Nov '00 Issue

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Cooking with Tea

By Diana Rosen

Cooking with tea is as old as the history of tea itself. The ancient Chinese used dried pungent oolong leaves to stuff fish before steaming it; they added tea leaves to the fire source for smoking duck; infused boiling water with tea leaves to give eggs a distinctly marbled appearance on the whites when hard boiled. Prior to the final minutes of cooking, the eggshells are slightly cracked, thus allowing the teas to seep through and create this magical "marbled" effect; either green or black teas are great for this.

Fruits and spices continue their historical position of flavor enhancers for tea as a beverage and in cooking: Lychee or osmanthus (an orange relative) in Chinese teas; cherry in Japanese greens; garam masala, the heady combination of aromatics such as cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, clove, nutmeg, and lemongrass, in east Indian teas.

Modern day applications are easy and delicious. Travelers to China these days report that a pouch of fragrant leaves is often added to give oomph to kidney beans with shrimp and that Dragonwell is commonly stir fried with shredded chicken breast and bean spouts for a fresh grassy punch.

Dried leaves can add crunch and flavor for rubs to coat fish, meat or poultry or to be used as a garnish, particularly when young and green. Smoked teas lend a deep, dark smokiness to poultry and seafood. Seek out a fine Russian Caravan or Lapsang Souchong for an extra special taste treat or use either to infuse foods with a smoky quality.

Brewed tea can be used as a braising liquid, or as a seasoning for marinades. As the base for a sauce, fruit juices gain depth of flavor with a tea addition. A small handful of tea leaves adds an herbaceous flavor and a golden glow to cream sauces. The sweets table becomes infinitely more interesting with a cake or shortbread made with tea. Here, the trick is to melt the butter with tea leaves in it, allow to stand for a few minutes and then sieve out the leaves. Chill the butter to firm and proceed with your favorite recipe.

It is important to brew tea differently for cooking and baking than you would for brewing. The simplest, easiest way is to pour pure spring water on the leaves and allow them to brew at room temperature up to 20 to 30 minutes. This guarantees neither excessive astringency nor bitterness. For a quicker brewing of tea for cooking, use water at 185 degrees F. or slightly lower temperature and infuse the tea for three to five minutes. Although you might be tempted to use leftover brewed tea in cooking, resist as it will be too strong, have an off flavor or be subsequently bitter when used in cooking or baking.

Pure spring water seems to bring out both the flavor of tea better than purified or certainly distilled waters, because it has enough natural minerals to "connect" with the flavor-producing polyphenols and make the tea "sing" with flavor. If you're lucky to live in a town with great municipal tap water, brew your teas with that.

Some teas define how they should be used in cooking: sweet grassy greens are wonderful with produce in salads or with briny shrimp and other shellfish; soft Keemuns and edgy Yunnans taste great with poultry and Cameroon with its chocolate-like aftertaste is ideal with desserts or with sweetish sauces for pork or chicken. The opportunities for combinations of food and tea are as endless and as enticing as teas are for drinking, and invite experimentation. The result is that tea adds a subtle yet distinctive edge to every dish on the menu.

You have all the equipment already for brewing teas for cooking, and perhaps no tool is as important as a fine-meshed sieve or a chinois, a sophisticated French sieve. When sieving out the liquid from tea, these tools make it easier to press down on the leaves themselves and squeeze out as much flavorful tea as possible for your dish. An alternative for the sieve is the French press-style tea infuser. This makes infusing easy, and cleanup effortless. The result is pure, lovely, flavorful tea every time.

We also champion the use of a countertop timer or at least use the timer on your oven to help you infuse the tea for just the right amount of time. This is particularly important if you use heated water vs. the 20-30 minute room temperature method.

And, what to do with all the tea leaves? Recycle. After all, spent tea leaves, green matter like any other, are highly biodegradable. Use a ceramic or plastic tub for the spent tea leaves, then toss them onto your compost; sprinkle them around indoor or outdoor plants for extra fertilization, or dry them and scatter on Fido's or Kitty's bed to ward off fleas.

Here's a quick and easy braising recipe for chicken using a tea-infused liquid. It is highly adaptable to other foods. Just adjust cooking times accordingly if using meats, or, in particular, vegetables which takes less time to braise.

Ingredients:

  • 4 T black tea leaves (your choice)
  • 2 quarts spring water
  • fruity olive oil, enough to coat pan for searing
  • 4 cloves garlic smashed then finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups thinly sliced yellow onions, about one large onion
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup stewed tomatoes or fresh chopped tomatoes
  • 2 1/2 lb. chicken salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste.

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
  • Prepare tea by brewing it in very cool water (about 170 degrees F.) then
  • sieve out the leaves and set aside the liquid.
  • Sauté the garlic and onions in the olive oil until softened.
  • Add sugar and tomatoes and stir until sugar dissolves.

To braise, place the chicken in a large pan (or Dutch oven) and season with salt and pepper. Cover with the sautéed mixture. Add the brewed tea then bake, covered, until the chicken is tender, about 1 to 1.5 hours and tests done by thermometer at 164 degrees F.

Braising recipe© by Robert Wemischner, from the book Cooking with Tea by Robert Wemischner and Diana Rosen, periplus editions.