Not only can tea be experienced and savored by inhaling its aroma, sipping its liquid and holding up a transparent glass to watch the tea leaves float down - it can also be eaten.
Tea cuisine is a distinctive food style that originated in China and is most popular in spring when green tea is plentiful and fresh. The first harvest is often in March or early April, and it is said that the best tea is harvested before the Qingming Festival (this year on April 4).
It was not until the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) that tea leaves were popularly used to make aromatic infusions, says venerated tea master Lu Yu (AD 733-804) in his "Tea Classics" (茶经), the world's first monograph on tea. Lu observed that infusions were the best way to highlight tea's natural aroma and pure flavor.
Before that, ancient Chinese generally used to consume tea leaves as a snack to cleanse the palate (with tannins) and refresh the mind (with caffeine).
It was also an ingredient in soup, usually cooked together with nuts (crushed walnuts, sesame), mint, jujube and other herbs and fruit. These covered the natural bitterness of tea.
Flavorful tea soup is still popular in some Chinese tea-producing areas, such as Fujian, Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces.
In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), drinking tea was a sign of elegance and it was then that many chefs added tea leaves to various recipes prepared for noble families. This is seen as the origin of today's tea cuisine.
The purpose of adding tea to recipes is not to enhance elegance but to improve the dining experience, says Sam Gao, Chinese executive chef at Pudong Shangri-La, East Shanghai.
"Different kinds of tea add different colors to a dish, from the light green Longjing ('dragon well' from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province) to golden yellow Oolong (half-fermented tea), which enhances the presentation," chef Gao explains.
Further, the aroma of a cooked tea leave, whether fried, braised or smoked, is quite different from the taste of a tea infusion, he says.
Some aromas become lighter, while others become more concentrated, adding complexity.
"Some red teas distinguish themselves through their fruity and smoky aromas added to a dish," the chef says. Most teas add freshness to a dish.
Cooked with other ingredients, tea aroma and flavors add more layers and dimensions to a dish, says Lisa Tang, Chinese sous chef at Le Royal Meridien Shanghai. She recently created a Chinese menu using different kinds of Chinese tea.
"Adding tea also enhances the flavor. The tastes of stir-fried shrimp (清炒虾仁) with and without tea added are totally different," says chef Gao. He explains that tea, especially green tea, removes the fishy and earthy taste of river food and gives mild shrimp and fish more depth and lingering flavor.
Some fermented dark teas cut fattiness and grease, which is obvious when cooking pork with Pu'er (dark tea from Yunnan Province), says chef Tang.
Chinese way cooking tea
According to chefs Gao and Tang, tea flavor is mainly presented through braising or lu (卤), smoking or xun (熏), soaking/marinating or pao (泡) and freezing or dong (冻).
Lu is a stock made from a tea decoction, soy sauce and other seasonings cooked with ingredients such as meat, egg and soybean curd. Chefs develop their own recipes.
"When the stock is made to highlighting the tea flavor, I prefer comparatively lighter fragrances, such as fennel and white cardamom that do not overpower the tea aroma," says chef Gao.
A classic example is tea leaf egg or chaye dan (茶叶蛋), a whole raw egg braised in sauce made from tea leaves, soy sauce and various spices such as cinnamon, star anise and cloves until it's hard cooked. It features a flavorful taste and intense tea aroma.
Xun is often used to highlight the tea aroma. Ingredients are smoked with the mixture of tea leaves, sugar and flour until they absorb all tea aromas and turn the color of tea.
Smoked duck or zhang cha ya (樟茶鸭) typically features a smoky tea flavor. Marinated duck is smoked over tea leaves and twigs of the camphor plant.
Pao is typically used to make rice soaked in tea or cha pao fan (茶泡饭). The chef pours green tea over cooked rice, which is often served last to cleanse the palate.
Sometimes, shrimp and fish need to be soaked first in tea before being stir-fried. Tea removes the earthy, fishy taste.
Dong is often used to make tea-flavored dessert. Infused tea is slightly sweetened and frozen to jelly-consistency. It has a pure, deep taste and dessert made from red tea is floral and fruity.
Furthermore, tea leaves are ground to make fillings of puff pastry and mooncakes.
Despite all its appeal, tea cuisine isn't too popular in China because preparation is very challenging. Not many chefs get it right.
"The amount of tea should be controlled precisely. Too may cause bitterness and tartness in a dish, while too little dilutes the taste and intensity of aroma," says chef Gao.
"A chef preparing tea dishes should be a tea specialist who can read the tea properly," says chef Tang.
For example, green tea is generally mild and has tender leaves; it's best paired with mild ingredients and cooked quickly to preserve the tea flavor and aroma, Tang says.
Black tea is suitable for braising and stewing with red meat for hours until the meat absorbs all its flavors.
"I prefer using black tea for hot dishes. It intense flavor is good in building a flavor contrast with light appetizers," chef Gao says.
"Last but not least, tea dishes should be made with quality tea regardless of cost," he says, adding that some premium tea is extremely expensive due to low production.
Some Chinese chefs in Shanghai have launched tea dishes that are both traditional and creative.
Tea smoked egg 茶熏蛋
The soft-boiled egg, sliced in half, has a runny yolk, firm white and is topped with caviar. The white is coated with a layer of golden brown after being smoked with Tie Guanyin (Iron Guanyin, a kind of Oolong tea). It's suggested to eat the fishy caviar and yolk first, followed by the floral-tasting egg white to balance the aggressively savory caviar.
Shrimp with Longjing tea 龙井虾仁
Shelled river shrimp is soaked in an infusion of Longjing tea, then stir-fried with the tea leaves, giving the shrimp a light straw color. The shrimp flavor is complex, starting with savory-umami, followed by a tea flavor with a hint of sweetness, and then a long aftertaste.
Tea jelly with coconut milk 椰奶茶冻
This is a two-layer jelly-like dessert, with golden-color osmanthus tea jelly on top and white coconut milk jelly on the bottom. The taste starts with a light and refreshing sweetness, followed by a rich, mellow, coconut flavor and a long, floral aftertaste.
Gui Hua Lou, Pudong Shangri-La, East Shanghai
Address: 1/F, 33 Fucheng Rd, Pudong
Tel: 6882-8888 ext 220
Tea-smoked duck 樟茶鸭
This is a modern adaptation of the classic Chinese tea dish, smoked duck. The duck is first smoked with Longjing tea leaves and twigs of camphor wood. Finally it's covered with boiled oil for a crispy skin, juicy meat and concentrated aroma.
Deep-fried tea leaves are sprinkled on the duck, which is drizzled with plum sauce before serving.
Tea leaves and camphor impart a rich aroma that's leafy, woody and smoky.
Chef recommends dipping the duck in plum sauce first to cut the fat, then chew the meat with the crisp tea leaves.
The flavor starts with the sweet and sour plum flavor, followed by the smoky duck meat, ending with a pure and clean tea flavor.
Ai Mei Chinese Restaurant, Le Royal Meridien Shanghai
Address: 8/F, 789 Nanjing Rd E.
Tel: 3318-9999 ext 7700
Tea cuisine is becoming popular in Western kitchens since more Western chefs are inspired by Asian cooking. Again, it requires considerable skill and knowledge of teas.
Both green and flower teas are often used to make pastry and sauce, while smoky black tea can be more versatile, according to Frank-Elie Laloum, chef de cuisine at Jade on 36 Restaurant of Pudong Shangri-La, East Shanghai.
Ground green tea is added to some classical French desserts such as cream custard and opera cake to add a light mouthfeel (because of tannins), thus balancing the sweetness. "Sauce made from tea complements seafood," chef Laloum adds.
He grinds tea leaves and mixes them with butter to make sauce for sea bass. Jasmine tea can be infused with milk and then whipped into a foam topping over crab.
Black tea, especially Lapsang Souchong featuring a wooden aroma, can be used as an alternative to charcoal for smoking food, according to the chef.
He has launched a springtime tea dish.
The dish "From France to China" is frog leg in meuniere. The frog leg is marinated in salted Lapsang Souchong tea butter and served with crushed zucchini. The chef tops the dish with lemon paste before serving to add tartness and freshness.
Venue: Jade on 36, Pudong Shangri-La, East Shanghai