After water, tea is the world’s most popular beverage. The plants of the Camelia Sinensis, which are cultivated mainly in Asia and Kenya, produce small green leaves whose flavor greatly depends on their size, when they are picked and how they are dried or fermented. An infusion of these leaves can result in different, delightful flavors. When the leaves are picked early on, it makes a much more “prized” and expensive tea. And just like with wine, infusions can be paired with all different courses during a meal, providing an unexpected and rewarding experience for even the most seasoned gourmet. Not just for the niche-obsessed foodie, the Cha Jing has simplified and codified the tea pairings with clear classifications, detailed recommendations on the best time to pick the leaves and the best ways to enjoy them, and the kinds of tools needed and all recommendations regarding the water temperature.
The first monograph on tea ever written, the book was authored in China in 758 BC by Lu Yu. At this time in Europe, wine was a very different drink than what is common today: syrupy, sweet and very alcoholic, it was often diluted with water, honey and spices to improve the taste. As a general guideline, of course, one can begin by pairing light infusions with more delicate dishes, and more flavorful ones with more robust flavors. But there are three fundamental rules to keep in mind for anyone wishing to explore the world of tea tasting.
First: inhale deeply the steam from the cup to understand if the bouquet is green or floral; if it’s woody or reminiscent of soil. Then, try to really taste the texture: some teas have a very buttery and full-bodied taste, while others feature woody, grassy or fruity notes. Tomislav Podreka, one of the most successful tea importers to the U.S., has launched a project called “serendipiTea”, which uses tea leaves coming only from organic farmers. He compares the taste of the partially fermented Tung Ting Oolong, to the fruity and woody taste that comes from sucking on the peach pit of a freshly eaten peach.
A meal featuring pesto, basil and garlic would be perfect with a green Gunpowder tea or Sencha: a green tea from Japan that’s picked between May and July, with a bittersweet flavor. For dishes featuring mushrooms, the proper pairing would be an Indian black tea with a malty flavor or a classic Nilgiri from Southern India. For anyone who wants to learn more about the intricate and fascinating world of tea pairing, there are several excellent guides available: The Tea Companion – Conoisseur's Guide and The New Tea Companion, both by Jane Pettigrew, and Tea Basic: A quick and Easy Guide by Wendy Rasmussen and Ric Rhinehart.