The English term coffee, caffe in Italian, Kaffee in German or café in Spanish and French made it into Western languages from Turkish kahve, which itself comes from the Classical Arabic qahwah.
In a culture so shaped by tea, nobody should be surprised that the Chinese word kafei is also a very obvious borrowing. However, most Westerners who have never visited Taiwan or did so a long time ago wouldn’t expect that a beverage so extremely popular among them has nowadays also deeply penetrated all layers of Taiwanese society.
By this I don’t refer at all to the omnipresent Starbucks outlets, which I consider a global cancer that contributes nothing to local gastronomy. The drinks are expensive, the tea selection is lousy and the mass-produced deserts and snacks are more than forgettable.
In 1988, when I stayed in Taiwan for the very first time, things were quite different. As back then the island had just began to open up to the world after almost 40 years of martial law, a lot of creative potential remained unused.
Most of the earlier coffee shops weren’t only pricey, they had the charm of hospital rooms, bright lights and white walls contributed to an aseptic and uninviting atmosphere. Even those foreign students badly missing a cup of coffee found it difficult to enjoy themselves in such a location.
When I returned to stay in 1999, the situation had changed dramatically! You had plenty of options all over the city, depending on your taste and budget. I was amazed how much effort many owners had invested and the attention to detail clearly showed, especially in the bathrooms. Strong competition proved to be very good for business.
Since a language exchange in Berlin had worked well for me, I decided to find tandem partners in Taipei. One of them had just returned from the German capital, from which I had just escaped myself. He had also lived in Paris and knew how to enjoy life. Oh là là!
He was about to open a cozy coffee shop and I attended the inauguration party a couple of months later, immediately becoming a regular costumer who particularly liked his home-made brownie and his cappuccino.
I would regularly go there with a young German-speaking lady, whom I met every Friday around six for a fruitful language tandem. After a quick shared dinner, we sat down somewhere nearby. We went to local coffee and tea chain stores with a touch of McDonald’s, but also to small and beautiful, actually quite romantic cafés.
The latter ones weren’t cheap, though you could sit there with a drink for hours without being asked to order more, as it is often the case in Europe. Besides that, you got free refill of lemon water. I learned to appreciate that in a country with a very humid climate and particularly when I talked even more than usual!
All in all, I find it impressive how fast Taiwanese study global trends, adapt to changes in consumer behavior and bring delicacies that were originally imported to perfection, as good coffee served by friendly staff in a warm environment is simply one of many examples.
The disappearance of many traditional tea houses and a gentrification of the remaining must be seen as the other side of the coin. Nevertheless, in a free economy the market decides at the end.
No doubt that locals and aliens alike have benefited enormously from this culinary improvement. Static Spain, apparently trapped in a time warp, has much to learn from dynamic Taiwan!