A good tea should be much like a good wine – an indulgence that should be enjoyed beyond the glass. The good news is that it can, without losing any of the teeming goodness. In fact, tea was in ancient times – this is much before it became a beverage – was a key flavourant to many dishes.
Like the tea-leaf eggs, a specialty served on the Chinese New Year because eggs represent rebirth and good fortune. Resembling a marbelized porcelain, these shelled, tea-leaf eggs are in fact hard boiled eggs whose shell were slightly cracked and then steeped in a mixture of water, soy sauce, star anise and tea leaves for over an hour.
In fact, many culinary historians consider them to be the first iteration of stained eggs, which became a delicacy on the silk route for two reasons: the looked stunning and tasted amazing.
But eggs were only one way of having the goodness of tea, the other were as marination and flavourants. For this, matured tea leaves were mixed with tender ones and used to slow cook meat, especially pork and wild boar for a long time. This added a subtle aroma to the dish with a distinctive woody, sweet, astringent flavour that married well with the meat. In fact, tea leave cooked duck was a delicacy on the Silk Route.
By medieval times, even when tea drinking – the no milk, no sugar kinds – became a popular ritual, in India as well. Tea for many remained a fantastic flavourant, especially in the north east of India where certain varieties came to be used for smoking and curing meat. By the time tea became a much sort after ingredient much like clove, cinnamon and coffee, even the West began using it in different formats. The difference was that while East used the pure form, West took an instant liking for blends and tisanes. Legend has it that the Ottoman Kitchen used a good amount of tisanes to create their breads and cakes for coffee time.
Luckily, it is those techniques that were reprised when tea saw a resurgence five years ago, with chefs trying to include all kinds of teas in their smoothies, chocolates, cakes, soups and even salads. Most however were on the tisane or herbal blends. The idea worked, and slowly the dining experiences graduated to pure tea with minimal use of other flavourants.
Here are a few chefs' hacks that you can use to garner more from tea – without losing the cup of goodness:
1. As a finishing broth: The closest one comes to eating tea is in form of a lightly-spiced broth where the tea has been steeped to get the flavours and the nutrients into the broth. The tea to use here is the strong flavoured Assam tea or dust, which have both the flavours and colour. Such kind of broth is great for ramen bowl, to be poured on egg, as interesting garnish on soups – creamy ones especially.
2. In Smoothies: While many use matcha to get that brilliant colour and flavour, Darjeeling second flush, CTC first season and dust can work equally brilliantly. In fact, it is a good idea to steep three different kind of teas and then use the liquid in a smoothie.
3. For Sweet Nothings: One of tastiest way of enjoying tea is making it a part of dessert – no we aren’t talking about making it part of cookies or cakes or even breads right now – but simple pleasures like custard and ice-cream where you can use tea and not tisane and can still have their flavours. Chef tip: just ensure you have a good concentrate.
4. Barbeque: One of the oldest trick in the book of great tasting meat is tea. Tea depending on their nature and maturity form great smoking marination. And can be used to impart great woody, earthy, astringent flavours and aromas.
5. As garnish: Think infused-oil, tea-butter and even tea-flavoured marmalade and of course iced tea cocktails!