The Truth About Tea
Chinese legend owns the story that in 2727 BC when Emperor Shen Nong sat below a tree with his pot of hot water, a light breeze blew tea leaves into it, lending it a colour and taste, which he enjoyed very much. Alternatively the Indians say that when Gautam Buddha set out on his journey to China to preach Buddhism, he vowed not to sleep for nine years. Three years later when fatigue took over, he plucked leaves that he deemed to be medicinal, in the bargain gaining enough energy to survive the remaining six sleepless years. The Japanese have their version too
– they believe that this prince did indeed fall asleep. It annoyed him to such lengths that he tore his eyelids and threw them so they never shut. From these, tea plantations bloomed with their reviving properties that we enjoy today.
As the world shrunk, tea as a beverage infiltrated into many civilisations as we know it. The Russians prefer their brew to be black with sugar; Moroccans enjoy green tea with mint; Indians like milk, sugar and cardamom in their cups. Soon, tea spilled beyond being a unique culture based on its geographical location. Individuals habitually absorb it as an idiosyncratic consumption at set hours of the day. But to actually know your tea to be able to drink it the right way is a different kind of luxury.
Layering tea time with bites
This is why tea stylist, sommelier and retailer Radhika Batra of Radhika’s Fine Teas insists on conducting tea ceremonies for the curious. Unlike the symbolism in oriental ceremonies, this one is to seduce first-timers into coming back after a pleasurable experience with satiated palates. “Each tea ceremony works in tandem with the audience and the season. So if they visit me in the summer, I would ideally offer them a rose or a jamguri masala chai, maybe even a Darjeeling tea.”
While choosing leaves that go with the season is one aspect, pairing them wisely is another. “The idea is to match those foods with teas that won’t overwhelm the drink’s flavour,” says Batra. In spite of these ideal combinations – white tea with bland foods and seafood and dark tea with meats, there is no real rule for when it actually boils down to tea-food-pairing. It all depends on what the palate enjoys. Unlike wine-food pairing or beer-food pairing, tea is supposed to work with the body as it progresses through each hour of the day. We can safely assume this is because of the therapeutic contours that define them. As if endorsing this belief, the tea sommelier adds, “I know of people who have taken to Oolong black or green with its smoky, roast flavours to wean off from cigarettes.”
• Breakfast Darjeeling black or green for their awakening properties.
• Mid-morning Oolong black or green with their revitalising smoky, roast flavours.
• Lunch rose, sage or jasmine pearl because they work as digestives.
• Dinner Darjeeling white, green rose or bergamot are relaxing. Tisanes (tea from flowers) are comforting too.
BITING INTO TEA
South-East Asian kitchens make tea infused foods sound so simple. The Japanese ochazuke – hot tea poured over rice and spices – only elicits the commonality of this ingredient in oriental recipes. What with tea sauces, tea broths, tea marinade, and now tea oil, it is only in the recent years that the world is learning this tricky method – equalising tea aromas with scores of spices.
Ajay Chopra, executive chef, Westin, explains, “Balancing tastes with delicate flavours is a tightrope walk for any chef. Strong teas are high in tannins and more suitable for meats and dishes that exude piquancy; lighter teas go with soups, desserts and seafood. Ideally, these leaves should be combined with a maximum of one or two spices at the most.”
But to understand that tea is used as a prime ingredient would be wrong; it is merely engaged in cooking to enhance the flavour of the main ingredient. Indians have been adding these leaves, boiled, in their chickpea curry for decades to bring out its zest. Yet, in some rare cases, tea can replace spices, but such dishes beg for an acquired taste. The chef suggests lapsang souchang for something smoky, green tea for a delicious twist and jasmine and bergamot for floral scents. He himself has whisked up a masala chai cream for the venturesome taste buds. If apprehension pulls back your inner adventurous, self-proclaimed-chefs, simply crushing oolong leaves into the pepper mill is a great seasoning for steak or pork chops.
DRUNK ON TEA
Even the recent Lakmé Fashion Week saw a tea stall, flocked by those fashionable bodies wanting to remain healthy. Perhaps they were balancing the days with shots of green tea and honey, and rosemary and lavender to cure those nasty hangovers when the sun shone, and cocktails bathed in tea when the sun set. As is the habit of bartenders to flirt with one muse and then another, the last few years have seen a barrage of teas penetrating those intoxicating spirits with green tea mojitos and black tea bourbon – not to mention whiskey even! Next time try one peg of scotch over two pegs of chilled Darjeeling with ice and honey.
When it comes down to fabricating this blend, it is the more fragrant picks that are popular in these concoctions. Again, the key is to not let one ingredient overpower the other. For this, veteran bartender Shatbhi Basu suggests Nilgiri and Darjeeling as the best options because of their strength and scents. Unlike the myth that Long Island Iced Tea is brewed from tea, Basu’s own version of the iced tea actually plays with Nilgiri flowery orange pekoe leaves and five spirits.
Taking from happy drinkers, Basu goes on to deduce the beer-liked combinations as green tea in orange mojito or in whisky and ginger ale. “Half a cup of boiling water over two tea bags is enough for one cocktail,” she says. “The key is to keep it fresh, so secure it in a flask, and when ready to mix the drink, pour the steaming tea over a mountain of ice and then shake it with flavours.” And in whatever method tea and alcohol fuse, it is here that the blend values the aromas and flavour of the leaves.