By Tomislav Prodreka

"In the end, goodness is for the mouth to decide"
—Lu Yu the Cha l’ Ching

I would like to tell you that pairing food with tea is a science, but in reality, pairing relies greatly on an individual’s "informed" opinions. The ability to understand and relay these opinions is the crux of why pairing any sort is important. Pairing illustrates that you have explored the natural interplay between food and tea. It is a marvelous way to heighten a dining experience and expand the universe of profiles that define tea. To be able to enhance the presence of food or emphasize the flavors of a given tea is a truly rewarding challenge.

When I discuss the importance of pairing tea and food in foodservice environments, I always stress that the best that can be offered is a guideline—a helping hand to achieve a nicely balanced list of tea that complements the food offered by your establishment. Whether your menu consists of foie gras or bagels and cream cheese, I don’t believe the process has to be any more complex. Rather, pairing tea with food should be an enjoyable step in designing your overall menu.

Before you begin, you must realize 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 a tasting vocabulary, however expansive or limited it may be. Never be afraid to express what comes to mind when you are tasting tea, because no impression is too slight, and all observations lead to Rome, so to speak.

To illustrate my point, let’s take a complex but marvelous example---oolong. When tasting a lightly oxidized Tung Ting, you will notice many different characteristics. Initially, you will probably take in the aroma, the single most influential element of tea. The range of bouquet should immediately lead you to a floral impression. Soon your senses will target a more specific fragrance, perhaps white flowers of some sort. Finally, you might pinpoint that wonderful aroma as that of a gardenia.

After you smell the tea, you’ll experience its texture and taste. The texture of this Tung Ting Oolong will probably impart a buttery feel—a coating sensation. Beyond texture lies taste. With this tea you should notice fruity notes—perhaps flavors of 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? Well, 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 aforementioned 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. You’ll know when you’ve discovered the perfect marriage of flavors; simply let your palate be a guide.

Sometimes a laundry list can best illustrate the art of pairing tea with food. On the following pages is a suggested pairing table. If what you are looking for is not listed, look for a similar item and ponder the possibilities.


Fresh Fruit

I would recommend sweeter greens and lighter black teas, such as First-Flush Darjeeling or a lightly oxidized oolong. Late autumnal oolongs are also pleasant with fruit


Chocolate

A surprising array of tea presents itself with chocolate, depending on the strength of chocolate. With dark chocolate, try Pu-erh, Assam, Darjeeling, Oolong (any), or Gyokuro. With milk chocolate, try Yunnan, Dragonwell, Sencha, Darjeeling, or Oolong (any).


Dessert Pairings

Baclava: Darjeeling, Pouchong, Oolong (any), Ceylon Black and Green

Carrot Cake: Sencha, Dragonwell, Vietnamese Green, Ceylon Green and Black, Darjeeling, Ceylon, Assam

Cheesecake: Sencha, Dragonwell, Vietnamese Green, Ceylon Green and Black, Darjeeling, Keemun

Crème Brulee/Caramel: Darjeeling, Ti Kuan Yin, Tung Ting oolong, Dragonwell, Assam, Ceylon Green and Black

Crepes: Darjeeling, Oolong (any)

Dessert with Apples: Darjeeling, Dragonwell, Ti Kuan Yin

Dessert with Apricots: Oolong (any), Darjeeling

Dessert with Bananas: Ti Kuan Yin, Tung Ting Oolong, Pouchong, Ceylon

Dessert with Black Currants: Dragonwell, Darjeeling, Oolong (any)

Dessert with Coffee: Yunnan, Assam, Pu-erh, Formosa, Oriental Beauty and Buddha’s Finger Oolong

Dessert with Rasberries: Darjeeling, Vietnamese Green, Ceylon Green and Black

Dessert with Strawberries: Darjeeling, Dragonwell, Ti Kuan Yin

Fruit Compote: Ceylon, Darjeeling, Yunnan, Dragonwell, Ti Kuan Yin

Pecan Pie: Oolong (any), Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon

Pumpkin Pie: Dragonwell, Ceylon Green and Black, Darjeeling

Vanilla: Keemun, Ceylon, Darjeeling, Nilgiri


Herb & Spice Pairings

Basil: Oolong, Darjeeling, Dragonwell, Gunpowder, Qui Ding Cha

Capers: Qui Dind Cha, Vietnamese Green, Gunpowder, Ceylon UVA

Chilies: Assam, Yunnan, Keemun, Formosa White Tip Oolong

Cinnamon: Yunnan, Assam, Autumnal Darjeeling, Formosa White Tip Oolong, Pu-erh

Garlic: Sencha, Gunpowder, Gen Mai Cha, Dooars

Ginger: Tung Ting Oolong, Jasmine Pouchong, Darjeeling

Mint: Darjeeling, Tung Ting Oolong, Pouchong, Gunpowder

Mustard: Gunpowder, Chun Mee, Nepalese and African Varieties

Nutmeg: Assam, Darjeeling, Yunnan, Ceylon

Vanilla: Keemun, Tung Ting Oolong, Pouchong, Vietnamese Black, Kenyan

 

Mushroom Pairings

Chanterelles: Assam, Nilgiri, Ceylon, Pu-erh

Common: Assam, Ceylon, Nilgiri, Dooars

Morels: Assam, Tung Ting Oolong, Autumnal or Second-Flush Darjeeling, Pu-erh


Cheese Pairings

Asiago: Keemun, Pai Mu Dan

Brie: Dragonwell, Ha Giang, Darjeeling, Tung Ting Oolong

Camembert: Dragonwell, Chun Mee, Gunpowder, Ha Giang, First-Flush Darjeeling, Sikkim

Cheddar: Tung Ting Oolong, Darjeeling

Cream Cheese: Ceylon, Darjeeling, Cameroon

Edam: Ceylon, Autumnal Darjeeling, Buddha’s Finger Oolong

Gorgonzola: Chun Mee, Ha Giang, Ceylon, Pouchong

Muenster: Tung Ting Oolong, Pouchong

Provolone: Ceylon, Nilgiri


Chicken Pairings

Curry: Darjeeling, Pouchong, Dragonwell, Jasmine Green

Fried: Assam, Ceylon, Nilgiri, Kenya

Lemon: Tung Ting Oolong, Darjeeling, Ceylon, Gunpowder

Roast: Ceylon, Gunpowder, Assam

 

Fish Pairings

Fried: Dragonwell, Chun Mee, Gunpowder

Grilled: Dragonwell, Chun Mee, Gunpowder, First-Flush Darjeeling

Smoked: Oolong (any), Darjeeling, Ceylon, Dragonwell

 

Ham Pairings

Baked: Ceylon, Assam, Kenya

Smoked: Oolong (any), Darjeeling, Dragonwell


Miscellaneous Food Pairings

Anchovy: Ha Giang, Ceylon Green, First-Flush Darjeeling, Gunpowder, Chun Mee, Pouchong

Antipasto: Dragonwell, Pouchong, Ceylon, Dooars, Nilgiri

Avocado: Tung Ting Oolong, Pouchong, Darjeeling, Sencha

Bacon: Assam, Gunpowder, Ceylon

Baked Beans: Ceylon, Assam, Kenya, Yunnan

BBQ Fish: Gunpowder, Hojicha, Chun Mee

BBQ Meat: Ceylon, Yunnan, Gunpowder

Beef: Ceylon, Yunnan, Formosa Oolong, Kenya, Nilgiri, Gunpowder

Blinis with Salmon: Tung Ting Oolong, Darjeeling

Buffalo Wings: Ceylon, Darjeeling

Carpaccio: Tung Ting Oolong, Darjeeling, Ceylon

Clam Chowder: Dragonwell, Chun Mee, Ceylon Green

Corn: Sencha, Hojicha, Chun Mee

Corn Bread: Ceylon, Assam Kenya, Yunnan

Couscous: Ceylon, Assam, Nilgiri, Yunnan, Gunpowder

Curry: Darjeeling, Jasmine Black or Green

Eggplant: Ceylon, Darjeeling

Eggs: Darjeeling, Oolong (any), Keemun, Assam, Ceylon, Kenya

Hamburgers: Ceylon, Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri, Kenya

Lamb: Ceylon, Darjeeling, Yunnan

Lasagna: Assam, Ceylon, Nilgiri

Macaroni and Cheese: Sencha, Ceylon

Meat Loaf: Yunnan, Keemun, Nilgiri, Kenya

Mexican: Assam, Ceylon

Pizza: Ceylon, Yunnan, Keemun

Polenta: Darjeeling

Pork: Darjeeling, Ceylon, Oolong (any), Hojicha, Lapsang Souchong, Dragonwell, Gunpowder, Chun Mee

Potato Salad: Oolong, Pouchong, Darjeeling, Dooars, Nilgiri, Ceylon

Prawns: Dragonwell, Ti Kuan Yin, Dragonwell, Ha Giang, Ceylon Green

Quiche: Darjeeling, Ceylon, Sencha, Dragonwell, Chun Mee

Salami: Ceylon, Nilgiri

Salsa: Vietnamese Green, Ceylon Green

Turkey: Oolong (any), Darjeeling, Ceylon, Yunnan

Vegetables (raw): Ceylon, Nilgiri, Chun Mee, Sencha

Tomislav Podreka is the founder of Serendipitea, one of the largest independent importers of fine and specialty teas in the United States. He is the education chairman of the American Premium Tea Institute. A popular speaker on the history and philosophy of tea, he travels across the country lecturing and giving tea tastings. He lives in Connecticut. For more information, visit serendipitea.com.


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