Like wine, tea is a robust and complex beverage with seemingly endless variations. Therefore, pairing tea with food is no less complicated than choosing wine pairings. Fortunately, there are some simple, logical guidelines to get you started. As you develop your palate and expand your knowledge of tea, you will be able to branch off the basic recommendations to create your own signature pairings.
Qualities of Tea
Each tea is an individualized blend of complex notes, yet all of these qualities can be summarized in three basic categories: aroma, texture, and taste. Fortunately, everyone has at least a small food-related vocabulary, allowing you to describe what you experience.
- Aroma: Prepare a cup of your favorite tea, and then deeply inhale its scent without tasting it. Does it smell floral, or nutty, or something else? Is the aroma subtle and hard to notice, or is it bold and obvious? Inhale a little more deeply. Can you pinpoint a specific scent? If not, don’t worry. The point is just to become more aware of the aromas of individual teas.
- Texture: Sometimes referred to as “mouth feel,” texture simply refers to how your mouth interprets the tea. Take a sip and hold it in your mouth without swallowing. Does it feel buttery, tangy, crisp, or refreshing? After you swallow, does it leave a sensation behind? Try to describe that sensation, remembering to focus on feel rather than taste.
- Taste: What flavors can you pick out? Do you taste peaches or apples or some other fruit? Is the tea smoky or woody or nutty? Try to categorize the tastes, such as “fruity” or “earthy.” Take note of the general tastes that are apparent to you.
Matching Qualities to Foods
Different foods also have different aromas, textures, and tastes. A good rule of thumb is to pair teas with foods that match some or all of their qualities. For example, you might choose a bold, tangy, woody tea with a hearty barbecue meal, or a crisp, fruity, subtle tea with a light salad.
Counterpoints also work well. A refreshing, fruity tea might be just what you need as a palate cleanser between heavy dishes at a formal dinner. In addition, you need not try to match all of the quality dimensions to the meal. For example, a citrus tea pairs well with fish, even if it has a floral aroma that doesn’t quite seem to match.
Pairing by Variety of Tea
Although each variety of tea offers numerous variations on aroma, texture, and taste, it can be helpful for beginners to start by pairing up certain varieties of tea with different dishes. As you gain knowledge and experience, you can begin to experiment with more specific pairings.
- Black tea: The most familiar type of tea to the majority of Americans, black tea is bold, flavorful, and heavily caffeinated. It pairs well with milk, making it a good choice for coffee drinkers who are just entering the world of tea. Due to its robust flavor, black tea is best paired with strongly flavored foods such as hearty meats, spicy foods, sweet desserts, and even chocolate.
- Green tea: With a more subtle, vegetative taste than black tea, green tea works very well with mildly flavored foods. Fish and other seafood, chicken, rice, and melons are among the best choices. Keep in mind that some green teas have fruity additives, while others have a smoky note that cuts through greasy fried foods. Regardless, any strong or sweet foods will overwhelm green tea.
- White tea: White tea has a very subtle flavor, so it goes best with extremely mild foods. Plain vegetable salads with little or no dressing and very mild fish create the best pairings. Many people also choose to drink white tea alone, perhaps sweetened with a delicate honey, to truly appreciate its subtle notes.
- Oolong tea: Oolong teas run the gamut from light to dark, and each has its own qualities. In general, light oolong teas are sweeter, with a bold floral aroma. They pair well with decadent seafood dishes and lightly salted items. Dark oolong teas are bold and robust, and stand up well to dark or gamey meats such as duck. Dark oolong is also a good choice for desserts sweetened with brown sugar or maple syrup.
- Pu-erh tea: Heavy fermentation creates a strong earthy flavor in pu-erh tea, which stands up well to oily fried foods. This tea also helps to aid digestion, making it a great complement to a heavy meal.
- Chai tea: This robust blend of black tea and strong aromatics makes it a natural fit with foods that match one or more of its components. Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and cloves are among the most common ingredients, so pair it with foods that have similar flavor profiles. A particularly interesting combination is Chai tea and ice cream, as the cooling effect of the ice cream creates a satisfying mouth feel behind the bold tea.
Pairing tea with food can be as simple or as complex as you like. As long as you choose teas that don’t overwhelm the food and foods that don’t overwhelm the tea, you really can’t go wrong. As your knowledge and experience grows, you will begin to focus on specific notes and build your pairings around them. Ultimately, taste is subjective, and the right pairings are those that appeal to you.
At Global Tea Mart, we hope to become your online home for all aspects of the world of tea. If we can be of assistance in any way, please do not hesitate to call us at 888-209-4223. We look forward to being a part of your journey!