I love tea, but I would not call myself a tea drinker. My caffeinated drug of choice is coffee – black and strong. Yet through my whole life, I’ve had wonderful flings with tea that started in adolescence.
In my teen years, my group of friends would gather at each other’s homes, squirrel ourselves away and drink endless pots of tea while listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, James Taylor, Frank Zappa, Genesis, and Yes. Our tastes in music were eclectic and so – we discovered – were our tastes in tea. We started off with plain old Orange Pekoe, then discovered a store that sold tiny tins of tea. Earl Grey, Jasmine, Gunpowder Green, English and Irish Breakfast, Darjeeling, Assam, Lapsang Sou-chong and Constant Comment filled our teapot. Part of my allowance was reserved every week to buy a new tea. Our thirst for tea was voracious and upon one occasion, we unwittingly drank senna tea, and unhappily found out that its primary use was to ease constipation.
Roasted bancha and Mu tea took me into my 20s, then my tea consumption faded. I had discovered cappuccinos and café au lait, pumped from shiny machines, milky, frothy, and sexy. But I never turned down a cup of tea when offered. And for late-night comfort, I would have a cup of camomile or mint.
My friend David, who lives and works in Hong Kong, has a relationship to tea that borders on religious fervour. We would visit his favourite tea shop, frequently. Ever so reverently, he would pick up a tiny clay pot and lift the lid. Tracing the lid around the edge of the pot, he would cock his head, close his eyes, and listen to the sound that it made. After listening to numerous teapots, it was time to taste tea. In the Gongfu tea tradition, different teas were served in different ways to bring out their character. There were teas served out of tiny glass pots, tiny clay pots, cups with lids, tea poured into narrow cups then poured out and the cup offered for the aroma to be inhaled. And the names were delicious: Autumn Ti Guan Yin, Wild Grown Dancong, Pu’er and Da Hong Pao.
While sipping, I would fantasize about how nice it would be to have a special corner for tea making, just like this one, at home.
Although it was a leisurely ritual, the intensity bordered on manic. Cups, trays and utensils all awash in hot water. Discussions of the first, second, and third infusions, and deciding upon which one, transported you right into the soul of the tea.
The experience was so intense that to calm down I would have to go outside for a breather, take a bathroom break and gaze at the restaurant across the road that served snake soup. Then, I was ready to purchase tea. Even though I had the best intentions, I would drink it for a week after I came back, then it would sadly languish in the cupboard.
I had never thought of using tea in cooking until I met up with the Qi Botanical, or as they are more commonly known, “T Tealeaves” in their original, tiny shop on Heather Street. The amazing flavours of their tea opened my eyes to using it as a flavour component. The Earl Grey was deep and floral, the Mountain Berry was mouth-watering and the selection of green tea uplifting.
The best example I’ve ever had of tea in food though, was a simple dish I had in Japan. I was taken to a restaurant where the specialty was eel. We were given a wooden platter of sweet soy-glazed eel, another wooden dish with condiments and wooden bowls with rice. There were wooden spoons and chopsticks, so the restaurant was free of the noise that clattering dishes and utensils make. The eel was eaten three ways: The first was by itself, with rice. The second was with the condiments. And the third was the best. We poured tea over the rice and ate with profound and silent pleasure.
Two other tea preparations for food that I love are Lapsang Souchong salt and green tea salt. For Lapsang Souchong salt, combine one tablespoon (15 mL) of the tea with one teaspoon (5 mL) sea salt. Grind in a spice grinder. This is great sprinkled over cooked lamb or salmon, potatoes and sablefish, or anywhere you want a smoky fragrance.
For green tea salt, combine one tablespoon (15 mL) matcha with one teaspoon (5 mL) salt and grind in a spice grinder. Wonderful on cooked salmon, yams, or sweet potatoes.
Consider using brewed tea, leaves strained out, for cooking grains. Quinoa cooked in chamomile, brown rice cooked in rooibos are two starting points. My grandmother would plump up prunes in hot tea. Dried apricots with Earl Grey and dried pears soaked in jasmine are delicious and great with a dollop of yogurt or mascarpone.
For using tea with tea leaves in cooking, I like to use the cold brewing method. Combine the leaves with the liquid and refrigerate overnight. Strain out the leaves before use. This prevents the tannins in tea from overpowering the flavour.
Qi Botanical has achieved international acclaim, but they no longer have a retail storefront. Happily, they do business on the Internet. Any time you have a great cup in Vancouver, it’s probably their tea.