Pairing tea and food
As the art of food pairing moves beyond traditional wine recommendations, the star of tea sommeliers is rising in the culinary world. Admittedly, food has long been an accompaniment to tea, but there has rarely been much experimentation involved in the pairing. Local teas are instead matched with local snacks in a staid and long lasting partnership that makes for something of a tea tradition. Cucumber sandwiches can be found next to china mugs of milky tea in England, strong black tea from the samovar with syrniki pancakes in Russia, and red bean paste sweets called wagashi are served with matcha tea in Japan.
But the old saying, “what grows with it goes with it”, is being challenged by tea concerned restaurateurs who are interested in globally minded matches that focus on flavour profiles. Jeff Ruiz, head of the tea program at restaurant Atera in New York, is interested in the “third flavours” that can be unlocked in successful tea matching. Ruiz matches six teas to Atera's 16-18 menu tasting course, including a pairing between a second-flush darjeeling and a foie gras dish, which is said to work beautifully.
But food and tea pairings needn't be exclusive to trendy New York tasting menus, and can be as simple as swapping out a pinot gris for a vegetal Japanese green tea with your chicken dinner. While the fundamentals of wine pairing have become almost common sensical (white with fish, red with steak), the basics of tea pairings are still being written. But the key principles of matching tea and matching wine are similar. Like wine, tea encompasses a spectrum of intensities, from light bodied to fuller brews that can stand up to stronger flavours. Food and beverage pairing is admittedly an art rather than a science, but here are a few generic guidelines for matching certain types of tea.
White teas pair with delicate flavours
White tea is the most delicate of teas, and can't stand up to much in the way of pairing. Recommended more as an aperitif, you might nonetheless enjoy a white tea with a light vegetable or fish dish. White Peony and Silver Needle are more robust white teas than most, but they are still quite delicate and would be best paired with an undressed salad, which would accentuate their natural sweetness.
Subtle green teas pair with rice dishes
Still very subtle, but more robust that white tea, green teas in general are said to go well with rice. However, the flavour profiles of green teas can be very diverse, and they are usually broken up into two broad categories: vegetal and fruity. Green teas that boast vegetal or grassy notes, like Krasnodar Green tea, will pair well with chicken, seafood, and light vegetable dishes. Fruity green teas like Georgian Green are less adept at cutting through grease, so would be better suited to baked meat dishes, as well as unsweetened pastriesor fruit. Our favourite green tea match remains Anji Bai Cha, with its complex umami profile, making it a perfect sparing partner for the most sophisticated dish options.
Robust black teas are more versatile
With more pronounced tannins, black teas are suited to stronger flavours, and are again split up into three categories: Fruity, smoky, and earthy or malty. Fruity blacks, like Georgian Black tea, are good with thick pastries and sweet deserts. They cope well generally with sweet foods that leave a residual mouthfeel, refreshing your palate between bites. Malty blacks like Yunnan Black tea are good with rich, savoury dishes and flavourful meats, but Smoky blacks are best suited to intense foods and would go nicely with something like a plate of blackened chicken or steak.
Complex oolong teas are the most interesting
Something between a green and a black tea in intensity, oolongs are often quite complex, meaning they are harder to match, but boast a greater range of options. Lighter oolongs like Jin Xuan go well with foods that bring out the often sweet and floral character of the tea. They lack the strength to cut through too much grease, but work with salty foods to nice effect. They are also said to be a good match for rich seafood like crab or lobster. Darker oolongs like the rock teas of Wuyi mountains, or our Red Guan Yin, are suited to oily fish like salmon or grilled foods, but also generally work with pastries and many deserts.
Pu-erh teas make a good after dinner drink
Pu-erh tea is fired and fermented, and so have a distinctive earthy flavour that is said to be great with the 'just rained on earth' aromas of wild mushroom. Pu-erhs are also good at neutralizing greasy and rich foods. They are known for their digestive properties in China, so they make a good after dinner drink or a refreshing accompaniment to large meals.
The flavour dynamics of tea pairing
These are the basics, but experimentation is your best friend when it comes to combing flavours according to your personal taste. Beyond matching intensities and considering the general characteristics of certain teas, you might want to work on the basis of pairing specific flavour notes. Despite being a very different beverage to wine, the principles of flavour transcend these boundaries, and you'll hear wine and tea sommeliers talk in roughly the same language of wood / tropical / floral notes. Of course, you don't need to master this vocabulary to match good tea with good food, but it helps to articulate what it is that you're tasting. For that, take a look at our Tea Cube, and happy pairing!