black&white #13: How to pair food with tea
5 min steep
It used to be wine. Then it was beer. Now, many chefs are pairing their Michelin-starred menus with high grade, premium quality teas – and we couldn’t be more enthusiastic. Of course, Chinese and East Asian cuisine has been doing this for centuries – the fresh, earthy flavour of pu’erh was traditionally served in Dim Sum houses to both complement and contrast the various flavours of the dumplings. Many of us who frequent their local Dim Sum joint will also know that a light and fragrant cup of Jasmine tea can enhance the delicate flavours of Har Gau (shrimp dumplings) or Cheung Fun (steamed rice noodle rolls) brilliantly. But in the past decade or so, interest in pairing modern European or British food with the prized teas of Asia has been growing among Western chefs.
It makes sense. As we’ve mentioned many times before, there are endless similarities between wine and tea. The terroir, the growing principles, the production methods and the processing techniques (like oxidisation) all contribute to the delicate balance of flavours and textures that define the taste, mouthfeel and sensation of a cup of tea or glass of wine. In fact, there’s been growing consensus among chefs and gourmands on the suitability of pairing cheese and tea. And tea does have one key advantage (or disadvantage, depending on your outlook) – it’s non-alcoholic! Which means it’s great for lunchtimes or for those who don’t drink but want to experience a delicious, interesting drink pairing with their food.
But it’s not just a chef’s game. For all of us at home, pairing teas with food is a great way to shake up a night in with a delicious home-cooked meal or surprise your dinner party guests by serving the post-supper cheese board with a selection of high grade teas, rather than wine. Here are a few general guidelines to help you get started, and then you can start experimenting...
In general, light, floral teas like green tea go well with dishes you’d traditionally pair with white wine. The vegetal, umami notes of a Japanese Sencha will pair wonderfully with a fish or vegetable dish – and, of course, with classic Japanese foods like sushi.
The chestnut, green bean tones of Dragon Well would work with light chicken or seafood dishes, like prawns or scallops – or the more herbaceous vegetables such as asparagus.
A green tea can also cut through the bitterness of dark chocolate or the high fat content of a double (brie, camembert) or triple-crème cheese (Brillat-Savarin, Délice de Bourgogne etc).
Because black tea is fully oxidised, it has many of the same notes as a red wine: tannic, smoky, woody and chocolatey or cocoa-like.
A rich meat dish like a stew or gravy-based meal pairs well with the deep, malty flavours of a black tea, like Assam. If you’re serving barbequed, roasted or even slightly charred meat, the smokiness of a Lapsang Souchong would work well, while the plummy, caramel notes of Darjeeling complements the spiced, savoury fruit dishes of the Middle East like tagine, as well as with classic puddings and desserts.
Oolongs vary greatly in depth and richness so matching oolongs with food can get a little more complex. The fragrant, slightly tannic notes of a Honey Orchid – think honey, peach and lychee – would match well with spiced foods, particularly flavours like cinnamon, star anise and chilli.
Cheese also works well with oolong. The sweet fruitiness and creamy mouthfeel of an Ali Shan complements the fresher cheeses like ricotta or a light goat's cheese, while the dark, roasted flavour of a Da Hong Pao (Canton’s Big Red Robe) would pair beautifully with richer, more nutty cheeses like Stilton, Comte or a smoked cheese.
The sweet, delicate and full-bodied mouthfeel of a white tea like Silver Needle should be matched with lighter foods like delicate white fish and vegetables. It’s gentle woodiness would also complement fresh cheese, like ricotta, burrata and mozzarella, and rich cream or custard-based desserts.