It’s always tea-time,” said the Mad Hatter to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. He could easily have been talking about us. For whether it is a strongly brewed black Assam with adrak (ginger) and elaichi (cardamom), the perfect ‘wake-up’ cup or the healthier green tea, we Indians love our chai.
So what could be more satiating than a cup of our favourite tea? Our favourite tea paired with mouth- watering food. And no, we are not talking about just cakes, samosas or sandwiches that are traditionally had with tea, but an entire meal, right from a fish or mushroom starter to a chicken or paneer main course and chocolate cake or kulfi dessert, all had with cups of tea.
“Tea like wine can easily be paired with food and has the added advantage of not making you tipsy,” smiles Nitin Warikoo, the head of Cha Bar and Business Development at Oxford Bookstores. “What’s more, unlike wine, tea tickles your taste buds, waters your mouth and cleanses your palate making you ready for the next course.”
It is also a better accompaniment to food than coffee as it naturally complements food by rounding off its flavours and acts as a great flavour bridge from one course to the next. Coffee, on the other hand, is overpowering.
So what should you keep in mind while pairing food with tea? “There’s no hard and fast rule. But you should make sure that the ingredients in the dish are not so dominant as to overpower the tea and vice versa,” says Anamika Singh, tea sommelier and founder of Anandini — The Tea Room, an experiential tea room in New Delhi. The tea and food should complement each other to make a good pairing.
For instance, green tea which is not heavy on the palate works better with salads and grills as they don’t have any intense flavours. Singh recommends having a first flush Darjeeling with grilled fish or a vegetable salad.
On the other hand, where the food is rich in spices or has been cooked for long, a strong black tea is a better accompaniment. “Long leaf Assam goes very well with Indian food such as butter chicken or shahi paneer,” he says.
Adds Lakshmi Poovaiah, the manager at Emperor’s Lounge at New Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel: “A robust black tea is perfect for an Indian dish like a chicken tikka masala. It also complements a well done steak.” However, if you were to have your steak medium to rare, then she recommends accompanying it with oolong, a Chinese tea.
She suggests that most dishes that are traditionally paired with white wine can be paired with white or green tea. She recommends having white tea with grilled fish with lemon butter, and green tea with sushi, Chinese greens, stir-fried vegetables, etc.
“Green tea is also a good accompaniment to fried foods as it helps cut the amount of grease that you intake while having fried food,” adds Lakshmi.
For desserts flowery teas such as Jasmine and Rose which have a sweet aroma though they don’t taste sweet are ideal combinations especially with Indian desserts such as gulab jamun and kheer. She recommends having Jasmine tea with milk-based desserts such as kheer or rabdi. Singh’s favourite combinations are gajar ka halwa with oolong and rasgulla with a white tea. Dark chocolate is best had with a full-body Assam.
Once you have started on the flavourful journey of pairing teas with food, there is no need to restrict yourself to Indian teas. Chinese and Japanese teas also pair wonderfully with food. Japanese teas like Sencha or Genmaicha go perfectly with seafood and rice dishes, while Chinese greens like Dragonwell and Jasmine which are strong in flavour and aroma complement salads and chicken dishes. The calming Puerh tea from China’s Yunan province is also a great digestive offering a welcome settling effect after a heavy meal. Try floral oolong with scallops, lobster and Peking duck. Medium to dark oxidised oolongs that are full flavoured are perfect for Thai and grilled foods.
When serving tea with food ensure that the tea is not piping hot as it will burn your tongue making you lose all flavour. “Tea should cool down to 60–80 degree Celsius by the time it is sipped,” explains Warikoo. Of course, nothing stops you from serving cold or iced tea. Try cold Hibiscus iced tea with crab meat as a starter. Other options include an iced black Orange Pekoe with honey and ginger or an Egyptian Chamomile iced tea with honey. This is a particularly healthy option as it does not have any caffeine. Then there are also fruit infusions such as orange and black currant that can be added to cocktails or mocktails.
At the end of the day pairing of food and tea will depend a lot upon your personal taste. Have it the way you like it.
Pictures by Ritesh Sharma