You’ve probably seen someone elaborately snorting and swishing wine or know some guy with a hipster mustache who’s really, really into coffee. As intimidating as these crowds can be, it’s understandable if the idea of drink pairing makes you sweat a little. While there will be a few with stuck-up noses in any group, you’ll find that tea pairing is a much more relaxing pastime that can better your meals without all the fuss. In fact, tea is quite versatile and, not to mention, a much healthier craft to explore.
Full of curiosity (though initially a little intimidated myself), I reached out to The Spice & Tea Exchange in Winter Park, Florida, for answers.
As I entered the woody, aromatic shop, their tea expert, Lydia, was ready and waiting to lend me her wealth of knowledge and answer all my questions. To my delight, it turns out that food and tea pairing is really only as complicated as you want to make it; all it takes is a little insight, and you, too, can bring out all those beautiful flavors to enrich your meal experience.
Before We Get Started, Here’s a Little Need-To-Know
There are actually only six types of tea: white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and the dark fermented pu-erh, and each comes from one plant—the Camellia sinensis. The difference between the six depends on their degree of oxidation or fermentation.
When it comes to pairing them, it’s mainly about personal experience and personal preference. Tea pairing should be more of a meditative and mindful affair than a strict or stressful one. Though, as Lydia carefully reminded me, there are some rules for a reason.
Three Tea Pairing Guidelines To Keep in Mind
First, tea can easily be overpowered by food, so it’s important to match the level of your tea to your meal. Simply put, lighter teas go with lighter foods, and weightier teas can handle a richer dish. We’ll get to more on that later.
Second, consider the tea’s flavor profile when picking food to go with it. For instance, a congruent pairing matches the flavors of the food and tea, creating an additive, enhancing effect, whereas a complementary pairing places together food and a tea with different flavors to create a balanced result.
Third, the temperature of your water matters. If the water is too hot when you go to steep or infuse your tea, the tea leaves will burn, causing a bitter, astringent flavor that won’t go well with anything.
Finally, don’t let these guidelines stress you out. Tea pairing is rather flexible, and all you really need to know to get started are some basic pairings for the six types. Easy enough, right?
The Types of Teas and Their Basic Pairings
White tea, having been exposed to air (i.e., oxidation) for the least amount of time, is the most delicate of the bunch. It’s essentially unprocessed and lowly caffeinated, giving it a subtle and elegant flavor, aroma, and effect.
Because it’s such a delicate tea, it goes best with lighter fare, like mild cheeses, fruit, or light fish.
Yellow tea is actually quite rare; it was not to be found at my local shop. It’s similar to green tea, though gentler, making its best pairings on the lighter side as well. According to Arte & Zayne, a Dutch handcrafted tea shop, yellow teas make an excellent match for raw seafood, such as oysters.
Green tea is typically described with words like vegetal, fruity, or nutty and is packed full of antioxidants. It’s a level up from white and yellow, with a somewhat more substantial flavor, but still pairs best with lighter foods, such as rice, vegetables, seafood, cold sandwiches, dark chocolate, or salad. You can get away with pairing it with some meat as well, like poultry, because it’s just capable of standing on its own.
Matcha is a popular, strong type of green tea that is able to pair more nicely than regular green tea with desserts, any type of chocolate, and somewhat richer foods. It’s made by grinding green tea leaves into a fine powder. So, instead of infusing the leaves in water as with regular green tea, you’re instead ingesting the leaf itself, providing more caffeine, antioxidants, and flavor concentration as a whole.
Oolong tea is a smooth and rich, semi-oxidized Chinese tea that carries a more complex flavor than the preceding teas. It sits somewhere between a green and a black tea and has both light and dark options.
“Oolong tea goes well with almost everything,” Lydia tells me, listing off the wide range of foods it tends to go well with. The light oolongs pair nicely with citrus fruits, soft cheese and crackers, scallops, lobsters, and more. On the other hand, dark oolongs are stronger and can handle somewhat heavier dishes, like stir-fries, duck; spicy curries; or sweets, such as chocolate, caramels, or spiced breads and pastries.
Because it’s oxidized the longest, black tea is the darkest and sturdiest option among the other tea types. It goes well with desserts and hearty dishes, like steak or lamb, and it’s well-loved around the world with breakfast foods. Black tea can complement butteriness and richness, cutting them in just the right way to balance the flavors.
Pu-erh is a fermented tea that you can consider as more of a digestif or a meditative tea. It’s known for its distinctive earthy and nutty flavors and pairs well with foods that match those notes, like asparagus, mushrooms, or nutty aged cheeses. Additionally, it can help balance out and aid your stomach in digesting oily or heavy meals.
Giving these simple pairings a go is a great way to get started on your tea pairing and uncover just what you like. A good tea pairing experience is one that makes you feel good; that is, a pairing that makes the flavors stand out or harmonize in a manner pleasing to you, providing you with a relaxing and satisfying experience.