It was a rainy monsoon afternoon and Ayushi Shah was chatting away with her grandmother sipping on a cup of berry-infused Lady Grey tea. With every sip, Ayushi, a baker, was swept away with the subtle flavour of her drink that an idea struck her. What if she used her favourite tea in one of the dishes she baked next? Only upon researching it did Ayushi, who now owns a baking innovations business called Icing on Top, realise that this was an age-old practice that is common in many parts of the world but new to us. Ayushi introduced a range of desserts ranging from masala chai and pistachio financiers to Earl Gray and dark chocolate cupcakes on her menu which all went on to become instant hits.
It is time for tea lovers to rejoice as tea is not just limited to your cups anymore. From green tea cheesecakes to tea-infused cocktails, smoked meat marinated with tea and tea-infused upma, tea is now spilling over to our dinner and dessert plates and finding its way to our cocktail glasses as well. “It is sad that we being a tea-drinking nation woke up to such a trend the last,” rues Ayushi. Agrees Chef Mitesh Rangras of Bandra’s Lemon Leaf restaurant, who says that he doesn’t, however, see this as a trend but an integration of a new ingredient in our cooking. “Even before the coffee culture caught up, tea has always been a mainstay in our country,” says Mitesh. “Now, the acceptability of tea as an ingredient in desserts and hot food has increased considerably which really bodes well for the future.”
It all undoubtedly started from China, the land of tea. As I help myself to spoonfuls of hot chamomile green tea-infused cauliflower soup at Tea Trails, a Mumbai-based tea lounge, co-founder Kavita Mathur lets me in on some tea facts. “In China, tea is not just used for drinking, but also for medicinal purposes,” says Kavita. “So tea-infused food is then a natural progression there.” The chamomile green tea lends a distinct flavour to the soup, but it is not one that is overpowering. “A taste for tea, like is true in the case of wine, is an acquired one,” says Kavita. “We as a country is used to our milky chais and is just starting to explore the other varieties of tea. When they hear tea-infused food, customers may sometimes think that it may be bitter, but how and at what stage tea is used while cooking also determines the flavours.”
The dish that comes next is a Burmese green tea salad. The salad, which has quite a heavy helping of green tea in it tastes nowhere near bitter. The secret here, says Kavita, is that they allow the green tea to ferment for a whole day before adding it to the dish. There are different ways to use tea as an ingredient in a dish. While Ayushi uses it as a soaking syrup or in a ganache in her bakes, Kavita uses it instead of water to steam upma and poha in and adds tea leaves to the homemade paste that forms the base of the Thai curry on her menu. Rohan D’Souza, lead chef, The Treesome Cafe, recommends infusing Assam tea or Earl Grey tea leaves in the cream used to make pannacotta. Other ways of using tea are infusing it in butter or chocolate, adding powdered tea as a garnish, rub or spice, using it to smoke and marinate meats or adding it in the broth used to steam food like fish, rice and vegetables.
Although tea goes well with most South East Asian dishes and desserts, it has to be used with care and caution to bring out the perfect flavour. Balance of flavour is the key, says Mitesh. “Too much of anything is bad. So just like sugar, lime or chili, it should be noted that tea is just another ingredient. So treat it with respect,” he says.
It is also important to keep in mind the level of astringency of the tea before adding it to food. “While some teas are lighter and blend in with the flavors of the meat, vegetables and spices, the others could be stronger and lend their own flavor across the dish,” says Rohan. Kavita gives an example of how because of its smoky flavour, the Chinese tea Lapsang Souchong will work best when it comes to meat and how Darjeeling black tea is the best best when it comes to Indian desserts like phirni, thanks to its distinct colour and aroma. “Pairing teas with light desserts will allow the flavour and fragrance of tea to shine through,” says Ayushi. While making Indian curries, a potli tied with spices and tea leaves is dipped into the gravy while it cooks. This is a method that is used in many north Indian households for dishes like chole masala to add to the rich colour of the gravy and tone down the flavour of the tea.
Using tea in desserts, however, can be quite a task, which might be a deterrent when it comes to making them at home. Added to that, the tea that we buy for daily use in general is among the most inferior quality available after the first grade is imported, says Kavita. Buying loose leaf tea and soaking them in boiling water or in cream before using them is a tip that Rohan swears by.
The health benefits of this trend is a no-brainer. “We all know that tea has lesser caffiene than coffee, even otherwise tea soothes, cleanses and stimulates the system,” says Mitesh. Tea is also known to be rich in anti-oxidants, helpful in lowering cholesterol, burning fat, increasing metabolism and also possesses anti-bacterial qualities. While we replace water with tea or rub a meat with it, all these health benefits gets automatically transferred to the final dish.
Looks like tea-infused food is a trend that is here to stay given the response it has received, however, Kavita warns us from being duped by cheap imitations of this trend. She recalls a visit to a fine dine restaurant in the city that served a tea-infused dessert, which had a strong green colour. On interacting with the chef, he was not even able to name the kind of tea he used in the dish. “The normal green tea will never add a colour to a dish,” she says. “Only a high quality Japanese matcha green tea will impart a green tinge, but it is too expensive to be imported and used in restaurants here.” So the next time, someone serves you a green dish, claiming it to be tea-infused, do not forget to quiz them on the matcha.