Saturday, June 13, 2020

Tea and food pairing

This is a subject that hasn't even been mentioned in this blog.  I eat food with tea all the time, most typically with breakfast every day, but they are never intentionally paired, in that one limited sense.

To some extent I must take that into account if I'm having a tea with lunch, but essentially the tea is whatever I feel like having, and maybe one that doesn't conflict with the food.  But not necessarily a version that complements or matches the food; I just don't think along those lines.

It's perhaps most common for tea enthusiasts to claim that they never eat any food at all with better versions of tea, not even a neutral form of cracker, or maybe only something like that.  Then again that depends on the tea preference too.  People into English Breakfast Blends probably would be more inclined to have snacks with them than Chinese sheng pu'er or oolong drinkers.

I was recently talking to a new online contact about this theme, Joshua Linvers.  He is a tea enthusiast who works related to food and tea pairing (and with wine), associated with the Q Haute Cuisine restaurant.  There's more on that direction and theme on his own website, with this article on pairing tea and food a good starting point.

I'll start with his input on some general pairing themes.

Joshua's comments on tea and food pairing

The aspects of young sheng that I enjoy are when they come off as particularly fruity once the bitterness fades. Fruity such as apricot, papaya, or perhaps dried mango. From that starting point I would have to consider what else is going on -- is it also related to tobacco, or walnut, or is it root-like and autumnal?

A Xi Gui Pu'Erh paired dish we made at the restaurant was Venison jerky with cured duck, pickled figs, walnut chutney, a whiskey gastrique, and crostinis. [That origin isn't familiar, but a Hojo post covers what it's about].  

With a young puerh from Lincang we made a course which was pork and shiitake mushroom broth with walnut gnocchi, dried apricots, and pancetta.

Ultimately I think the way I like to do pairings is try to adjust for 'shortcomings' or things about the tea or food that might be a bit alienating for some people.

For example, if someone doesn't like bitterness you can do a pairing with strong saltiness or strong sweetness to make it seem less intense. If a tea has a bitter apricot flavor and you make a bitter apricot pie, you're going to screw it all up and end up tasting nothing from either of them. If you choose a complimentary flavor to apricot --- say nuts for example. If you're eating a pecan pie, or a bowl of salty pecans, the tea wont taste as bitter, and the apricot flavor is really going to resonate because you're putting two complimentary flavors together.

If you would consider pairing fruit with meat, I think people have some standard opinions of what works -- pineapple and pork for example, cranberries and turkey, applesauce with beef bolognese, etc.

It stands to reason that if you're someone who likes the match of pineapple and pork that having a tea which reminds you of pineapple is a good start for a pork based pairing.

Interesting!  One part reminds me of a tangent that's so unrelated I probably shouldn't mention it, about my niece and I both screwing up a Mongolian grill meal by adding too much spice to it (where you choose ingredients and they cook it for you).  I told her there wasn't much of a way to remove the heat (although you can add a little sugar and cook it a bit, if you have that "do-over" form available), but adding salt could at least make the spice level make more sense.  She agreed, and we both ate our meals slightly better balanced, but still too spicy.

The mention of teas tasting like fruit is unusual, but it's a bit complicated why that is, how patterns in flavors work out.  Floral aspects or other range more dominant in some types, and mouthfeel (astringency) and aftertaste aspects often tend to be emphasized more than flavor.  I do like fruity teas the best in general myself, but lots of other range comes up as much or more.

The basic premise and theme seems to work, that at some level pairing would have to be about setting up complementary patterns.  More on wine will extend to why that doesn't necessarily typically relate mostly to flavor, although that is one range that could be emphasized in an approach to pairing.

I'll add a few of those pairing menus Joshua had mentioned here for reference.

There's a problem in reviewing specific pairings:  teas aren't as consistent as they might potentially be by general type.  There is often a singular "type-typical" style, but any given tea can be a great version and still not be exactly like that.

With a lot of general range a continuum of variation enters in, eg. oolongs can be roasted or oxidized to different levels, even when there is a narrow conventional-type window to shoot for.  Sheng pu'er varies a lot across a few different dimensions, and aging (storage) factors can change teas a lot, in addition to varying starting points.

My impression of food and wine pairing, in comparison

It's not something that I've covered here at length but I did work in the restaurant industry for awhile, as a server.  I did some informal training in wine background, and drank different wines for a few years, as I mentioned in this post about preference change patterns in comparison with tea.  But I was a better snowboarder than waiter.

I owned that mountain

Pairing flavors that would complement each other did come up, in the wine and food, and as much emphasis on getting the character, the feel and weight, balanced for specific dishes.  At some points discussion of a wine being acidic enough to complement a certain dish would be mentioned, but at a guess the ph of wine isn't varying all that much, and that was really about feel aspects (astringency, weight) and dryness versus sweetness matching.  Since that was just a guess I'll look up a Wine Spectator reference to see if that's mostly right or completely wrong:

PH is the measure of the degree of relative acidity versus the relative alkalinity of any liquid, on a scale of 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Winemakers use pH as a way to measure ripeness in relation to acidity. Low pH wines will taste tart and crisp, while higher pH wines are more susceptible to bacterial growth. Most wine pH's fall around 3 or 4; about 3.0 to 3.4 is desirable for white wines, while about 3.3 to 3.6 is best for reds...

While these numbers might mean something to chemists and wine geeks, it's important to remember that the way a bottled wine tastes is about the relationship of things like pH and TA to other factors like alcohol, tannin, extract and sweetness. There's no chemical formula to make great wine—not yet, anyway.

So maybe it does make a lot of difference.  Joshua would know more about that, but this really does have to focus mostly on tea, and only associate back to wine related to pairing themes, not character  or aspect inputs.

Customers usually kept it basic; they seemed to buy wines they were familiar with and liked, and must have expected them to work well enough with what they were ordering.  Some had no idea what they liked and then I would usually recommend really approachable wines.

It did seem to make sense to match a general type of wine with the food (color, and sub-type within that broad range, and character beyond that), especially related to an experienced lightness or heaviness of both.  I worked in a traditional Italian restaurant once and Chianti really did stand up well to a heavy, strong flavored, tomato-based food range (although of course there were cream sauces and pestos).  Most of those wine versions were probably a little rough.

White wines would be nice with lighter foods, and Cabernet or heavier reds with beef and other grilled meat; I never really made it past those kinds of basics.  Working in a wild game restaurant heavier flavored reds came up a lot.

I was usually only drinking wine with a snack, at most, with wine experience as the main theme.  I cooked a lot back then but I wasn't a foodie, in that one sense, and I'm still not.  As my wife says I have a "crocodile's tongue."  I can sort of tell how good the food is but I'm really happy to eat a grilled cheese sandwich with sauteed mushrooms for dinner, or even just fruit, or breakfast cereal.

Wine pairing input from a wine-maker friend

To me this still really isn't doing justice to comparison to wine and food pairing (not that it has to).  To fill in that gap I asked a friend who has long since worked as a wine maker, working for some well-known producers.  From that friend, Dan Senkow:

Not going into specifics on wine, that would be confusing to many. The first and most important rule is drink what you like. If the quote un quote best pairing for a dish is something one doesn’t like then it is not going to work. 

Second there is no such thing as an expert for all people. Everybody is the expert for what they like. No one is the arbitrator of taste. It is true some people may know more about the way a wine is produced from a technical standpoint. However, they do not know more about how it makes the individual feel.

In simple terms one may either use an element in the wine to compare or contrast. So, this may be done with flavors, textures, weights, or a mixture of the above. Example a heavy lobster bisque with a light crisp wine or a rich opulent creamy one. 

Remember it is the marriage of food and wine, they both have to make each other better or they shall split apart. The wine and the food must have a place to fit in. If the dish is a complete package all on its own, the wine has to fight for a spot to fit in. We know how that works in relationships.Together greater than the parts they must be.

Dan's sense of humor stood out more than the bottomless wine knowledge; some part of everything was funny

Lots of that seemed really insightful to me, especially the the examples about the two broad strategies for pairing, and how it helps for gaps to exist in the food profile to complement.  The last part about relationships can be a touchy subject, being married to a Thai.

I can't evaluate which strategies Joshua's restaurant was using, since I just don't have that background or degree of imagination.  But it all works well together as a starting point for thinking the subject through.

Maybe all this could've hung together a little better but the different threads did seem interesting, some of which overlapped between the two scopes.  I can cite a bit more from Joshua's blog post on tea and food pairing that might help with that, with linking it all together:

Tea in a pairing behaves differently than wine, if for no other reason than sheer amount of ‘sensations’ wine can be bountiful in, be that acidity, tannin, and alcohol or the flavor sensations of sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, umami, and spicy (although spicy not so much)...

With pairing tea, you are often forced to take a different approach because you can’t go head to head with a lot of foods and expect the tea to come out on top or even equal. It plays the gentler, more passive role in the marriage...

With tea you need to take another approach — you either use the tea to cleanse the tongue afterwards and highlight nuances in the food that you’ve observed and hope that the pairing might bring in focus; or you use the tea as a set-up to put the food in a better light...

He adds a lot more context there, and a number of pairing examples.  That post includes a tasting exercise, how to use a few basic food inputs tested against a tea to work out how the coupling can be positive, or take different forms.

To be clear on context all of this still just isn't for me.  Eventually I might try it, but I could live without ever going there.  For as broad and complex as tea experience is for me it works to only take up a limited range as it connects with the last theme I was on, evolving scope organically.  If I ever take up more of a food interest beyond eating the three meals a day that might make more sense.

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