What you need to know
While foraging has recently become a trend around the world, Grassland in Dadaocheng is rooted in traditional Taiwanese herbalism.
Tiffany Lay and Zo Lin operate a tea shop in Taipei’s Dadaocheng district called Grassland, where they dole out daily blends that they mix by hand. The brews are wonderfully complex — notes of nuttiness, lingering highs of citrus, and darker, slightly earthy notes of licorice and chocolate all appear. Their teas are foraged — made up of weeds procured from all around Taiwan.
“We look at a plot and just collect it all,” explains Lay. Of course, there is a method to their madness. Lay and Lin are experienced herbalists, having plied their trade for over eight years. “We know which plants are bitter,” she says.
The shop offers an actual, direct way to taste the terroir of Taiwan. Lay and Lin travel all around the country, collecting weeds and drying them. Their blends from the south come out a darker green, and lighten up in shade the further north they are picked. “It’s a really good way to learn about where you are,” says Lay. Every blend looks and smells entirely different, an ode to the diversity of Taiwanese flora and fauna.
The definition of a weed is broad, and implies an unwanted, invasive plant that overtakes the environment where it grows. But part of Lay and Lin’s mission is to change that definition, by teaching people the advantages of using Taiwan’s weeds. Many of them — as they are constantly demonstrating — are either edible or medicinal.
Lay and Lin offer walking tours every Friday. It’s a quick stroll around the urban area of Dadaocheng where they point out the utility of various wild plants. Tucked near their nearest MRT growing among the grass surrounded by concrete, Lin singles out mimosa, a sensitive plant that curls up when touched that also doubles as a sleeping aid. She also shows off various types of chrysanthemum, which add bitter notes and heat-dispelling properties to any drink. There’s also a local variety of lamb’s quarters, which can be sautéed with a bit of garlic and olive oil.
“We rarely buy leafy greens anymore,” says Lay. Of course, they are careful with where they harvest, usually opting to pick at the edges of organic farms or private property of friends who invite them over. Spraying pesticides is a common practice in Taiwan; and it’s difficult to distinguish which areas are chemical-free.
While foraging has recently become a trend around the world, Lay and Lin’s approach is rooted in traditional Taiwanese herbalism. They don’t single out specific plants, instead preferring to serve customers a blend of what they find in a given area. There’s more harmony to the beverage that way. Too much of anything, Lay, stresses, is never a good thing. The teas are also served hot, which is better for digestion.
While Grassland may market itself as a tea shop, it’s much more than that. It’s a brick and mortar manifestation of an art project that’s been going on for nearly a decade. The store’s menus are made out of homemade paper, written in gorgeous calligraphy using brushes made of weeds. The tea shop also serves as an event space, where educators in ecology and gardening are invited to give talks and lessons about the natural world around us. They take a holistic approach to foraging, and use weeds as a medium to ground people in their surroundings.
“We want people to slow down and really observe,” says Lay. “People have lost that connection to nature and slowing down is a way to regain that.”
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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