Our five favourite teahouses in Shanghai, for hipsters and traditionalists alike
- Taro, tapioca balls, cheese and cookie crumbs – it’s amazing what goes into hipster tea in China’s biggest city
- Even the traditional tea ceremony comes with a twist – coffee
Teahouses have a long history in China, having first appeared during the Tang dynasty (which began in 618AD). They play an important role in Chinese life, not just quenching thirsts but functioning as community spaces.
Although modern tea shops are still popular gathering places, they take a very different form. Riding on the bubble tea trend, they have exploded across the country, introducing new ingredients (say cheese!) to the ancient drink along the way.
Shanghai is one of the Chinese cities where you can easily find both traditional tea houses as well as hipster tea shops with Instagram-friendly designs. These are five of our favourites.
Heytea cemented its status as the most popular tea chain in China when it launched its first store in Hong Kong on December 24 and drew queues of more than 300 people for several days in a row.
In Shanghai, where there are 14 branches and you can order on mobile apps in advance, there is no need to wait hours to get your hands on one of Heytea’s signature drinks, such as the Very Strawberry Cheezo with more pulp (32 yuan; US$4.70) and Golden Pineapple Boom (25 yuan). (Quick tip: everything tastes better if you add cheese on top.)
New to its menu are the winter specials. The Very Cherry Cheezo (36 yuan) contains sweet flesh of the fruit, and the taro series (25 yuan) introduce taro-flavoured boba and purple rice (yes, that goes in the drink as well), topped off by a layer of coconut milk foam.
Various locations. heytea.com
Another popular Chinese franchise is Lelecha, which made a name for itself in the competitive bubble tea industry with its “dirty” beverages. They are multi-layered drinks, often with several ingredients that offer textural variety – thick, filling mashed taro at the bottom, chewy tapioca balls, milk tea or Kyoto matcha as the main drink, and crunchy bits of Oreo cookie as topping.
Equally famous are Lelecha’s buns and desserts (so expect a queue, and be prepared to find that most of the breads have sold out). Some are inspired by the drinks and purposely presented as a delightful mess. The soufflé pancakes (26 yuan) are soaked in creamy milk tea and decorated with tapioca balls in black sugar syrup; the dirty bread (19 yuan) is a chocolate bun covered in cocoa powder with chocolate sauce streaming out as soon as you bite into it.
Various locations. lelech-a.com
3. Tea Funny
With its colourful walls, Tea Funny stands out in a street full of chic cafes. But what it has to offer is even more remarkable – drinks and desserts that you won’t find anywhere else.
Its owner gives coffee and tea a modern twist, by interchanging the brewing methods – such as hand-drip or cold brew tea, or a Chinese tea ceremony (68 yuan) but featuring coffee. If you want to try all of them at once, there is the four-layer ice drip tea-coffee (68 yuan) – ice drip green tea and oolong tea, coffee and espresso in a champagne glass. Even its most normal drink, milk tea with cream on top (68 yuan), offers an element of surprise – it’s served in an edible cup made of cookie dough.
In addition to drinks, Tea Funny offers a menu of creative desserts. They complete the dining experience and offer a feast for your eyes (and camera).
The lucky fancy carp (58 yuan) are two fish made of lychee-flavoured rice pudding, complete with floating flower petals. The peanut fermented bean curd mousse cake (58 yuan) is shaped like a gigantic pill with popping candies that explode in your mouth.
Smoke created using dry ice rises out of the Flaming Mountain (68 yuan) and red volcanic lava – a tongue-scorching spicy sauce – flows out.
Its latest creation, a chestnut cake with blueberry filling, takes inspiration from Japanese animator and filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s anime and is presented as a susuwatari, a wandering sprite from Miyazaki’s Totoro and Spirited Away.
Tea Funny, 46 Yongkang Lu, near Jiashan
While most tea shops focus on concocting new beverages, Teaopal sticks to an old formula, making tea with high-quality tea leaves. Trendy toppings, such as roasted brown sugar, melted cheese and milk foam, are available, but they are served on a nice, strong cup of tea instead of the overly sweet, syrupy fruit tea you usually find.
The tea does not disappoint when served cold, either. The ice is made of frozen tea rather than water to ensure that the drink will not be diluted when the ice melts.
5. Tea House
Tea House has five branches in Shanghai. Some have a public area where you can share a table with others, but for more privacy, call ahead and book a room. They have rooms for both small and large parties, as well as outdoor patios and glass booths in small ponds.
Rather than being a bustling restaurant, it is a restful sanctuary where you can take your time to enjoy the tea and your company.
Each person is served an individual pot of tea, some snacks and a main dish of your choice (usually dumplings or noodles). If you hire a room it contains an electric kettle to keep water boiling and your tea piping hot. The waiter demonstrates the tea ceremony and visits every once in a while to fill up your pot. For 168 yuan, you can enjoy a tea set for two and have the room to yourself for up to three hours.