Liquid gastronomy: Tea inspired cuisine

filed22 Dec 2010 from Carmen Jenner CategoriesFoodies, Sri Lanka

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While visiting Sri Lanka I had a spot of Tea Gastronomy and learnt all about tea-inspired recipes – and I shared a little more than inspiration with few chefs in Dilmah’s headquarters.

tea picker 2

Far from the maddening pace of Colombo and about three hours north of Sri Lanka’s idyllic beaches in the south, you’ll hit mountain ranges awe-inspiring enough to give any trekker palpitations even before their ascent. The chequered green ranges are dotted with women picking tea, many of whom live and were born on the same tea plantations as their parents.

The tea pickers themselves depict the very essence of the calming influences of tea, which explains why they are the faces on Dilmah Tea’s packaging. Back in the Colombo, the vibe is anything but serene. The air is electric at the Dilmah headquarters, a space that’s been invaded by dozens of passionate chefs, and me. I keep my coffee snobbery to myself as founder Merrill Fernando and his son Dilhan not only welcome me into the Dilmah family, but also urge me to join in with the festivities.

That is why I now find myself sharing spoons with complete strangers. Spoons are dunked into hundreds of varieties of teas, swirled around the palette and then returned to the cups, awaiting the next taster. I try not to think about what could be floating in the brew I’m sampling, and remain professional—after all, the tea industry is the ‘other’ oldest profession in the world.


The tea craze all started in 2737 BC when some tea leaves blew into Chinese Emperor Shen Nung’s cup of hot water. Soon the whole kingdom was enjoying its euphoric effects, and the fad travelled throughout the Orient and spread to America, Britain and Russia. Unsurprisingly, tea became a commodity and today most of the world’s tea is grown in Indonesia, Kenya, Argentina, Japan, East Africa, Sri Lanka, China (the biggest supplier) and India (the world’s biggest exporter).

Today’s frenzy of tea tasting is in preparation for the big event: the Dilmah High Tea Challenge, part of the Culinary Art 2010, Sri Lanka’s premier annual food and hotel show. The challenge involves the creation of tea-inspired foods, known as “Tea Gastronomy,” and with the range of teas available, getting the balance of flavours right is no mean feat. Once again, tea has become the latest trend, and this ‘new’ ingredient is causing a storm in a tea cup.

Despite Sri Lanka’s affinity with all things exotic and spicy, they have adopted an English tea culture, often brewing for two to three minutes before adding milk and sugar. However, tea is brewed differently for cooking, depending on the dish and personal taste. To avoid astringency and bitterness, steep tea leaves or bags in boiling water for five minutes, or for 20-30 minutes in water at room temperature. The natural minerals in tap or rain water are better than purified or distilled, however it’s wise to always be mindful of the local water quality.

tea future

Black tea accounts for 78% of the world’s tea production, which is mainly grown in Sri Lanka, India and Kenya. Other tea types are green, oolong, white, herbal, rooibos and chai, and from these over 3,000 varieties, blends, flavours and blooms are cultivated. The range of flavours can make the pairing of tea with other ingredients tricky, and experimenting with the balance of flavours to create the ideal blend is a game of subtlety. Apply the less is more mentality. Tea should be treated with the same respect as any spice, except given its scope, an organic approach is advised. Flow with the tea and the results will be staggering.

Tea can be used as a seasoning in marinades and ground leaves can be mixed with spices such as garam masala, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, clove, and nutmeg to produce an exotic blend. Or keep it simple with ground leaves combined with salt and added to steamed vegetables or Asian recipes. Try brewing a concentrated mix of Pekoe for steak by steeping a teabag in ¼ cup of water for five minutes and use the liquid instead of water in the marinade; the tannins in the tea will help to tenderise the meat.

Brewed tea can be used as a braising liquid, as a base for a sauce, in condiments, or as a stock in soups, rice, stews and pasta. Try boiling rice in jasmine tea or steam couscous in your favourite variety. Give a wild mushroom risotto extra zest with an Orange Pekoe tea or use a brew in a stir-fry instead of water for concentrated flavour.

Infuse olive oil with tea bags, such as Dilmah Watte Dombagastalawa Single Estate, and use the oil to encrust an Atlantic salmon, in salad dressings or drizzle over soups. Butter infused with a fruit or scented blend adds something special to pancakes, pastry recipes and breads. Melt the butter with the tea leaves, stand for a few minutes, and then sieve out the leaves. Chill the butter to firm it up and use as normal.

Just as some wines have grassy undertones, teas can also have the same qualities, and sweet, grassy teas are best with eggs, salads and shellfish. To marble eggs, infuse boiling water with either green or black tea leaves, then gently crack the shells in the final minutes of boiling to allow the tea to seep through. Rub fish, meat, or poultry with young green leaves, or brew green tea with dried lemon myrtle leaves and coat ocean trout with the tea mixture and your favourite herbs.

Poultry, the Switzerland of meat, goes well with most flavours—try black teas like the edgy Yunnan or soft Keemuns, which is also good with steamed green beans. Black tea works well with fish, such as ocean trout, meat and will also cut through the sweetness of fruit. Smoked teas, like Lapsang Souchong, add a deep smokiness to seafood and poultry, especially duck, and throwing some on the grill will add extra depth. For example, lay marinated chicken onto tea leaves with a sprinkle of sugar or honey and grill for sweet smoky results. Dilmah’s First Ceylon Suehong is ideal with a strong roast meat or smoked fish.

Steamed and hand-rolled teas add a light flavour and the tannins give the palate a dry finish—try coating some fish with the pounded tea powder as a marinade. Also good with a fish marinade is white tea, which comes from young leaves for a subtle floral flavour with citrus notes.

The many varieties of oolong teas have floral, fruity, spicy or roasted hints. Team with white pepper for a tasty meat rub or stuff fish with pungent leaves before steaming. Fruity oolong teas, like peach, are fantastic with ice cream or egg sauces.

There is a plethora of tea flavour combinations to try. Team lemongrass or vanilla with salmon, pair orange with lobster, tease scones with lime or match orange pekoe with grand marnier in a souffle. Fruit juices gain a depth of flavour with the addition of tea, so try poaching pears in Dilmah’s Masala Chai Fiery Ceylon Spice. No surprises that mint green tea is sumptuous with lamb and chocolate. Or the truly inventive will combine several tea flavours for groundbreaking results.

tea produce of Sri Lanka

Any self-respecting foodie would be tempted by the culinary adventures to be had with tea, but consider the health benefits too. If you’re a firm believer that prevention is better than cure, then tea has some of the most widely known benefits. According to studies done by The Tea Institute of Sri Lanka, tea has many health benefits. It’s calorie free, low in sodium and contains a group of chemical components known as polyphenols, which act as antioxidants. The anti-oxidants found in tea can assist your immune system in fighting off impurities. High cholesterol and the fat deposits and blood clots in arteries can be reduced by the polyphenols found in tea. Tea is good for oral health thanks to its high level of fluoride and polyphenols that inhibit the growth of bacteria. The polyphenols found in tea can reduce the harmful bacteria found in the intestines and can reduce blood glucose levels which can reduce diabetes. Black and green teas contain anti-oxidants which can stave off common degenerative conditions like heart disease and strokes. Tea polyphenols can directly react and neutralise carcinogens, which can reduce the risk of cancer. Your favourite brew will also keep you rehydrated, which is important when visiting some of the hot spots on earth like Sri Lanka and India.

The very colour of green itself conjures up images of lushness, healthiness, serenity and sensuality. Its natural mood enhancing qualities are indisputable. Tea is hardly going to go out of fashion, but combining this key ingredient into cooking expands its use and secures its longevity. Put the thought of a pot of tea with scones out of your colonial head, and bake those scones with some tea infused butter instead. Tea Gastronomy is the new black.

tea terraces

To read my other Sri Lankan stories go to Smiles from the Teardrop Isle: Family Travel in Sri Lanka or From Colombo to Galle: A Sri Lankan travel revival or Ceylonese Cravings

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