Chinese Tea Rhyme


Original Script in Mandarin Characters:

甜配绿, 酸配红, 瓜子配乌龙。

Pronunciation in Mandarin Pinyin:

tián pèi lǜ, suān pèi hóng, guā zǐ pèi wū lóng.


Sweet matches green, sour matches red, sunflower seeds match oolong.


Serve sweet food with green tea, serve sour food with black tea, and serve snacks like sunflower seeds with oolong.


I first heard the rhyme when I was enjoying a traditional-style tea party one day with my family when I was in middle school. I randomly asked my paternal grandparents how did they manage to choose different tea on different days, and my grandma replied with this tea rhyme and said the choice was dependent on what flavor of food and snacks we were having. Later when I interviewed my grandma for this project, it appeared that she couldn’t remember when, where, and from whom she learned this rhyme. Having circulated orally among people, this tea rhyme has been and still is a popular phrase across different regions in China.


Historically, China is known for tea culture and tea serves a vital role in people’s daily lives. Tea-drinking is not simply a pleasant gustatory and olfactory experience, but also facilitates social and spiritual activities. When it comes to deciding which tea to drink, this tea rhyme is a shortcut that speeds up decision-making, though many may have their own preferences and theories. 

Broadly conceived as an agreeable saying, this rhyme reveals the basic logics in matching tea with food. According to the informant, this rhyme can be broken down into three parts and each part has a solid backing to it. To begin with, one should serve sweet food with green tea since its relatively bland taste tones down sweetness. Though not known to the informant, it has been proven scientifically that gallated catechin (GC) found in green tea acutely reduces blood glucose levels, resulting in the consensus that green tea makes sweet food and dessert “healthier”. Contrarily, the rich flavor of black tea is thought to be best served with sour food to reduce bitterness as well as add depth to its smell and taste. Lastly, sunflower seeds are a popular snack in China that tastes nutty, slightly salty, and savory. Despite literally specifying sunflower seeds as oolong’s “partner”, this tea rhyme generalizes a category of nutty and less flavored snacks compared to the aforementioned sweet and sour food, saying that oolong’s flavor will not be sabotaged but enhanced when served with this snack category.

In terms of the rhyme’s pronunciation in Mandarin, the three short phrases rhyme perfectly together with the first ending in a downward tone and the last two ending in an upward tone. Furthermore, the rhyme strictly follows a rhythmic structure (3 characters, 3 characters, 5 characters) as the last two phrases rhyme with two different characters but they sound the same vowels and the exact same tone. The rhyme’s catching pronunciation helps it withstand the test of time and remain popular among its specific folk group.

As much as Chinese people value tea and food, the theories behind matching a food with a specific tea are passed down generation to generation, and this tea rhyme not only allows us to take a glimpse into this rich tea culture, but also helps distill collective wisdom in tea-drinking.