Beginner’s Guide to Pairing Tea with Food
Andreea Macoveiciuc | On 20, Jan 2014
Mastering the art of pairing tea with food is just as important as knowing how to pick the wine for a delicious meal, or which seasonings work well with which dishes. Picking the right tea can turn a regular dinner into a unique culinary experience and you don’t have to be a connoisseur to tell the difference – your taste buds will feel it for sure.
However, if you’re just starting to discover the fascinating world of tea, it’s not uncommon to feel a bit overwhelmed by the numerous aromas and flavors that offer countless culinary options. And I remember this friend of mine who was so passionate about tea, and used to tell me that picking the wrong type of tea for a certain food is like adding spicy ketchup to your fish recipe, instead of serving it with lemon and wine.
I surely agree with her and this is why I’ve put together this basic guide to pairing tea with food. Still, note that your personal taste should be the decisive factor and these recommendations should only serve as general guidelines.
Pairing tea with food – the basics
The purpose of pairing tea with food is to enhance the taste of both the dish and the beverage, so you know you found the best combination when the flavor and strength of the chosen recipe is nicely complemented and accentuated by the aroma of the picked tea, and vice versa. If you go for a strongly flavored recipe, you should opt for a more robust tea flavor, as otherwise the beverage’s taste will be harder to distinguish.
Fortunately, tea is a versatile beverage, and you can pair it with a wide variety of foods, from the classical Mexican dishes to the sweet chocolate desserts. So whenever you’re preparing a recipe, think of its main ingredients and choose your tea based on them. A quick look at the cuisine from the traditional tea producing regions can also give you some insight into food and tea pairing. Japanese green teas for example go really nicely with most fish and seafood dishes, as well as with rice-based recipes.
Curious to learn more about this? Let’s take a look at the main types of tea and see which foods best complement them.
White tea has a very subtle, silky flavor, so if you pair it with strong foods, you’ll miss the natural sweetness of this beverage, as it will be overwhelmed by the food’s aroma. This category of tea is the most delicate one, so it should be paired only with lightly flavored foods, such as plain vegetable salads with no dressing.
If you choose to pair white tea with sweet fruit dishes or even with meat, you’ll most likely get the impression that you’re drinking plain water, as you won’t be able to feel the flavor profile of this tea. So a cucumber salad or a lightly flavored seafood or fish recipe are the best choices for this beverage, although drinking it alone, between meals, is also a good option. To accentuate the subtle notes of white tea, you can add some fireweed honey or wildflower honey, both delicately flavored.
Green tea has a subtle vegetative flavor, so it goes better with mild flavored foods, like seafood, fish or chicken. Salads are also a good fit for this type of tea, and if you’re into fruits, melon is a good option. Rice tastes better when served with a cup of green tea alongside. However, keep in mind that green tea has three main flavor profiles – vegetal, smoky and fruity, and each of these accentuate the taste of certain foods in a more pleasant way.
- Vegetal green teas have a fresh, grassy flavor and go nicely with seafood. These are representative of Japanese green tea in general.
- Smoky teas are stronger and pair well with pan-fried turkey or chicken, as they cut the greasy mouth-feel of fried meat. Also, they can accentuate the taste and flavor of potatoes, light stir-frys and even of pizza made with root veggies, but don’t make a good team with sweet foods. In this category are included most Chinese green teas.
- Last, fruity green teas taste really well when served with chicken, sandwiches, fruit salads and unsweetened pastries, and they’re also a great choice for a refreshing glass of iced tea. Representative of Ceylon and Indian green teas, these beverages have a light sweetness, which recommends them for baked meat-based dishes and whole wheat breads. Still, these aren’t the best option for deep-fried or greasy meat recipes.
Oolong teas have a more complex aroma, ranging between green and black teas, so they can be paired with a wider range of foods, from lighter fish dishes to grilled meats. In general, oolongs are divided into two main categories – light and dark teas, so when pairing this beverage with foods, it’s good to keep in mind the following:
- Light oolong teas go best with scallops, sweet rich seafood and lobster. Fragrant, aromatic and usually floral, they should be combined with foods that can bring out the floral notes from these beverages. Yes, combinations of sweet and salty flavors can also lead to interesting culinary experiences, so you can also try pairing light oolongs with crackers or light salted snacks.
- Dark oolongs have a more prominent flavor, so they work better with stronger foods, like grilled ones. Duck meat, salmon, trout and bass dishes are good choices for this beverage, and smoked meat or meat-based appetizer plates can also bring out the flavor of dark oolongs. As for sweets, pastries and pancakes made with maple syrup are usually good pairs for this type of tea.
Black tea has the most robust flavor, and the most pronounced tannins, so it’s indicated to pair it with full-flavored foods, like spicy dishes and meat. Pastries also taste excellent when served with a cup of black tea alongside. As general guidelines:
- Fruity black teas – usually made in India and Sri Lanka – work well with sweet desserts, as the high concentration of tannins in these beverages cleanse the residual mouth-feel and enhance the sweetness of foods.
- Smoky black teas – usually from China – are very strong and should be combined with intensely flavored food, like dark meat, blackened meat or even sweet chocolate. However, heavily sweetened deserts aren’t the best pair for this type of teas.
- Earthy black teas, such as those from Yunnan and Africa, are good accompaniments for blackened meat, jerk chicken, mashed potatoes and other vegetable gravy recipes. Because to their earthy taste, they aren’t the best match for sweet foods, so avoid choosing such teas for creamy desserts.
Pu-erh teas have a strong, earthy and distinctive flavor, and they make great choices alongside a chicken or stir-fry recipe, as they can neutralize the oily and greasy tastes. Thanks to their digestive benefits, these beverages are often preferred after large meals.
Whether you opt for a cup of delicate white tea or you choose a rich and aromatic black tea, finding the foods that best complement these tastes takes more than knowing the theory. So go ahead and experiment with your favorite teas and recipes until you find those marvelous combinations that can turn dining into a blissful moment.