How to pair tea with food
Pairing food with tea is an ancient practice although it may sound like a new concept for those of us who stick solely to our favourite brew (with milk, maybe sugar) no matter what we are eating alongside. Like wine, there’s a tea to suit a seemingly endless variety of sweet and savoury foods, while being used as an ingredient itself. Long part of the daily ritual of very old cultures, tea acts not only as a palate cleanser or flavour bridge but as a digestive aid as well. Dilmah Tea first started exploring tea gastronomy back in 1999 and today, internationally, fine dining restaurants like Michelin-starred Fera at Claridge's are offering tea-pairing menus, with wine glasses of special brews for the growing number of diners wanting sophisticated but alcohol-free beverages. Dilmah’s “Tea Geek” Jon Houldsworth, who frequently lectures on tea gastronomy at New Zealand culinary schools, offers some tea and food matching points to consider when you next boil the jug.
What are the important points when pairing tea with food?
The synergies between tea and food can be found in the complex flavours that nature brings through terroir and a variety of manufacturing techniques, from floral, fruity, nutty through to herbaceous, earthy and smoky. These sometimes-subtle characteristics are ideal in balanced pairings with food. Tea also carries added flavours very well like the bergamot orange in Earl Grey or the natural scenting of jasmine flowers with green tea. These hold their own when tea is used as an ingredient. Like wine, tea has a broad spectrum of ‘mouth-feel’, from the mouth-puckering tannins of a full-bodied low-grown black tea to the herbaceous and bright notes of a high-grown black tea.
Jon's guide to everyday teas and food pairings
English Breakfast (no milk): Fried breakfast. Warm and buttery date scones
Earl Grey (no milk): Thai green curry. Ginger loaf/slice
Jasmine green tea: Cumin seed gouda. Vanilla custard tarts
Chamomile: Apple pie. Roast turkey
Does having milk and sugar or lemon in tea affect the match?
Adding milk to tea is okay so long as the tea (such as English Breakfast) has enough strength and body to balance with the natural fats in the milk. The milk will soften those nice chewy tannins, however, the tea will no longer have the ability to cut through heavier foods. Try a straight black tea with a good fry-up breakfast, with fatty sausages or bacon and sticky eggs. The tea becomes really thirst quenching but add milk and it’s not quite so effective at cleansing the palate. Lemon is a natural addition to many teas but you then have to consider if that ’sour’ component will complement the food you’re serving with it. Try a salt-crusted sea bass with a slice of lemon in your tea (no milk of course!). Rather than adding sugar to tea, enjoy it with something sweet instead.
Does the temperature of the tea affect the pairing?
Yes, in a number of ways. It also brings one of the main advantages. Much of what we taste is through our nose, which is why we taste so little when we’re all blocked up. Warmth rises up carrying those aromas, so tea has an amazing ability to lift flavours from your palate for a longer finish. If the tea is too hot, however, most people will actually taste much less. In general, the ideal is once it has cooled to around 50-70 degrees. Another great experience is a pairing based on contrasting hot and cold — like a lightly sweetened and citrus-based iced tea with something warm and spicy.
What about pairing canapes with tea-infused cocktails?
Sounds like a summery high tea in the making! Tea-infused cocktails are a huge trend in mixology around the world. Tea will work equally as well with sweet or sour styles of cocktail. A sour (such as a citrus-based tea cocktail, will pair beautifully with seafood canapés, and sweeter tea cocktails with something a little fruity or tart.
What teas should we serve alongside a traditional afternoon tea?
Start with the classics: A good black tea — maybe English Breakfast — for the sandwiches and some Earl Grey to go with buttermilk scones with generous dollops of jam and cream. Pure green tea or jasmine green tea can be really refreshing once you start to work through the more delicate sweet items, and a switch to digestive aids like peppermint can help you finish off the final sticky chocolate morsels. Consider branching out, though, with some flavoured varieties like Rose with French Vanilla tea or some spiced infusions like Dilmah’s Mango, Ginger and Turmeric with Black Pepper for those who prefer to avoid caffeine.
What about cups? Wine is served in glasses according to type — should it be the same for tea?
There is certainly a science around the shapes of different cups for tea. Exactly like wine, the shape of a cup affects the aroma passing into the nose which greatly enhances the taste as we sip. This why some of the best cups to drink tea from are in fact the antique delicate china teacups, many of which are curved in at the top like a wine glass, collecting the aroma and potentially retaining the heat for longer. One of the forgotten pleasures of food and beverage is the tactile part of the experience. Sipping from the delicate rim of a fine teacup has the ability to make the tea taste more refined and delicate. Whether it’s just an illusion or not, it works!