Tea Pairings: Why Tea Must Be Considered in Conjunction with Cuisine
Foods and Drinks have a deep relationship in American culture
(Short Summaries after each section for my neurodivergent readers)
Foods and drinks have a deep relationship in American culture. People choose their drinks based on what food they are interested in eating. For this reason food pairings are vital to the widespread use of a beverage.
Wine has a strong relationship with food because of a long history and breadth of food pairings that have been explored. People think "what food will I eat?" and then they pick the wine from a chart based on the opinion of wine experts. For this reason wine has developed an intrinsic connection to hundreds of cuisines all across the world.
This brings me to water. People drink water with most meals because it is both hydrating and neutral. They believe it does not affect the taste of the food, even though it often brings the tastes in your mouth to a screeching stop. In my opinion, water is an atrocious drink to pair with an interesting meal. It makes every bite fall flat by "washing out" the tastes in your mouth into an awkward indistinct mess. But it does not need to be this way. Enter tea.
There are a wide range of interesting and delicious teas which can conceivably pair well with any food. If you manage to pick a tea whose flavors and profile compliment and contrast the food you are eating, you can add a deeper context to any food-based experience than before. Pure loose leaf tea comes in near infinite profiles because there are more varieties than a normal person can try in their lifetime. Herbal tea takes this a step further. You can make herbal tea out of almost any edible item (to the point where it can be concerning at times to a stable person). Between herbal and pure teas, there is a taste for everyone's preference. Tea has a range above any other drink. But there are some problems with modern American tea.
I wrote a summary of my irritations with tea in the United States which is essential to understanding most of my ritualistic bitching about American tea.
TLDR: Tea makes food more interesting and all drinks are considered in terms of how they relate to food.
Issues with the American Tea Market
Tea is available almost everywhere in the United States, but quality tea is available almost exclusively online and in specialty shops. The extent of low quality tea saturation in the market is absolutely embarrassing. If you go to the tea section of a big box supermarket, you will find nothing but oil scented fannings and tea dust packaged in teabags with the occasional low quality loose leaf tea. Most of these are non complex in profile and disgusting in taste.
Before I tried loose leaf tea I did not like tea. How could you? Most supermarket teas barely taste like tea flavored water. And you often have to add sweetener or cream for it to be palatable. I personally see a problem with this. Restaurants serve bagged hot tea and “iced tea”, which is often mass manufactured syrup mixed with water. Cheap tea goes hand in hand with sweeteners.
A good tea should be consumed without sugar since sugar lessens the complex aromas and tastes which can come from a properly prepared medium to high quality tea. A good tea is interesting and complex. The profile isn't limited to "malty" and "bitter". It needs nothing but clean water of the correct temperature and a satisfactory steeping time.
When you add sugar, you no longer truly taste the breadth of the tea. You taste sweetener. While sweetener is technically delicious by definition, there are better tastes than "sweet" in the same way that there are better traits than "pretty" or "nice" in a person. Unfortunately most widely available teas in the United States do not have a breadth of profile to explore. They are not interesting and most are deeply unpleasant. There is a small community (when compared to the larger population) across the U.S. that has been working to change that, but it does not seem to be enough.
TLDR: You shouldn't have to add sugar to tea and most easily accessible teas for the working class in the US require sugar to be drinkable.
Loose Leaf Tea is treated as a limited beverage
The American tea market is overwhelmed with poor quality control. The tea section of most grocery stores is absolutely embarrassing and low quality teas are barely tea and not that useful for tastings and food pairings.
Medium to high quality tea has become essential to my day since I began exploring it's realm. The complexity in tastes and aromas plays with the scents and tastes around it. Drinking tea in a forest yields a different experience than drinking the same tea brewed in the same way in your living room. The same tea seems different when drunk with a variety of foods. That tea will morph and evolve to the experience. Other notes in the profile will express themselves differently when paired with something new. Every cup of the same tea brew has the potential to let you explore a different tasting experience. It's one of the most exceptional parts of tea. Unfortunately it is also one of the least explored in regular day to day life.
Many Americans drink tea the same way in the same place at the same time if they drink it at all. They drink it at home. They drink it alone. And they usually drink the first steeping only. This limits the tasting potential of tea. If one is only drinking it hot from a kettle, it limits when and where you can drink tea.
This limit is almost exclusively considered with loose leaf tea. People know that they can drink coffee on the go or pick up a soda at the gas station. But in their minds, loose leaf tea can only be made in this way. This is incorrect.
There are several ways to drink tea out and about. The most convenient and affordable way to do it is through iced tea.
Iced tea and the essential nature of multiple infusions
If you pick up a $5 2 liter plastic pitcher from the grocery store (or a $20 1.5-2L borosilicate glass (pyrex) “kettle” or “pitcher” online) and brew a couple large (1L) steepings of a decent loose leaf tea, you can mix them together and store it in the fridge. Mind you, this requires a tea which evolves over several infusions instead of losing its flavor after one. Many teas do not fall under this category.
It's important to only drink tea that you can re-brew at least 3-5 times. Tea is only cost efficient if you can reuse the leaves effectively. This is why you can use a tea infuser water bottle to drink tea all day. Tea's ability to be resteeped is something I explore in the teas I review. If you can re steep a good tea 3x, it quickly becomes cheaper than soda and coffee. This is what is most important for making large batches of iced tea.
If you brew 4-5g of tea (before I used a scale, I usually did 2 tablespoons of loose tea), you can make several 1 liter infusions. When you make bulk tea like this for your refrigerator it becomes an inexpensive and healthy drink.
Once it is brewed into iced tea, you can take it with you to work, on errands, to restaurants, or anywhere that allows a water bottle. Once this has happened, you can drink cold tea with any meal to explore how it reacts with food.
My favorite tea to pair with food is silver needle white tea because it goes with almost everything. The Imperial Yunnan Silver Needle by Tealyra (link below) can resteeped over 6 times and it evolves and develops a more interesting complexity as the infusions continue. I have yet to spend the time resteeping it in a gaiwan until it degrades. The last time I did, it got too late in the day and I stopped because I wanted to sleep. I recommend mixing the first 2-3 infusions together in a pitcher specifically because the first infusion is a little bland. It needs a steep or two to start developing. I mention this one because it is widely available online.
Either way, it definitely is still going strong on infusion 6, which is usually where I run out of room in my fridge. The only reason I do not infuse it further is because I literally have nowhere else to put it. So technically you could probably get several more 1 liter infusions before it starts degrading. When I say degrade I mean the steep after it peaks. It becomes less complex and the infusions are not as good. Many times with a good tea the infusions are still tasty, but it's usually where I end my session.
TLDR: Freshly brewed iced loose leaf tea that you can store in your fridge is easy, convenient, cheap, and tasty. It just has to be good tea.
the math of brewing iced tea
If you check out the links (above) to the Tealyra website, you'll see that a 100g bag of their Imperial Yunnan Silver Needle seems a bit pricey. It looks expensive, but it really isn't if you do the math.
100 gram bag is $21.50
If you brew 1 liter batches western style (3 minutes +30-60s for each consecutive infusion), you use around 5 grams.
I usually brew 6 infusions (6 liters) of this silver needle when I make this tea. You don’t need a lot of leaves (5 grams) and it’s easy. It takes some time, but most of it is an afk situation.
Here’s the math:
(100g per bag)/(5g per session) = 20 sessions
1 session = 6 (1L infusions)
(20 sessions per bag)(6 liters per session) = 120 liters per bag
1 (100g bag) = $21.50 = 20 sessions (6L of tea per session) = 120 liters of tea
That is a LOT of iced tea to put in your fridge using a relatively small bag of tea. And this is healthy tea. It is naturally sweet and does not require sugar. You can pour this in your water bottle and take it anywhere. It can stay fresh and delicious in your fridge for a week or so. You can drink it with basically any meal and the food pairings are fun to study. And all you need is equipment and clean water to do this. (Honestly, filtered water makes a difference. I brewed this with hard water the other day when traveling and it didn't taste as good.)
People think a 2L bottle of soda is cheap so people will buy them consistently. Coca-Cola is the most popular soda in the United States (https://best.lovetoknow.com/food/what-is-best-selling-soda). It's probably one of the reasons the company owns a shit ton of subsidiaries (https://www.yahoo.com/now/look-every-company-coca-cola-161040655.html).
*laughs in capitalism*
A 2L of Coca-Cola is $2.19 at the Fred Meyer here in Portland, OR.
A 2L of the Kroger knockoff coke is $0.79 at Fred Meyer.
Now let’s price this out:
1 (2L bottle of Coca-Cola) = $2.19
60 (2L bottle of Coca-Cola) = ($2.19)(60) = 120 liters of Coca-Cola = $131.40
1 (2L bottle of knockoff coke) = $0.79
60 ( 2L bottle of knockoff coke) = ($0.79)(60) = 120 liters of knockoff coke = $47.40
1 100g bag of silver needle = 120 liters of iced tea
120 Liters of Iced Silver Needle = $21.50
TLDR: Big batches of iced loose leaf grand crus are cheaper than soda and probably every other drink you can easily access (besides tap water). You can spend $20 on a small bag of loose leaf tea and be drinking fancy iced tea for at least a month or two.
Also most of the good loose leaf tea companies aren't owned by these 10 huge companies. Many of the craft teas are made by independent small businesses and farms. By drinking fancy teas you are, by definition, fighting the man.
Now Consider the Ethics of the Garbage You will generate by drinking bottled beverages
1 bag of Tealyra silver needle is packaged in a small mylar bag which can be reused for packaging food, tea, and really anything if you want. And of course this is 120 L of tea.
120 L of soda is packaged in 60 large 2L plastic bottles of soda.
Yes, this can be recycled, but:
“8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year” ... “That is the equivalent to five grocery bags of plastic trash for every foot of coastline around the globe.” -National Geographic
And the plastics you put in your recycling bin do not get “recycled” in the way we have been lead to believe:
“Two-thirds of plastics will be loaded on to container ships to be sent to Europe or Asia for recycling” -The Guardian
Oh, and it gets better:
“Then, on the first day of 2018, China, the world’s largest market for recycled waste, essentially shut its doors. Under its National Sword policy, China prohibited 24 types of waste from entering the country, arguing that what was coming in was too contaminated.” -The Guardian
So now China isn't even taking all of our recycling. They are sending it to other countries which also basically don't know what to do with our trash. In Europe they literally burn trash for energy, but it's still pollution.
"Heat is transformed into steam that spins turbines to generate electricity much like conventional power plants that burn coal or gas. "
"Trash-burning plants do have their drawbacks, such as emissions like conventional power plants fueled by natural gas and coal. However, methane generated from organic waste in landfills is reduced. This is important. In the short term, methane is about 72 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide."
Honestly recycling plastic is a fucking mess and doesn’t work the way people think it does. Everyone should learn about what’s actually happening with our garbage since there are literally piles of garbage in the ocean the size of Texas.
These patches are actually islands of plastic garbage (some of which was "recycled") and it's in the ocean being eaten by fucking turtles and shit.
Even when people try to make the situation better, it's still trash and it's still a problem. The solution is no longer using single use plastics for everything we possibly can.
TLDR: Drinking loose leaf tea is more ethical than drinking soda because of the garbage created by drinking soda. Also the recycling situation in the US is a fucking train wreck. There are literally massive garbage continents in the ocean. Other countries burn garbage for energy, but it's generating pollution. Limiting single use plastics is the best option.
Some food pairings with silver needle. I have linked the food pairing review I digitized and posted with the yogurt.
Okay, back to food pairing
Once you start pairing teas with your daily meals you can start to examine how they interact with each other. At worst the flavors clash, sometimes they add nothing to each other, but many times a new level to the experience can easily be reached through drinking tea with food.
Food pairing teas can bring out flavors in food through contrasting tones or boost desirable flavors with similar tones. Some teas, like white and yellow tea, cleanse the palate so you can re-experience the food with each new bite. Some balance out meals that otherwise might be overwhelming. But with a good food pairing, you are constantly experiencing flavors that accent each other. There is never an awkward pause from your beverage that literally waters down the profile of your food.
The best pairings beckon to each other. Eating or drinking one inspires you to consume the other. You crave both and can't stop the experience. Finishing the meal leaves you wanting more.
Food and tea belong together. There is a tea for every food and you don't have to be an expert or spend $50 a plate at a fancy restaurant to enjoy a good food pairing. I literally had a delightful chilled white tea with instant ramen the other day. It was delicious. I pair it with yogurt. I pair it with frozen meals. And obviously I pair it with fancy meals too. Food pairing doesn’t have to be pretentious or fancy, it just has to make your eating experience more interesting and enjoyable. You pair drinks with food every day. It isn’t special, but it can be.
So here is a guide to food pairing for a casual tea drinker:
Find a couple teas you really like.
Figure out what food sounds tasty.
Take a wild guess as to what tea will taste good with that food.
Go for it! Whip out a notepad and write down what you are experiencing. What tastes are you noticing? How do the flavors interact? And most importantly: do you like it and what do you want to try next time?