Combining Tea and Food – A Chinese Perspective

Tea cuisine, which combines the flavors and health benefits of tea with various dishes, has a rich history in China. The practice of using tea as both a beverage and an ingredient in food dates back to ancient times. Here are some insights into the tradition of tea cuisine.

Historical Roots

  • Tea was initially used as a form of medicine in ancient China, and medicine and food were closely linked.
  • Historical texts like Lüshi Chunqiu emphasized the importance of nutrition in maintaining health and recognized that medicine and food share a common origin.
  • Early references, such as those from the Tang Dynasty, indicate that tea was mixed with rice and used to complement the flavors of food.
  • Ji Xiaolan, a prominent scholar from the Qing Dynasty, incorporated tea into his daily diet, showcasing the practice of consuming tea as both food and beverage.

Tea’s Role in Cuisine

  • Tea was believed to “nourish the plain tastes of rice and vegetables and relieve the greasy and meaty flavors,” demonstrating its versatility in balancing flavors.
  • Over time, inspired chefs began incorporating tea into dishes, creating a new culinary tradition.
  • By the end of the Qing Dynasty, tea, such as Longjing (a famous green tea), was already being used in cooking, exemplified by dishes like “Longjing Shrimp.”

Four Ways of Using Tea in Food

  1. Frying or Baking with Tea Leaves: Fresh tea leaves are used to fry or bake various food items, creating tea-infused dishes.
  2. Adding Tea to Soup and Stews: Tea is incorporated into soups and stews to infuse them with tea flavors.
  3. Milling Tea into Powders: Tea leaves are ground into a fine powder and added to sweets and desserts to impart tea flavor.
  4. Burning Tea Under Food: Food is cooked over burning tea leaves, allowing the smoke to flavor the dish.

Matching Tea Types with Food

  • Different types of tea, such as red, green, pu’er, and oolong, pair well with specific dishes based on their flavors and characteristics.
  • For example, Tie Guanyin oolong tea, known for its orchid aroma, complements dishes like dumplings.
  • Green tea is suitable for dishes like fried shrimp and steamed fish.
  • Pu’er tea works well in soy sauce-based stews.
  • Tea cuisine demands careful consideration of the tea’s nature and flavor profile to enhance the overall dining experience.

Considerations for Cooking with Tea

  • Tea should be used in moderation to avoid making dishes overly bitter or losing the tea’s fragrance.
  • Adjust the use of other seasonings like green onions, ginger, garlic, and spices to complement the tea’s flavor.
  • Match the warmth or cooling properties of tea with the characteristics of the main ingredients. For instance, cooling seafood pairs well with cooling green tea, while warming oolong complements dishes like camphor-tea duck.
  • Tofu is generally not recommended for tea cuisine, as it may not pair well with tea flavors.

Overall, cooking with tea requires an understanding of the nuances of different tea types and the ingredients they are paired with. By skillfully matching tea and food, one can create dishes that are not only delicious but also offer potential health benefits.