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Formosa's wonderful gifts 

Jeffrey Liu's Dartmouth Gift and Tea House is a little island of great tea and tasty vegetarian snacks.

Between the recession and the Chinese New Year of the Ox (January 26), this is going to be a tough, hard-hat year. Yeah, yeah, so what else is new? My astrological forecast: enjoy more Dartmouth idylls at Liu's Formosa Gift and Tea House while you put your shoulder into the oh-nine grind.

Jeffrey Liu, the owner, brings out a tray with a little teapot, a jug and six cups (for a table of three). He pours tea into three steeping cups. Then, he covers them with three drinking cups. He flips them. Now three cups of steeping tea sit upside down in three drinking cups. "Wait two minutes," Liu says, "then lift the cup." Lift it up, and your drinking cup fills with tea. Liu encourages you to smell the steeping cup, to catch its scent, light and floral. Every five minutes, he refills your pot with water and repeats the process. Extra tea is poured into a flowered jug, which you take refills from as you please.

Needless to say, this leads to excessive tea drinking. We sipped fragrant Oolong green tea and smoky Pu-erh ($3.29), but you can choose from a large menu of Asian and Western teas; for New Year's purgers, there's more complex health blends ($7.99 per pot).

To anyone used to Chinese vegetarian snack foods, Formosa does not create original twists on standard dishes. Many snacks are pre-fab and Liu imports them from Toronto.

If you've never eaten such delights as mock meats, those novel staples of Buddhist-style cusine, this may be one of the few places in town you can try them. The soy drumsticks ($1.69) are layers of soy wrapped around a stick of sugar cane. It mimics chicken, including the crisp brown skin. Likewise, soy flakes on top of the fulsome Formosa Combo ($8.29) resemble bonito flakes, the mushroom stalks look like braised beef and that pink chunk isn't ham in the veggie sushi ($3.39). The shao mai ($2.69) imitates pork sausage, as does the speckled soy meatballs in the soup. Nothing tastes like meat, but the texture is freakily accurate.

The stuffed buns ($1.99) are standard issue, the dumplings ($10.99 for 20) are better, filled with mushrooms, cabbage and carrot. The sticky rice ($2.89), wrapped in a lotus leaf, is perfectly sticky with a shitake mushroom sauce.

With just three tables, Formosa is almost as small as Maud Lewis' house. Lunches are busy. Like you'd call a neighbour before you dropped in for tea, call ahead to see if there's space before you visit (note: There are two banquet rooms upstairs for parties of eight-10).

Then there's gifts that make the whole trip on the 52 bus worthwhile. Formosa house is novel because Liu has created something unique (yet apropos) in Dartmouth: a total outsider art experience from the moment you open the door. A playful mix of wonder and innocence; imagine the Lewis house filled with Asian bric-a-brac. There is not a dull thing to look at and everything has a price tag. Tea, teacups and pots of all sizes share space with lanterns, statues, paintings, snow globes and fans, heaped on one another in a fantastic collage of tchotchke.

It's all this, and dumplings. Myself, I bought a painting of the Titanic sailing happily in the midday sun, oblivious to the disaster ahead. I think it captures the zeitgeist of 2009. But then, eating lunch with frog and monkey statues, surrounded by mountain lakes usually takes the edge off.

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