A cup of tea is glorious, but creative chefs don’t stop there. Tea leaves and infusions also add new dimensions to Chinese cuisine.
Tea? Something to drink. A part of Chinese culture for millennia. But did you know that tea can also be used to great advantage in cooking?
To be sure, there are some famous dishes involving tea: tea eggs, sautéed shrimp with Longjing tea and Pu’er-smoked chicken come to mind. But it’s a short list indeed.
In the last month, executive Chinese chefs from Shangri-La hotels in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Xi’an and Chengdu moved beyond tea as just a beverage, creating new dishes that use tea to open up new vistas of flavor.
Tea can be an elusive ingredient when used in cooking. Its distinctive taste as a beverage can be easily overwhelmed by other ingredients and condiments.
The most notable Hangzhou dish, sautéed shrimp with Longjing tea, is cooked with only two ingredients — light Longjing green tea and shelled freshwater shrimp. The best version of this dish uses minimum seasoning, allowing the delicate tea flavor to shine through.
Does that mean tea should be used only in lightly flavored dishes? Not necessarily. A wide selection of green, semi-fermented and black teas in China can complement common vegetables and meats in harmonious duets.
The most common techniques in cooking with tea are adding leaves directly to a dish, using tea-infused water instead of plain water, grinding up tea leaves to create a cooking powder and adding the leaves to smoking ingredients.
Chicken cooked with Maofeng tea
Fresh green tea
Green tea is the most popular and widely enjoyed variety across China. The leaves are aromatic, with a hint of bitterness. The best green tea is harvested in spring, but the tea leaves can be found all year round.
Green tea used in cooking can help neutralize greasiness or fishiness, providing a crisp, palate-cleansing taste to classic Chinese dishes.
Zhuyeqing tea braised pig trotters
Longjing is the king of Chinese green teas. The best leaves come from Hangzhou, where smaller, more uniform flat leaves are handpicked before the Qingming Festival every spring.
In addition to the celebrated sautéed shrimp dish, Longjing tea works well with more flavorful chicken and beef.
Longjing tea-flavored baby chicken stew
Joe Hou, executive Chinese chef at the Jiangnan Wok restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel Nanjing, created a Longjing tea-flavored baby chicken dish. The tender chicken was stewed in a Longjing tea-infused broth and topped with a few goji berries. It’s a mild dish that preserves all the juice of the chicken meat while adding a brisk flavor of tea.
Hou also mixed green tea and fresh tofu to make a very refreshing starter, with a hint of bitterness to wake up the appetite.
Zhuyeqing green tea, produced in the Mount Emei region of Sichuan Province, is similar to Longjing tea. Its leaves are flat and greener — similar to bamboo leaves — and thus are often called “green bamboo tea.”
Li Tok Fan, executive Chinese chef of Shang Palace at the Shangri-La Hotel Chengdu, added Zhuyeqing tea to braised pig trotters. The taste of the tea was fairly masked, but the tea served to remove the fatty taste of the pigs’ feet. A similar concept was adopted by Peter Yu, executive Chinese chef at the Midtown Shangri-La, Hangzhou. He added Zhuyeqing to scrambled free-range eggs.
Black teas like fermented and aged Pu’er have the strongest taste and darkest color. While not as versatile as Longjing and Tieguanyin teas, Pu’er is ideal in soup-making.
When cooking with Pu’er, the chefs used ripe Pu’er instead of raw Pu’er because the taste is milder and less aggressive.
Chef Hou presented a pork rib soup stewed with aged Pu’er tea, the most tea-infused dish on the menu. The flavor of the Pu’er gave the dish an exotic flavor.
This method can be used in home kitchens, too, by substituting water with a ripe Pu’er infusion.
Chinese cuisine traditionally calls for tea served with a meal. Most of the time, only one kind of tea is brewed in a pot and served for an entire meal, from cold starters to dessert.
However, like wines that change with courses in Western cuisine, a Chinese meal takes on a broader experience when certain teas are served with certain courses. The general rule of thumb is to start with bitter teas and graduate to milder and sweeter ones as a meal progresses.
Green tea is recommended with cold starters. It also provides a perfect beverage for cleaning the palate between courses.
For typical stir-fry dishes that aren’t too heavily seasoned, oolong tea is the perfect partner. It also goes well with most meats and vegetables.
During the last phase of a meal, when the heavy-hitter dishes are served, it’s time to switch to ripe Pu’er tea. The Pu’er removes greasiness, cleans the palate and helps with digestion. Pu’er can also be enjoyed with sweet desserts and fruits. When eating stops, it’s wise to drink a few more cups of tea just to cap off the meal.
Steamed Australian lobster with rice wine and Tieguanyin tea
Oolong teas like Tieguanyin and Dahongpao have a more complicated and aromatic flavor that lingers longer than fresh green teas, but it is still lighter than matured black teas.
Different oolong teas vary distinctively in taste. The Tieguanyin variety has more of a bouquet, while Dahongpao has a woodier flavor.
Tieguanyin is most popular with chefs. Unlike green teas that mainly contribute to the flavor of a dish, rehydrated Tieguanyin tea leaves are also edible when fried or baked, similar to the fried basil leaves in Taiwanese fried chicken.
Randy Zhang, executive Chinese chef of Tian Xiang Ge at the Shangri-La Hotel Xi’an, used Tieguanyin in baking freshwater Hanjiang fish. The rehydrated tea leaves were then baked and dehydrated again to add some crunchy texture to the flavorful fish.
David Liu, executive Chinese chef of Summer Palace at the Jing An Shangri-La, West Shanghai, steamed lobster with rice wine to remove the fishy taste and then added Tieguanyin tea to enhance the flavor. When cooking with Tieguanyin, he explained, it’s critical to be sparing to avoid giving the dish a bitter taste.
Chef Hou also added Tieguanyin to spicy stir-fried duck tongue, keeping the crunchy tea leaves in the dish.