Dubai: There is more to tea than brewing it right. For example, sweet or savoury snacks pair well with milk-based teas, but they might not taste the same with black, green or matcha tea.
Every tea has a different flavour note, and pairing it with the right food matters.
Gulf News Food team met with Yvette Arizala, a Dubai-based tea practitioner, recipe developer, and a special member of Japan’s World Green Tea Association to understand how different tea flavours impact food pairing and vice-versa.
Understanding teas and flavour notes
If you crave for toast with black tea on certain days or milk tea with fried savoury dishes, then that is where food and tea pairing begins. Arizala said: “Food and tea pairing is more intuitive than a science. The tea and food pairing aims to find compatible flavours with teas and food. For example, pair tannic teas with acidic or bitter foods, subtle food with subtle teas, silky buttery teas with creamy foods. Another way is to contrast or balance out the flavours. For example, use tannic teas like robust black teas with rich, hearty foods; smoky teas with intense food.”
All tea leaves are processed from the same tea bush called camellia sinensis. The processing of the tea leaves gives us different types of tea, such as – black, green, white, and more.
For instance, white tea is the least processed of all the different types of teas. These light-coloured tea leaves are carefully handled to prevent broken leaves or bruises. Next, the young tea buds are withered, dried and ready to be packaged. Some popular white teas available in the market are silver needle or bud only and bai mu dan or white peony. A subtle flavour such as white tea goes well with a mild cheese or cucumber salad.
Another popular tea among casual and enthusiast tea drinkers is green tea. This tea is slightly oxidised because of its processing nature. Arizala explained: "Here, tea leaves are picked, withered and then steam-heated (if they are Japanese Green Teas) to stop oxidation, resulting in a grassy taste. Some tea producers also dry roast them in a pan, making the flavour more vegetal and nutty." Green tea leaf shapes may vary from flat to curled and even tightly rolled. Matcha is also a kind of green tea, except they are finely ground to form a powder. They pair well with sushi, fish and steamed green leafy vegetables, chicken and rice.
Moving on to yellow tea, which derives its name from the colour itself, goes through a lengthy process that requires the unique skills of an experienced master. Some of the best quality yellow teas are made from buds that are plucked in early spring. These tea leaves are processed similar to green teas, except they go through a ‘yellowing stage’, in which the leaves are wrapped in paper. They have a soft taste with silky mouthfeel texture. Yellow teas make a great match for raw seafood, like oysters.
Then you have Oolong, a popular tea, where the leaves can be curled, twisted or tightly rolled. It is a semi-oxidised tea that shares green and black tea flavour notes. They are processed the same way too. First, leaves are hand-picked, withered, bruised, and then semi-oxidised. The oxidisation can vary anywhere between ten to eighty per cent. If you notice oolong tea colours, they can change drastically. For instance, the more red or darker the leaves are, the more oxidised they are. That is why picking the right food combination can be tricky with oolong teas. A safe bet to pair with light oolong teas are seafood like scallops and lobsters. These teas have a more defined aroma than their taste, and that’s why sweet and salty seafood flavours help bring out the flavour. If you have guests at home and are looking for a quick tea and snack pairing, go with light oolong paired with crackers and mildly salted snacks. A slightly more dense taste – dark oolongs pair well with smoked meat, duck, roasted vegetables and even with sweet breakfast dishes like granola or muesli and pancake with maple syrup.
Arizala explained: "The most common and popular type of tea is black tea. There is another type called puerh which is a specialized dark tea more common in China. They are two different kinds of tea and are made differently. Puerh is fermented and goes through an ageing process, while black tea does not." Exciting food pairing with such teas are decadent desserts; pastries such as chocolate and red meat.
What is the aim of tea and food pairing?
The first step is to look beyond pairing tea with traditional finger foods - sandwiches, scones and cakes. Arizala explained how pairing tea and food had recently gained popularity, just like the famous cheese pairing with beverages.
She said: “The darker the tea is, the more intense its taste. It will have the highest tannin content or astringency. In contrast, white teas have delicate and subtle flavours.” So, when you think of a food dish, consider its taste – spicy, bland, sweet or savoury that you can match with your tea. Green tea might go well with a steamed fish dish and black tea with a curry-based one. But not vice-versa. If you pair a subtle tasting tea with a spicy dish, the delicate notes of the tea leaves could be overpowered by the tangy, robust flavours. The aim is to achieve a balance and Arizala guides through finding a match that enhances the tea and flavour of the dish.
There are various ways to approach this exercise, and Arizala picked popular food items like cheese, chocolate dessert, goat cheese and fresh strawberries to pair with teas.
Matcha Iri Genmaicha (a blend of matcha, sencha oe Japanese green tea and roasted rice) paired with three different types of Food
Matcha Iri Genmaicha is a blend of Sencha or Japanese green tea, rice and matcha. Here, the matcha powder lightly coats the green tea leaves and rice, giving the infusion a mellow and grainy taste.
Matcha tea leaves, comes from the shade-grown whole green tea leaves or what is known as tencha leaves. The leading matcha producers are in Japan. Some regions like Nishio, Uji, Shizuoka, and Kagoshima are the best growing areas with the perfect climatic conditions to harvest these leaves. There are many different kinds of matcha teas available in the market but look for a bright, vibrant green coloured powder that smells fresh. Lower grades of matcha powder will have a yellowish or brownish hue. Once you have made a cup of matcha tea using a traditional bamboo whisk or chasen. This is a matcha-making tool used for whipping matcha into a rich foam. A chasen is traditionally crafted from a single bamboo and comes in various thicknesses and strings. It is used in the Japanese tea ceremony, whisked at a particular angle, typically up and down, using very light pressure.
Arizala begins the tasting by taking a bite of a dark chocolate cake, followed by a sip of matcha tea. This is how one should start understanding flavours. Bite and sip in that order. Arizala said: “I find this pairing more of a palate cleanser; it equalises. You know there is a sort of mousse cream component in the cake and sipping this neon-coloured tea breaks it down.” Interestingly, the taste of the food and tea do not get lost with this pairing, and they kind of complement each other.
Next, Arizala pairs goat cheese and matcha and explains the taste. She said: “It brings out the saltiness of the cheese and goes well with the umami flavour of the matcha tea. It is a great pairing option.” The taste was complex for the third and most exciting pairing with strawberry. Here Arizala uses a matcha drizzle. “There is a certain bitterness that comes with this pairing, and it is mellow, almost subtle, but difficult to explain.” Tea and food pairing is one exercise.
There are many other ways to infuse tea with food - use it as an ingredient to extend beyond the usage as a hot beverage. Arizala uses tea salt rub on edamame for a quick savoury snack and suggests using it as a marinade. How can you use tea leaves as a marinade? Pick teas whose flavour you like – green, matcha or black tea - then grind them with other spices and herbs of your choice in a coffee grinder and use them as a rub for fish, meat or even tofu.
According to Arizala, there is no right or wrong answer to pairing, and certain flavours bring out the best of both the tea and food. Matcha iri Genmaicha pairs well with strawberries, which brings out the bright juiciness of the fruit against the sweet earthy matcha.
However, her top choice was the goat cheese with matcha, and it worked perfectly well in bringing out the umami notes and the creaminess of the cheese. She said: “Nothing beats going with your instincts and tasting food and tea together.”
What is your favourite food and tea pairing? Write to us at email@example.com