Pairing Teas with Food

In ancient times, the Chinese thought of tea as the perfect beverage to pair with food when it came to health options and balancing what went into their systems. Tea cuts oil and fat, helps digestion, and then, detoxes the liver — Not a bad item to ingest even today when eating meals like dim sum that consists of fatty pork, high cholesterol seafood, or even some questionable fermented fish.

The Chinese strived to always eat very balanced meals, however, sometimes one is not in a position to do so. In the case of the ancient Tibetans, where their diet was high in animal meats and vegetables were unavailable, they relied on drinking tea with their meals to help with digestion. Tea was also considered to be quite effective against alcohol toxicity, so the Mai Tai drinker would finish off their binge with tea, to regain functionality.

Tea has been a functional beverage for over 4000 years. But today, we appreciate tea for more than its functionality — we admire its complex aromas and tastes and we begin to explore the new frontier that is pairing tea, like pairing wine, with cuisine.With so many new, unexplored territories, it is exciting to first imagine what teas you might pair with a dinner.

It is simple to pair Genmaicha with pizza, for example, complementing one another’s toasty, comfort food-like qualities. Pairing Pu-erh with dim sum has been the default for most Chinese dim sum parlors, but Pu-erh is often a bit overpowering for the delicate dumplings served. Rather, a charcoal roasted Taiwanese oolong, which enjoys both light floral, yet grease-cutting, fiery notes, seem to clear the palate well from dish to dish. A White Peony tea in the spring dances fabulously across one’s palate paired alongside an almond tart or a stone fruit tart. However, a slightly more aged white peony in the fall, pairs with savory fish such as smoked trout — its nutty tones bring out its smoky character while balancing the fish’s sweetness without interference.

For salads, we prefer cold brewed teas, much like chilled wines, to not vary the temperature in the palate. Cold brewed teas tend to be sweet and flavorful, without the astringency that sometimes hot brewed teas tend to extract, and are preferable for the light crisp salads and fruits. I discovered that a cold brewed Phoenix Oolong was a perfect complement to an apple endive salad. The honey notes of the tea and thickness of the cold brew balances the acidity of the apples and enlivens the endive.

The possibilities for pairing teas and cuisine are infinite!Once, I paired a Wuyi Water Golden Turtle oolong with pizza, and it was superior to the Genmaicha pairing by far. The more sophisticated complexities of the Wuyi, the thicker solubles worked like a foundation for the more acidic tomato sauces, and the Wuyi teas can stand up to the cheeses well. Such stronger oolongs also degrease better, clearing the palate of the oils in the pizza and exposing the fragrance of the bread and the many ingredients. It was a winning pairing for me. Wines are much more acidic and may or may not pair so perfectly with subtle crisp salads, sweet smoky trout, or even possibly, hot-off-the-oven pizzas.

Next time you cook, or go to dinner, bring a few of your favorite teas along and see if you can uncover some winning pairings!

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