According to legend, the very first cup of tea was drunk in 2737 BCE by the Chinese Emperor Shennong, when dry leaves from a Camellia sinensis tree blew into his cup of hot water.
From this chance beginning, tea drinking found its way into Chinese cultural tradition. Over the centuries, it evolved into a precise and elegant art form, which spread beyond China, especially to Japan.
Now, more than 4,000 years later, tea drinking is once again evolving, and it is served with contemporary flair in fine- dining restaurants around the world.
From sparkling to fermented, and flavoured with truffles, fruit or spices, tea is being paired with tofu and pheasant, dumplings and dessert. At Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide, fermented cold tea— kombucha — is also giving non-alcoholic drinks a depth of flavour.
While tea pairing is not a new concept, nor is it simply an alternative for those abstaining from alcohol, it has gained popularity in haute cuisine circles for adding different layers of flavour to the dining experience.
Chef Tomoya Kawada of Tokyo’s Sazenka, which just ranked 11th on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, is taking modern tea drinking to new heights. His restaurant, which serves Chinese cuisine infused with a Japanese sensibility, is rooted in the two countries’ shared culture of tea drinking.
Even the 12-seater’s name references tea: “Sa” comes from the word for tea ceremony sado.
His creative tea-making includes shaving truffles into the bowl along with Yunnan white tea leaves to create a heady brew that is paired with a dish of jellyfish and white jelly mushroom.
The signature Young Pigeon Cooked Two Ways, using Chinese techniques to coat and fry the legs and breast meat smoked with straw and chargrilled over Japanese charcoal, is paired with black tea topped with rose, bay leaf, cinnamon, lemongrass, clove, and maqaw (Taiwan mountain pepper).
Kawada also incorporates tea directly into his dishes, pouring ginger-flavoured pu-erh tea over dumplings, for example.
He views tea as an ingredient alongside all the others in his pantry. “Making tea is one part of cooking. I also see the tea leaf as something to cook,” he says. “Tea has a long history and works in harmony with food in Chinese cuisine, as well as Japanese cuisine,” he says. “It’s similar to the relevance of wine to food in Western culinary culture.”
Sazenka serves a wine-pairing menu (including wine, sake and Shaoxing wine), and tea from both China and Japan, or a mix of both. Kawada says he sees a growing interest in tea in both the East and the West.
At the kappo-style Esora, now helmed by head chef Takeshi Araki, formerly of three-Michelin-star Nihonryori RyuGin in Tokyo and Singapore’s Odette, the relationship between food and wine is revealed in a playful way.
The tea-pairing menu begins with Oriental Beauty, a Taiwanese oolong infused with hibiscus petals and an ume reduction and served sparkling in a champagne flute. The effervescent tea plays on the idea of a glass of champagne that traditionally starts an indulgent Western meal.
Esora’s tea-pairing menu evolves with the seasons. Jin Xuan oolong with jasmine and sudachi (a green Japanese citrus fruit), for example, is served with sawara (Japanese Spanish mackerel). Combined with Omi Wagyu from Shiga Prefecture is hōjicha, a roasted Japanese green tea, with rose and a touch of kampot pepper. The peaty, peppery bonfire tones cut through the richness of the beef.
All teas at Esora are hand-blended and presented in modern glassware. A bell jar with each raw tea blend is brought to the table with every pairing, so diners can enjoy the aromas of the original ingredients.
Mora, Hong Kong
In Hong Kong, Mora, a soya-focussed Chinese-French restaurant run by chef-owner Vicky Lau, Asia’s Best Female Chef 2015, offers an extensive menu of Chinese and Taiwanese teas.
Romain Herbreteau, general manager, sommelier, and partner at Mora, sources the teas from family farms that produce tea entirely by hand and respect the land.
Among the most memorable pairings are home-made tofu with condiments accompanied by a delicate cold-brewed Gong Mei white tea from Fujian, and threadfin with the famous pan-roasted green tea, Longjin, from Guangzhou. The Longyin’s seaweed aromas complement the silky soya milk and fish roe sauce and smoky fish skin.
Another unusual tea on the Mora menu is Rice Scent Aged Pu-erh from Yunnan produced from trees growing next to a rice field. It develops a rice aroma during fermentation, so it pairs well with rice-heavy dishes.
Herbreteau, who is French and spent seven years in Japan before moving to Hong Kong, says, “Pairing teas that are served hot is very different from pairing wines. As much of Chinese food is served hot, cold tea is often not the best match”.
“Overall, pairing tea and wine is similar. Aromas and tastes of a region generally complement each other. But, at Mora, chef Vicky’s untraditional, creative cooking makes pairing more complex, so we have to adapt a lot. We focus on taste rather than region. The chef and I discuss how she created the dish and what she wants to bring out, or highlight, through a pairing,” he says.
Pairing tea with Western dishes is far more challenging. “As tea, unlike wine, has no sugar, it keeps the mouth clean,” explains Herbreteau. “Western dishes full of dairy, such as butter and cream, that coats the palate are harder to pair with tea, which lacks the acidity of wine.”
Club Gascon, London
Michelin-starred French restaurant Club Gascon in London’s city district has teamed up with JING Tea to offer lunchtime tea pairings after noticing a significant decline in diners drinking alcohol during the day.
“Our target customers used to be corporate clients, but tea pairings quickly began to appeal to evening clients who did not want to drink for a variety of reasons, and were intrigued by tea,” says Felicity Fowler, head of JING Tea.
At first, Club Gascon’s master sommelier was concerned about whether tea would have enough depth and structure, and whether the individual teas would be different enough for seven-course pairing.
But Fowler says he was assuaged. “He became a fantastic tea ambassador and started to consult with guests directly and offer bespoke pairings according to their tastes,” she says.
The tea-pairing menu has been running for five years, and new pairings, ranging in flavour from honey-sweet, hay-like chamomile flower infusions to umami-rich Japanese green teas and intense, woody pu- erhs, are added every season.
Alchemist in Copenhagen, a two-Michelin-starred immersive dining hot spot, serves Camellia sinensis. Diners can choose to complete their dinner of over 40 provocative courses with a pot of pu-erh from thousand-year-old tea trees.
The restaurant has a dedicated tea counter, and its general manager, Lykke Metzger, serves as a wine and tea sommelier, too. To conclude the meal with a bang, she has selected the cake of fermented Yunnan tea.