The mild, fragrant tea served in Chinese restaurants is many Americans’ first exposure to the beverage. Chinese tea is as varied and diverse as French wine or German beer, but there are a few common types that often accompany Chinese meals.
All tea comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. The difference between various kinds of tea is in the preparation; the black tea most Americans are familiar with is fully oxidized, giving it its characteristic black color and strong flavor. By contrast, green tea is not allowed to oxidize completely, while oolong or wu long tea is partly oxidized. Oolong is aromatic, with only a hint of bitterness, and can vary in color, with some dark oolongs almost approaching the color of black tea. One well-known variety, tieguanyin, has a fruity, floral taste.
“Oolong” is an older romanization of wu long; despite the differences, they’re just two ways of saying the same thing. The older name is probably more common; it’s pronounced just as it’s written. Tieguanyin is “tee gooan yin” or “tee-ay gooan yin.“
Brewed at a lower temperature than black tea, green tea has a delicate vegetal flavor that can sometimes taste a little like grass. Green tea is easy to recognize by its distinctive light green color, which can range from a slight yellow-green tinge to a vibrant, grassy hue.
Jasmine tea has a characteristic jasmine scent, achieved by adding fresh jasmine blossoms to the tea as it dries. Because the jasmine scent is an addition rather than a characteristic of the tea itself, any type of tea can be used to make jasmine tea; most jasmine teas are either green or oolong.
Particularly common in dim sum restaurants, pu-erh is an aged tea from China’s Yunnan province with a rich, earthy taste and a dark red-brown color. Aged pu-erh is considered a great delicacy by tea lovers, but you’re unlikely to find this expensive tea in your local dim sum restaurant.
As with many Chinese words, the pronunciation of pu-erh can vary greatly. It’s usually “pu-are” or “pu-air,” but you may also hear this tea called “po lei” or “bolay,” according to the Cantonese pronunciation.
Some tea manufacturers sell packaged “Chinese restaurant tea” bags. These typically contain blended teas — mixtures of different kinds of tea such as oolong and green tea or pu-erh and chrysanthemum tea.