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How to match tea with food

How to match tea with food

by Great British Chefs 30 November 2018

We all know how the right glass of wine can make our food taste better, but more and more Michelin-starred chefs are starting to match teas with their menus as an alternative. Find out how different varieties of tea can enhance, complement and contrast with certain flavours or dishes, and how they’re gaining ground on the dinner table.

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written extolling the benefits of choosing the right glass of wine to have with your dinner. When you get it right, the wine and the food taste better together than they would do separately, something which has helped shape the cuisines of countries such as Italy and France over the centuries. More recently, the same has happened with beer – we now appreciate how well a rich stout goes with a decadent chocolate cake, while a fruity IPA works incredibly well with aromatic spicy food.

Now, it’s tea’s turn. At first, it seems like an unlikely thing to turn to – after all, this is a drink that tends to be enjoyed on its own (save for a few biscuits). But we’re not talking about the milk-and-two-sugars variety here; what’s getting chefs really excited is the over 10,000 styles of black, white, yellow, green, oolong and pu erh (matured) teas popular in Asia – the heartland of tea.

Jing has been at the forefront of this change in attitude since it was founded in 2004. As the company that supplies the world’s most renowned restaurants with tea and scours the world sourcing the very best leaves, few others have the knowledge and experience needed to know which styles of tea would work with intricate Michelin-starred dishes. And as Jing’s chief tea taster, Tom Price is one of the most experienced tea sommeliers in the West.

‘We get a lot of requests from restaurants wanting us to help them put a tea pairing menu together,’ he explains. ‘I think it’s quite natural – once people understand that tea has the same complex qualities and depth as wine, it just makes sense. Also, the fact it’s non-alcoholic makes it perfect for lunchtimes and for people who don’t drink wine but want something interesting to have with their meal.’

There are many similarities between the world of wine and the world of tea. All wines come from grapes; all tea comes from one species of plant (Camellia Sinensis). Just like wine, the terroir and the conditions in which the tea plant is grown play a huge part in the final product, as does the production method (all six varieties of tea come from the same plant; it is how they are oxidised and processed that dictates what category of tea the leaves become). So it makes sense to apply the same rules of pairing wine to pairing tea.

‘Is the dish heavy or light? Do we want to complement the flavour or offer a contrast? With wine you first have to think about whether a red, white, rosé or sparkling would work best, and with tea it’s very similar,’ explains Tom. ‘With so many varieties and styles of tea to choose from, we can usually find something that works perfectly with the flavours on the plate. I’m usually able to look at a menu and come up with a few different styles of tea that might work with it before I go and actually taste the food, but I have to taste them together before I really know whether they’ll work or not.’

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Different teas contain a whole spectrum of flavours, from vegetal, nutty and savoury to fruity, rich and sweet
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While tea and food matching is a relatively novel idea in the West, it has been commonplace in countries like China for centuries

Of course, Tom has tasted thousands upon thousands of different teas, so he is a font of knowledge when it comes to identifying flavour profiles in the cup and pairing them with dishes on a menu. But if you’re trying to do something similar at home, there are some general guidelines you can follow. ‘Green teas tend to work well with lighter dishes you’d perhaps traditionally pair with white wine, as they’re often quite delicate in flavour,’ says Tom. ‘The vegetal, umami notes in Japan’s Sencha green tea, for example, would go very well with fish or vegetable dishes, while other green teas such as Chinese Dragon Well are full of nutty flavours which work seamlessly with something like buttered asparagus. At the other end of the spectrum, rich red meat with a fruity sauce is the perfect partner to an acidic black tea, as it can cut through the richness of the meat.’

It’s not just specific dishes that can be the perfect partner to tea – cheese and chocolate work equally well with specific varieties. ‘Stilton works well with the darker roasted oolongs, as they’ve got enough strength in them to stand up to it. Ricotta and Ali Shan – a Taiwanese oolong – are nice together as the tea has a creamy texture and tropical fruit flavour which complements the delicate taste of the cheese. Chocolate is a good one to try too; milk chocolate goes better with black teas while dark chocolate is better with green teas. Because you’re expecting the dark chocolate to be bitter it allows the fruitiness of the green tea to come to the fore, while the sweeter notes of black tea work in parallel with the creaminess of milk chocolate.’

While tea matching is a relatively new endeavour in the West, it’s been common practice in China for centuries. Dim sum – those delicious trios of dumplings filled and cooked in all manner of tasty ways – are traditionally served in tea houses alongside pu erh, the name given to teas matured or fermented after oxidisation. The typically earthy, fresh taste of pu erh can both complement and contrast with the various dumplings, and it also acts as a palate cleanser; perfect for sipping before you move onto the next dim sum.

Tea will probably never knock wine off the top spot in the world of drinks pairings, but chefs and tea-lovers are starting to understand how the intricate, complex and deep flavours found in the thousands of different varieties of tea can be perfectly paired with whatever’s on their plate. It’s an important part of understanding top-quality tea for what it really is – an artisanal, diverse drink that can offer much more than most of us give it credit for. So next time you’re cooking fish, keep that bottle of white wine in the fridge and brew a cup of Sencha instead – it might just surprise you.

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