist populations you'll spot restaurants with a swastika -- not a Nazi symbol, but a Buddhist one. If you see that symbol at a restaurant it's a good sign that you've found a vegetarian restaurant. I walked in to the small, open-air space where there were only a few large tables. At one of those tables was the same Buddhist monk I'd seen on the riverbank. He was with the American man, another Buddhist monk, and a bunch of Taiwanese men and women. They greeted me warmly, and confirmed for me that this was a vegetarian restaurant.
The American man got up and helped show me how the restaurant worked. Once again, the owners didn't really speak any English -- and in case it's not clear, I speak no Mandarin. I could choose between rice and noodles with tea oil (I chose noodles), and they had some pre-made food like tea-smoked tofu. There were also huge piles of leafy greens, of many different varieties. They handed me a bamboo tray and told me that I could choose which greens I wanted; I should pick up some leaves and put them onto the tray to demonstrate which I wanted. I'm a sucker for leafy greens, particularly ones that are unfamiliar to me. I felt like a kid in a candy store -- I picked up some dark, saw-toothed ones, some lighter-green fern-like ones, and some that had a green-purple tint.
At this point the people who ran the restaurant were looking at me like I was crazy. One woman said something that the American man translated as, "You're only one person." I wasn't sure why she said this, but I took it as a not-so-subtle hint that I'd chosen enough food.
Well the reason she said that was because for every green I chose, they cooked up an entire plate of it. So I ended up with a plate of noodles, a plate of tofu, and three giant plates of greens cooked with ginger and garlic. It all looked great, but as has been previously noted I am only one person. I ate as much as I could, and I was particularly taken with the color of those purple-green leaves after being cooked. It was all delicious, but I couldn't finish everything.
After my meal I decided to walk up to the Tea Museum, on the other side of town. I went a few steps before a van pulled up alongside me. It was the Buddhist monk and his friends, and they wanted to know if I wanted a ride -- they were also headed to the tea museum. So I got into a van full of strangers in this small town in Taiwan -- don't tell my parents. On the way to the Tea Museum the American man helped translate the conversation between us. The Taiwanese wanted to know if I'd tried stinky tofu and did I like it? I asked for recommendations for vegetarian food back in Taipei, and the monk suggested Raohe as the most vegetarian friendly of Taipei's night markets. But that's a topic for another blog post.