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Beginner's Guide to Pairing Tea With Food

I have mixed feelings about codifying things. I’m strongly in the “rules are made to be broken” camp but I also think people are basically well-intentioned and that most rules were initially created for a good reason.

I picture a harried kindergarten teacher with a water-color painting activity. She’s got a room full of bright, wildly creative young minds. She doesn’t want a lot of rules to constrain them but, after about the tenth time little Jimmy soaks a fellow classmate in chartreuse, she has to make a rule, “No throwing paints!” 

Seems like a good rule. The equally harried parents of those kids are probably grateful for the reduced laundering. But then along comes Jackson Pollock…

I hesitate to give you rules for pairing teas with food. My own process is pretty organic. I close my eyes (thus confirming my nerd cred with my homies) I imagine or remember the taste of the meal being served. Then I try to remember a tea in which I’ve tasted similar flavors. Next, I remember the taste of that tea with all its nuances and I layer the tea taste on top of the meal flavors. For me, this doesn’t all happen in my head. I taste the blend of flavors on my tongue and then, just like if I was eating or cooking, I quite simply like how that tastes or I don’t.

However, I suspect that process works for me because I have internalized a bunch of information and experiences and I’m able to draw on those in a creative way without consciously recalling the data that informs the experience. Without those prior experiences, I’d probably, literally be in the dark. And looking pretty silly standing there over the tea kettle apparently taking a quick nap.

I suppose something similar happens with artists or musicians. Once they’ve internalized the techniques of their craft they can create new works of art without the conscious process of applying technique.

But, if you are new to the world of gourmet teas you’re probably thinking, “That’s just peachy for you, but I’ve got just two teas in my cupboard and I’m serving fish. Do I go with the green tea or the black tea?”

So, here you go, some “suggestions” not “rules” for pairing tea with food.

White Teas –
White teas are the mildest of the major tea categories. The subtle nuances of a white tea are easily overwhelmed. You’ll want to pair your white teas with equally mild dishes. I find white teas, in general, pair well with salads (if the dressing is not strongly flavored), some fruits (peaches for example are a great combo with white tea) and nutty, not too sweet desserts.

Rules-are-made-to-be-broken bonus pairing: Try white tea and bananas! The roasted nuts flavor typical of white teas and the mild sweetness of a banana works wonderfully together.

Green Teas -
If you’d serve white wine with a meal then green tea is probably the tea you’d want to serve with the same meal. Most green teas have vegetal/grassy flavor profile and a mild bitterness. I find they pair best with more mild dishes like fish or chicken. They go nicely with salads and they also pair up naturally with most Japanese food.

Rules-are-made-to-be-broken bonus pairing: I love green tea with buttered popcorn. Something about the bitterness cuts through the butter and salt and prepares my palate for the next handful. But don’t try to sneak green tea into the theatre. You’re just asking for a burned lap.


Oolong Tea -
Oolong teas have such widely varying flavors I think its unwise to make a generalization here. I’ll break the pairing recommendation down into a couple of categories.

Floral Oolongs – I like floral oolongs with seafood dishes like seafood paella or a nice risotto. They also pair well with fruity or creamy desserts.

Smoky Oolongs – Try these with stronger more flavorful foods. As you might imagine, smoky oolongs pair well with barbeque or smoked meats, bacon, spicy Asian foods seem to work well also.

Rules-are-made-to-be-broken bonus pairing: Try smoky oolongs with roasted root vegetables like beets or sweet potatoes.

Black Teas –
These are, of course, the most full flavored teas. This is your “red wine” of the tea world. Pair black tea with steak and potatoes, spicy foods and rich deserts, especially chocolate. Pork dishes are great with black tea. I find the tannins in black tea cuts through the fats in most pork dishes.

Rules-are-made-to-be-broken bonus pairing: Here’s my late night snack the few weeks that fresh locally grown strawberries are in season. Big bowl of fresh strawberries (I just cut off the tops), a bowl of sour cream, a bowl of brown sugar and a cup of lapsang souchong. Dip the cut side of the strawberry in the sour cream, then touch it to the surface of the brown sugar and pop it in you mouth. Follow with a sip of strong tea. Repeat! Of course there’s caffeine in black tea so you run the risk of a sleepless night. Who cares? Fresh Strawberries!

I hope this quick guide is helpful. If you have some tea-food parings you’d like to share, please put them in the comments section below. I’d love to give them a try!

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