Matching tea and food isn’t difficult; and in the end, as with wine, it’s what you like.
|TOMISLAV PODREKA is the co-founder of SerendipiTea, one of the largest independent importers of fine and specialty teas in the U.S. For more information, visit SerendipiTea.com.
Updated January 2009
Tea & Food Pairings
Like Fine Wine, For Every Food There’s A Perfect Tea Match (Or Many Perfect Matches)
CAPSULE REPORT: Many people are intimidated when it comes to pairing tea with foods. As with wine, it can be complex to pair tea and food, and there seems to be so much to learn. While there are basic rules of logic—lighter teas with lighter food, stronger teas with heavier foods—tea expert Tomislav Podreka provides an extensive “travel guide” of pairings as your Baedeker. This is Page 1 of a 5-part article. Click the black links below to view the other pages.
Pairings: An Overview
In the regions of China, Japan and India, cuisine and the varieties of teas evolved together—just as cuisines and wines evolved to complement each other in the West. Like wines, teas have numerous styles and many different flavors. When matching the hundeds of available teas with Western cuisine, I would like to tell you that pairing food with tea is a science; but in reality, pairing relies greatly on an individual’s palate in an exploration of the natural interplay between food and tea. “In the end, goodness is for the mouth to decide,” wrote Lu Yu in the Cha l’ Ching, the classic “Book of Tea,” a systematic codification of tea information that was published in 780 A.D.
Long served as an after-dinner libation, pairing tea with food during the meal is a marvelous way to both heighten the dining experience and expand one’s acquaintance with the vast universe of teas and their varying profiles. To be able to enhance the food and emphasize the flavors of a given tea is mutually rewarding.
Today, more dining establishments offer extended tea menus. When I discuss the importance of pairing tea and food with managers and waitstaff, I always stress that the best that can be offered to them is a guideline—a helping hand to achieve a nicely balanced list of teas that complements the food offered by the establishment. Whether the diner orders rack of lamb or bagels and cream cheese, the process doesn’t have to be any more complex.
It’s the same when you’re deciding on food and tea matches at home. You’ll probably be relieved to know that tasting doesn’t require an extremely sophisticated knowledge of food or tea. If you already enjoy food on any level, then you probably have some tasting vocabulary. Start by talking about the characteristics of what you’re eating and drinking. Never be afraid to describe what comes to mind when you are tasting tea, because no impression is too slight, and there is no wrong answer—it’s all what you experience. As with looking at modern art, one person’s perceptions help another person see things in a new light. (Editor’s note: in many category sections of THE NIBBLE, we provide glossaries and tasting terms, including a glossary of tea terms.)
To illustrate my point, let’s take a complex but marvelous example—oolong.
- Aroma. When tasting a lightly oxidized Tung Ting oolong*, you will notice many different characteristics. Initially, you will take in the aroma. The bouquet should immediately provide a floral impression. Soon your senses will target a more specific fragrance—white flowers. Finally, you might pinpoint that wonderful aroma as gardenia.
*Tung Ting, a mountain in central Taiwan, means “frozen peak,” after the cool mists and fogs that surround the mountain, ideal growing conditions for oolong. It is located in the center of Nantou, Taiwan’s largest tea-growing region. Tung Ting oolong is one of Taiwan’s two signature teas, grown at an elevation of 2,500 feet; it is also called jade oolong. The other is its “sister tea,” Oriental Beauty, a dark oolong tea that grows in the north of Taiwan.
- Texture. After you smell the tea, you’ll experience its texture and taste. The texture of Tung Ting oolong will probably impart a buttery feel—a mouth-coating sensation.
- Taste. Beyond texture lies taste. With this tea, you should find fruity notes—perhaps coconut, pineapple and peach—and then there will be earthy notes, predominantly of fresh cut wood and nuts. Bring the taste of the fruit, specifically peach, together with the wood and nut notes, and imagine sucking on the pit of a peach after you have eaten the flesh of the fruit. Now you have a peach-pit flavor. This is the ideal flavor profile of an oolong, especially a Tung Ting.
So what does it all mean? Now that you have broken down the complex profile of a single tea, you should understand how important it is to match that profile with complementary smells, textures and flavors of food.
- For example, the floral bouquet of the Tung Ting oolong would make it the perfect counterpart to a spicy dish.
- At the same time, its buttery texture would combine well with baked goods and chocolates, and its fruity notes would work with various types of fish and meat.
- This may seem like quite a lot for a single tea to handle, but tea is deliciously versatile.
This also may seem like a lot for a beginning taster to learn. You’ll know when you’ve discovered the perfect marriage of flavors, but take some comfort in the guide on the next few pages.
Continue To Page 2: Pairing Tea With Breakfast & Brunch, Cheese, And Chicken
Return To The Article Index At The Top Of The Page
Lifestyle Direct, Inc. All rights reserved. Images are the copyright of their individual owners.