Combining Tea and Food – A Chinese Perspective

To cook tea as food for eating is more than a sudden inspiration. From ancient times, China has sayings about “tea food” (茶食, cha shi). Tea and Chinese cuisine elegantly and harmoniously combine together, which makes unique tea cuisine.

In the most remote times, tea was used as medicine. Moreover, medicine and food were closely associated. In Lüshi Chunqiu’s (吕氏春秋) Discourses of Ways and Times of Viscus (内经·素问·脏器法时论 nei jing, su wen, zang qi fa shi lun), it says: The five grains are to nourish, the five fruits are to help, the five meats are to gain, and the five vegetables are to supply; mix the taste and eat, and thus build up your health. This indicates that medicine/herb and food are originated from the same system. Among people, historical sayings like “The benefits of medicine fall short compare to the benefits of food” keep spreading. Therefore, to add tea into food has its ancient history.

According to Tang Dynasty’s Cha Fu (茶赋), tea can “nourish the plain tastes of rice and vegetables, and relieve the greasy and smell of meat.” It is obvious that ancient people often mix tea with rice. The gifted scholar Ji Xiaolan (纪晓岚) of Qing Dynasty had tea as vegetables every day. Not long after people started consuming it as both food and drinks, chefs are inspired and cooked dishes with tea. Legendarily, by the end of Qing Dynasty, cooks from Anhui already used tea such as Queshe and Yingzhua to fry with river prawn tail. Epicure Gao Yang (高阳) in his Food from Then to Now (古今食事) mentioned, “The old man cooked with me a Longjing Shrimp, which is stir fried peeled shrimp and Xi Hu Longjing (西湖龙井, a famous green tea). It can almost compete with fish on lotus seed cup.” Since then, in Qing Dynasty, Longjing was already in the dishes.

Tea has color, fragrance, taste, and shape. These four elements make it possible for tea to drink, season, color, and add medical effect. Thus tea cuisine commonly combines food supply and health supply—to prevent diseases and make people healthy.

There are normally four ways to add tea into food.

1, To fry or bake food with fresh tea leaves, thus is tea food.

2, To add tea into soup and stew, thus is tea soup.

3, To mill tea and put into sweets, thus is tea powdered.

4, To burn tea under the food, thus is tea smoked.

According to different kinds of tea, there are different ways of cooking. Red, green, pu’er and oolong tea have the top performances. As for an example, Tie Guanying (铁观音, a kind of oolong) has very thick aroma of orchid when it is brewed. With the light tastes, it is best to put its brew into dumplings. On the other hand, fried shrimp and steamed fish are best with green tea. Pu’er is suitable for heavy soy sauce stew. Milled Bi Luo Chun (碧螺春, a kind of green tea) fits for soup, and steamed tea rice.

Cooking with tea demands fine skills. Before cooking tea cuisine one should be familiar with the features of each different tea. If tea leaves or liquid are too much, it adds unnecessary bitterness to food. With too little tea, the fragrance of it will be covered by other condiments. Besides, green onion, ginger, garlic, the five spice powder (a spice blend from China), and other heavy spices should be reduced accordingly, to fit with the tea’s nature and make it healthier.

To cook with different food, tea should be different too. For the best effect, the cooling seafood should go with cooling green tea, for example, Longjing Shrimp. Warming oolong should match with same warming chicken or duck, like Sichuan cuisine camphor-tea duck (樟茶鸭, tea-smoked duck). Beef is heating; its best mate naturally is the heating black tea. The more crispy and refreshing kinds of vegetables are suitable be cooked with black tea that is heavily fragrant, and should usually cooked as cold dish.

In addition, tofu is not proper to cook with tea.

If you get all the features of tea and the food ingredients, then how to match them would be an easy case for you.