A Foodie’s Perspective on Tea

Matcha Buttercream CakeTea is many things to many people; a beverage, a ritual, a medicine, a comfort. Whether it’s sustaining you through a busy day, bringing family and friends together, enhancing your health and wellness, or warming your body and soul, tea is a common link between many different cultures, and the way that each culture prepares and serves tea is at once unique and deeply familiar. The same can be said about the foods that accompany our consumption of tea. In her recent blog post, “Tea Drinking of Ethnic Minorities in China“, Zoe Rose gave an eloquent and fascinating insight into how deeply the bond between tea and food runs in such areas as Mongolia, Tibet, and rural China — If you’ve not yet had the chance, I highly recommend taking a moment to read it.

Oops, where are my manners? My name is Tiffany Mercer: professional baker, tea enthusiast, and newest addition to the Seven Cups family. When I began working for Zhuping and Austin in October of last year, I’d been a cheerful yet oblivious tea consumer for most of my life. I knew that loose-leaf was better than bags, had a vague awareness that brewing temperatures mattered, and was inordinately smug about remembering the name “camellia sinensis”. As anyone who has spoken to Zhuping about tea even once will attest, a glimpse into her knowledge of tea is at once humbling and inspiring. Every day I learn more about tea, and every day I’m more aware of how very little I know, and isn’t that sort of wonderful? The pursuit of knowledge is an infinite and infinitely worthy road, and I count myself lucky to have such patient and erudite guides.

Though tea is something I have only recently begun to study in depth, food — specifically pastry — is something I have long studied in school, in my career, and overwhelmingly at home. I have yet to encounter a dessert or snack that doesn’t find improvement in the addition of a steamy pot of freshly brewed tea. The inverse also holds true, as the enjoyment of tea can often be enhanced by food. Sometimes this is done out of necessity, to provide nourishment and to prevent the light-headedness that can occur when the consumption of tea lowers one’s blood sugar. Sometimes it is done for sheer enjoyment, to add to the luxuriance and tradition of drinking fine teas.

As an ingredient, tea is used to infuse baked goods, jams, and custards; or, in the case of matcha, added directly to ice creams, cakes, and cookies. Thought is given to flavor pairings, designed to suit the dessert to the tea rather than the other way around. Some foods are even chosen to enhance the health benefits of the tea, using the warming/cooling principles of Chinese medicine.

In my blog posts, I will aim to explore the tea-food symbiosis in its various forms. The foods that complement tea, the foods that incorporate tea as an ingredient, and the fascinating juxtaposition between the eating habits of eastern and western tea drinkers. After all, tea was born in China, but in western culture I suspect that the first thought to enter a novice tea-drinker’s head upon hearing the words “tea snacks” involves crumpets and jam. Place a platter of nian gao before an Englishman at high tea (keeping in mind that total tea consumption in the UK is around 165 million cups daily), and prepare for polite bemusement. A tea master from China might be similarly perplexed if offered a scone with clotted cream to eat beside his tea.

Yet with the enjoyment of fine tea on the rise, culinary traditions from many nations will often intersect with delicious results.

I look forward to writing about this exploration, and I hope you will join me. Perhaps on your next visit to Seven Cups, as you steep yourself in the rich, complex aroma of Da Hong Pao, or let the refreshing, clean taste of An Ji Bai Cha wash over your tongue, you’ll consider a snack to accompany you on your gustatory odyssey.