For the past few months I have been working with Clooney restaurant on tea pairing for their seven-course degustation menu. This has been a lot of fun so I thought I’d share the basics of food and tea pairing with you so you can experiment at home.
Tea has a diverse and interesting flavour profile – one that is as complex, if not more so, than wine. And in the same way that you can pair wine with food, you can also pair tea with food. You might know this instinctively already when you crave black tea and toast on the weekend or enjoy the Jasmine green tea served at your local yum cha restaurant.
The aim of pairing tea with food is to achieve balance and find a match that both enhances the flavour of the dish and the tea.
If you’re looking for a new way to impress your guests at your next dinner party, or just have a little fun at home, here’s a beginner’s guide to pairing tea with food.
Start by matching the weight and intensity of the dish and the tea
The six types of tea: white, green, yellow, oolong, black, dark generally (but not always) become more intense as you go down the spectrum with white tea having the most delicate and subtle flavours and mouthfeel, black and dark teas having the deepest flavours and black tea the highest tannin content/astringency. When you have a dish in mind that you want to match a tea with, consider the weight of the dish and what type of tea has a similar intensity. For example, you could match a green tea with white fish, or a black tea with red meat but you wouldn’t pair a white tea with a curry as the tea’s delicate notes would be overpowered by the strong spice flavours.
Find flavour notes that match the food
You can enhance flavours by choosing a tea that has the same notes as the dish you are drinking it with. For example, Gyokuro (a green tea from Japan) which has marine and vegetal notes and works well with a simple white fish and green vegetable dish.
Find flavour notes that complement the food
If you know food and flavour well, you will understand which different flavours complement each other. Think about different foods that go well together. For example, blue cheese and pear, prosciutto and melon, walnuts and honey, lamb and rosemary, chocolate and cream. Think about flavours that go well with the key ingredients of the dish, then find a tea with those flavours. For example, you could pair a Chinese black tea that has dark chocolate notes (such as Golden Monkey) with a caramel and nut tart.
Mouthfeel and texture
The way food feels in your mouth has a dramatic effect on your experience of that food: think crunchy roast potatoes, silky chocolate mousse, soft slow-cooked lamb. Tea also has texture and the way it feels in your mouth can be astringent (drying sensation), soft and mellow or full-bodied (coats your mouth) for example. A dish that is rich and oily, such as red meat, works really well with a Sri Lankan or Assam black as these teas often have a high tannin content resulting in astringency that acts as a palate-cleanser between each mouthful.
My tea master friend and food and tea paring expert Cheryl Teo, founder of Flag and Spear Tea Hunters, (who, incidentally, I met at a gin tasting event…) uses the ‘flavour bridge’ approach.
Here’s what Cheryl says: “The first step is to get well acquainted with the tea I want to work with, noting down observations on the smell, taste and mouthfeel. I then select a key flavour and create ‘bridges’ to other flavours. For instance, a tea may have peach aromas, which could be paired with ingredients such as coconut, almonds, blueberries and honey. From here, it’s just a matter of tasting the tea with a selection of ingredients to determine which pairings work and which do not.
“Although I love thinking and talking about flavour theory and pairing principles, nothing beats just going with your instincts and actually tasting food and tea together.”
Here’s a few simple pairings to get you started:
White tea: cucumber salad, mild cheese (e.g. Camembert), pannacotta
Green tea: sushi, fish and steamed greens, plant-based salads, chicken, rice
Light oolong: scallops, lobster, prawns, fruit salad
Dark oolong: duck, smoked/cured meat, roasted vegetables, granola/muesli, pancakes with maple syrup
Black tea: red meat, chocolate, pastries, rich deserts
Dark/fermented: rare meat, cheese (or after food as a digestif)
As Cheryl said above, experimentation is the best way to find out what works best for you. The suggestions above will act as a guide but sometimes you will find an unexpected combination works beautifully. When in doubt though, black tea goes with everything!
I spend many hours each month tasting and evaluating tea (called ‘cupping’ in the tea world). Every label on the tea we sell is carefully written so you can get a full picture of the tea and what flavours you might experience and this will help you when you are looking at tea and food pairing.