While many tea and beverage enthusiasts might know that tea and wine have some things in common, such as the importance of terroir in influencing aromas and flavors, people are starting to discover that not only do teas pair well with food, but there is an art and elegance to pairing, much like wine. In fact, it may even come as a surprise to hear that tea is actually starting to replace wine as an alternative in some of the finest upscale restaurants, going so far as to even serve the tea liquor in wine glasses.
As The Independent has reported, this burgeoning trend in a place like London has been driven by several factors, such as a rise in consumers who are health-conscious, changes in corporate policies that prohibit alcoholic beverages during business lunches, and an increase in more ascetic religious practices that encourage limiting alcohol intake. These trends have left restaurants looking for ways to elevate non-alcoholic dining experiences, and they're finding tea to be the perfect replacement.
Restaurants are changing for the better in this regard. No longer is tea served in a mug with hot water and tea bags. Restaurants that have an interest in revolutionizing the culinary experience are turning to loose leaf teas for their complexity, beauty, elegance, and flavor.
After all, loose leaf teas create more space for experimenting with different brewing parameters, such as varying temperatures and infusion times, and this allows tea sommeliers in restaurants (and yes, that is now a thing) to more carefully and thoughtfully discover which teas are best suited with which foods.
To pair tea with food well, there are several factors to take into consideration beyond simply thinking about which kind of tea one feels like drinking. One should consider, for instance, that teas with strong aromas, such as some pu-erhs, are usually best paired with foods that do not compete with them in terms of flavor profiles. This is known as contrasting.
For example, while it is true that some people might prefer the natural affinity of pinewood smoked Lapsang Souchong (Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong) black tea with a dish like smoked salmon, these more robust teas really shine when contrasted with strong-flavored food that has a totally different flavor profile, such as a tangy pear salad topped with blue cheese.
The opposite principle can apply with lighter teas though, and this is known as matching. When teas have more subtle flavors, such as in the case of Sweet Dew (Meng Ding Gan Lu) green tea, they are often best used to enhance the flavors of foods with similar tasting notes, like a buttery chicken served with some spinach.
Even though these tips can be helpful when deciding between whether to contrast flavors or match them, in an interview with Forbes, tea specialist Rachel Safko encourages food enthusiasts to be persistent, adventurous, and keep an open-mind, noting, “You could spend a lifetime trying combinations and end up getting pretty fussy about pairings.” With the wide range of flavors that loose leaf teas offer and numerous infusion techniques, it can quickly become overwhelming if one does not approach it with a light-hearted spirit.
The reward of finding a tea that accentuates your food, however, makes the endeavor worthwhile. Not only does the right tea elevate the food that you are enjoying, you will discover that the right food also elevates your tea, creating an intoxicating alcohol-free culinary experience.