Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Pairing food with wine -- oops, I mean, tea

The first time I read about pairing food with tea, I was a bit skeptical. Of course, I knew of food and wine pairings, but food and tea? For me, tea drinking had been just about the tea itself – the relaxation, the flavors in my cup, the pause in my schedule. At the most, I may have considered adding tea to a meal as a palate cleanser between courses.

And then I thought, why not?

People with culinary backgrounds assert that it’s easier and even better to pair food with tea than with wine. Because tea flavors don’t overpower the senses, they complement -- rather than dominate -- a meal. Plus, with its incredibly wide range of flavors and blends, tea certainly brings dimension and interest to a dining experience.

In fact, many fine hotels and restaurants are engaging tea sommeliers that sample, recommend and pour teas for clientele. OK, let’s pause a minute here. I’m not in favor of making tea tasting and tea drinking overly highbrow or inaccessible. However, I have come around on the idea of incorporating tea into my meal plans. And I’m certainly in favor of changing the traditional association of tea with doily-covered tables and cucumber sandwiches.

At the risk of oversimplifying, tea experts tend to recommend black teas with spicy or strongly flavored meals. The taste of black tea also holds up well against smoky flavors, as well as chocolates and pastry desserts.

Green tea works best with fruits and vegetables. Surprisingly, some say that green tea is a great accompaniment for even greasy fried foods -- mostly because it can calm the stomach and aid digestion. Green tea also complements cheeses. Of course, there are numerous other pairings suggested not only for black and green teas, but also for white and oolong teas. Some experts even advocate matching the regional origins of the food and the tea. For example, Japanese green tea might be paired with a meal of sushi.

You will have to decide whether you buy into all of this. I honestly saw recommendations for pairings with anchovies and macaroni & cheese (fortunately, not together), so perhaps a bit of skepticism is necessary. At least, pairings can serve as a reminder to all of us to stop, taste and enjoy our food. They can make us slow down, and eat and drink mindfully. And at the very least, tea’s satiating qualities can provide satisfaction at the conclusion of a meal.

In the end, I suggest that you experiment with reckless abandon and choose pairings that taste wonderful to you. (May I suggest starting with chocolate pairings?)

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