The role of tea as a key ingredient in gastronomy was the impetus for the visit to Hong Kong last week by 83-year-old Merrill Fernando, the founder of Sri Lankan tea company Dilmah, which is now one of the largest tea companies in the world. He was here with his younger son Dilhan - the company is named for his two sons Malik and Dilhan.
The simple infusion is part of the fabric of Asian life. Globally, it is the second most consumed beverage after water, and is a rapidly growing sector of the drinks market, driven by its associated health benefits. It is the drink of choice for many to accompany breakfast, dim sum and pastries, yet how many of us stop and think about the pairing potential of tea?
"On a functional level tea neutralises flavours, cleanses the palate and aids digestion, on a wellness level there are numerous health benefits, and on a sensorial level it can be used to highlight flavours; ultimately tea is a beautiful marriage with food," says Dilhan Fernando.
When pairing food and tea there are three significant factors to consider - components (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami), texture (astringency/tannins) and flavour (aroma and taste), which can be complementary or contrasting. Take the traditional pairing of the classic beef or pork sausage fry-up with an English Breakfast blend. Edwin Soon, sensory evaluation consultant and author, explains: "The tannins in the tea cut through the fat, the cleansing flavour of the tea contrasts with the meaty flavour of the sausage and, on the component side, the lightly bitter aromatic tea contrasts with the saltiness of the meat."
Other breakfast pairings include Indian masala chai with croissants and pain au chocolat; Moroccan mint green tea or mint with papaya and strawberries, oolong with scrambled eggs, and a souchong with smoked salmon. Spicy breakfast fans could try English Breakfast or Earl Grey.
Dim sum offers lots of potential for experimenting, too, says Soon. "For me, the best match with siu mai and har gau is a mid-grown or low-grown tea such as the meda watte or yata watte, alternatively Ceylon supreme (all black tea). The four different altitude regions where tea is grown in Sri Lanka display different terrior and seasons, resulting in unique tea, such as the stronger low-grown, or the medium-bodied mid-grown.
"You need teas that are intense and with sufficient polyphenols or tannins to stand up to the taste of the dishes. Matches such as har gau and low-grown tea occur because the tea is not too aromatic, the texture complements the steamed exterior, and it contrasts and enhances the flavour of the fillings." These teas also go well with dim sum that has a fried tofu exterior.
Opata (a Ceylon oolong) is a good choice for a congee pairing says Soon. "This tea has the perfume of an oolong, yet incorporates lower-grown tea flavours, so it pairs well with delicate dishes at the Chinese banquet table, and comfort foods such as congee, even with ginger and century egg. The smooth polyphenols in the tea cut through the starchy texture of the congee and the creamy yolk." Another option is masala chai, which Soon says is an unexpected match that will appeal to connoisseurs of tea and food looking for more unusual combinations.
Another overlooked pairing opportunity is afternoon and high tea. Few chefs consider if the tea actually complements the food being served - and treat it as just a beverage to wash down food, rather than as something that could elevate it. This is why Dilmah introduced its Real High Tea Challenge, which aims to highlight the role of tea in fine food, by considering both the tea pairing and the dishes served.
Dilmah's use of the term high tea may not sit well with traditionalists who see it as a substantial late afternoon or early evening meal, distinguished from the lighter, more elegant afternoon tea served on a tiered platter. The company says this is an attempt to elevate afternoon tea through the use of tea pairing, and of hand-picked, single origin teas.
At home, tea tasting begins by brewing the tea correctly. This is vital and one thing that many of us get wrong. It includes the correct water temperature (85-100 degrees Celsius depending on tea type), ratio of tea to water (one heaped teaspoon/one teabag for 220ml water), and brewing time (two-five minutes depending on tea/tisane variety).
To taste like a pro, quickly and sharply slurp a small amount of tea from a spoon, then slurp sharply once more. When the tea is tasted in this way it aerates the olfactory senses allowing for taste and smell stimulation simultaneously. Things to note are the dominant elements (aroma, flavour, texture,) and its intensity and finish when swallowed.
Chai's the limit for top toques
Food and beverage teams from the Island Shangri-La and Hong Kong Cricket Club tied for first place in a recent contest to come up with innovative tea-based drinks and dishes.
From a choice of 28 teas, teams chose a minimum of four varieties to work with, including a tea cocktail and traditional black tea. Paired with the teas were two sweet and two savoury items, and one sweet and one savoury item using tea as an ingredient. An eight-category point-scoring system was used by the three judges - chefs Bernd Uber and Peter Kuruvita, and Dilhan Fernando.
"The challenge for our chefs was finding out how to use the teas in cooking. Which teas were good for using as a crust when pan searing? Or when baked, did the flavour overpower the tea? Dishes took weeks to develop," says Simon Evans, executive chef of the Hong Kong Cricket Club.
Entries included blue cheese scones with sundried tomato jam - paired with Ceylon souchong, which worked, says Evans, because the earthy, smoky flavours and rich taste of the tea complemented the creaminess and sharp tang of the cheese.
The Island Shangri-La team's dishes included chamomile tea with Jack Daniels paired with a smoked chicken sandwich. The dish worked, says pastry chef Alex Ng, because the "husky flavours in Jack Daniels complement perfectly the smoky flavour of the chicken, and the chamomile tea balances the bitterness".
He said the biggest challenge was creating a mouthful of food that could fully embody the spirit of the teas.
The winning teams will get to attend Dilmah's School of Tea and compete against international teams next year. Vicki Williams