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Matching tea and food for Chinese New Year

Eats and leaves: matching tea and food for Chinese New Year

by Great British Chefs 18 January 2016

On 8 February 2016, Chinese New Year will usher in the Year of the Monkey, sparking celebrations and feasts around the world. We went to restaurant and tea house Yauatcha City to find out how Chinese tea can be matched with food during the festivities.

Chinese New Year is the most important event in the Chinese calendar, and has spread all over the world. In 2016 it falls on 8 February, and marks the Year of the Monkey. While many Chinese families will be celebrating in their own homes and attending huge family gatherings, it’s also a time when Chinese restaurants unveil special menus and help spread awareness of the country’s traditions.

Hakkasan Group has Michelin-starred and award-winning restaurants throughout London (and the rest of the world), and the team there knows everything there is to know about Chinese food and drink. To find out more about Chinese New Year and the rising trend for pairing tea with food, we met with Eder Neto (who manages the bars and drinks served in all the restaurants) at London’s Yauatcha City – Hakkasan’s dim sum tea house and patisserie.

Tea is such an important part of Chinese culture – people drink it with every meal, even if other drinks like wine are being served as well,’ he explains. ‘We don’t see many places offering tea flights or matching teas in the UK, however, because people never think to choose it when eating out. But lately we’ve seen an increased demand for non-alcoholic drinks, and tea is now something diners want when they don’t want alcohol. When pairing you automatically think about wines or a cocktail, but now the trends are starting to show more people want healthier, non-alcoholic alternatives, especially around this time of year.’

Yauatcha is a contemporary tea house, so it goes without saying that there needs to be a good variety of leaves on offer. ‘Originally, the menu was much more complex than it is now, divided into tea categories – green, blue, roasted; we had almost a hundred teas at one point,’ says Eder. ‘However, we found that people were lost when reading the menu – there were so many pages of teas they’d never heard of. So we simplified it and sorted them by flavour profile: light, floral, complex and robust.’

Tea is enjoyed all day, both with and without food, in China
Yauatcha City has developed a special menu to welcome in the Year of the Monkey

Reading the leaves

In the UK the most popular tea (after classic English Breakfast, of course) is green tea. But because of its subtle flavour, it’s generally best enjoyed on its own. ‘People love green tea but it doesn’t go so well with food,’ says Eder. ‘It’s a very delicate tea and can’t hold its own against the flavours in Chinese dishes. Even our light dim sum can overpower it, especially when people add things like soy sauce and chilli oil.’

The tea Eder orders while we talk is the one he found went best with the New Year’s menu at Yauatcha. It’s called Anxi Tie Kuan Yin, and is a roasted blue tea from Fujian. It’s strong, smoky, refreshing and quite dark in colour, with a thick, velvety mouthfeel; certainly not your average cuppa. ‘It has such a balanced flavour profile that we found it worked with lots of different dishes on our New Year menu, from the starter all the way to the macarons at the end,’ explains Eder. ‘It’s a special tea in China, where the norm is to drink dark, rich teas. The blue tea is allowed to ferment like a dark tea but then stopped, which makes it very expensive to produce. If someone wanted to treat themselves, they would buy a blue tea.’

While tea is drunk throughout the New Year festivities in China, there are no universal rituals or traditions around it; fruit is much more important, as every variety has a meaning attached to it. ‘China is such a massive country, and the various regions can be wildly different,’ says Eder. ‘In general, they don’t take part in any specific tea rituals for the New Year. Chinese culture means tea is drunk all the time, with or without food. However, the families that really appreciate tea will extract a brew from the very best leaves for special occasions, including New Year. If you love wine, you decant it and let it breathe; the same applies to tea. A family will create a whole ceremony around it, and take the second flush of the leaves, using the first flush to clean their cups and pot.’

Chinese dish
Roasted blue tea has a well-rounded flavour that works well with many dishes
Tea leaves
Blue tea leaves are semi-fermented, making their production very expensive

Mix and match

So far, we’ve learnt that green tea is generally too subtle to pair with the intense flavours of Chinese food, and roasted blue tea is a good all-rounder. But how do Eder and the team at Yauatcha go about matching the teas on the menu? ‘When we are pairing tea there’s a procedure we all follow,’ says Eder. ‘We have four categories: mild, savoury, sweet and spice, and score the teas out of ten in each, with an idea of the sort of score we want for a particular dish. For our Chinese New Year menu we tasted lots of teas and the roasted blue worked the best because it was so well-rounded. Green tea might be amazing with a very mild or savoury dish, for example, but with sweet and spice it gets lost completely. Pairing drinks with dim sum is especially hard because there are so many different flavours going on, and you need a drink that goes with all of them. You might start with a mild, lightly steamed dumpling, then move on to something deep fried in a wok, before finishing with some sweet pastry. When you’re eating something oily you need to have acidity, but when the food is mild, the acidity is too much. It can be quite hard work!’

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Eats and leaves: matching tea and food for Chinese New Year


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