As the owner of a tea company, I have a vested interest in showing you as many ways to consume tea as possible. This is why, in my opinion, the subject of pairing teas with food has been trending recently, and why there is so much terrible advice on it. Hot tea with tacos? Earl Grey with Mutton Stew? Sure, but why on earth would you do such thing? Just because you can do a thing, does not mean you should.
And so I will attempt to give you a practical guide to pairing teas with dishes by following a few simple rules. Tea can be paired with many dishes easily- without resorting to the lazy approach of just serving mild food, or overthinking the process so much that it sucks the joy out of the meal.
Tastes and flavours may seem like they are one and the same, but I am here to tell you they are not. What can be perceived by your tongue (taste) is somewhat limited compared to what can be perceived by your nose (flavour). So when pairing teas with foods, don’t forget that, despite many their different flavours, teas basically present a bitter taste (they can be categorized culinarily as herbs). Bitter does not mean disagreeable or unpleasant. Cumin, thyme, and oregano all present a mild bitterness that is sought after in order to balance certain recipes. Sweet, sour, salty, umami spaghetti sauce without bitter oregano and thyme? Inconceivable.
So if we consider the balance of tastes, pairing teas with food becomes easy. This is why we most often pair tea with desserts, as sugar easily counters bitterness, especially when consumed at the same time. Thus, by using the principle of pairing tastes- and not pairing the millions of flavours out there- tea can easily be paired with aromatic dishes, sweet dishes, and strong pungent dishes quite easily.
There are an estimated 5000 varieties of tea on the planet, each with a unique flavour profile. So when pairing your tea and dish, consider the flavour profile of your tea: is it aromatic and floral? Earthy and pungent? Vegetal and citrusy?
Take Earl grey for example: it has light citrus and floral scent. Therefore, pairing Earl Grey with a lemon cake would be overkill in your mouth. But let’s take that same lemon cake and pair it with a nice cup of Taiwanese Green tea. Vegetal and citrusy together ? Match made in Heaven.
Now, in my humble opinion, the texture of tea isn’t discussed nearly enough. When infused, teas not only infuse flavour, but can affect the texture of the water- making it more than just, well, watery. Some teas leave your tongue feeling dry. Those teas fall under the category of astringent teas. Some other teas leave your tongue salivating and waiting for more, a category I refer to as creamy.
Take, for example, one of the most astringent teas out there: Japanese Hojicha. Deliciously roasted taste, dry like a red wine and mild in flavour, this tea pairs wonderfully with cream based foods and desserts. Why? Opposites attract.
Another example is preserved plums in syrup and Pu Er tea. The extreme sweetness of the plums and the thick consistency of the syrup are a perfect contrast of the earthy, dark and smooth texture of certain aged Pu Ers.
Contrasting flavours make pairings fun and open up a world of possibilities.
Look, all of this is well and good, but at the end of the day, I am not the one making your food or your tea (although, hey, I rarely turn down an invitation), so you are the one who has the final say on what tea to serve with what dish. Genmaicha and toast? Too dry for me, but by all means, enjoy yourself ! It’s your mouth, have fun with it!
Of course, this all pertains more to hot tea. Iced tea pairings are often made more easily and frequently. I recommend cold brewing your whole tea leaves, as cold brewing removes all bitterness from tea, leaving only the cool crisp and flawless flavour of your tea.
Whether hot or cold, remember tea pairings are easy!
Marika de Vienne literally grew up in her parents’ catering service, where she learned the finer points of cooking, spices, and service. She later helped open the family’s store in the Jean-Talon Market before leaving for China for several years to develop her understanding of tea. Today, she’s involved in just about every aspect of Épices de Cru, from plantation to store shelf and everything in between. Marika has a near-addiction to oolong tea, loves green cardamom and the cuisine of the American south.