TEA is China's greatest contributions to the modern culinary world. The most widely consumed beverage on Earth (outside of water), it is embraced across the globe as a drink, a culture and a culinary component.
From the Indian subcontinent to the United Kingdom and countless nations in between, many people consume tea on a regular basis. The manner in which they drink their tea may differ and the way in which tea is processed may change from country to country but there is no escaping the reach of the humble tea leaf.
Widely accepted to have roots in southern and eastern China, tea cultivation and appreciation started in China but expanded quickly as trade routes between Asia and Europe were developed. To this day the most diversity in tea styles are seen along this route, from the spiced chai of Kashmir to the famed Darjeeling of Bengal.
Visit any good restaurant or teahouse of note and you will see a small slice of the spectrum that modern tea now encompasses. Here in China the options are too many to count; on a recent visit to a tea merchant I was offered a veritable rainbow of teas to choose from. Between white, red, green and black varietals, there appears to be a tea for every occasion.
I am no tea expert so I leave it to those far more qualified to go into the specifics of each varietal but in my two hours with a tea merchant I tasted brews from all over China. Each was distinct in aroma, flavor and prescribed use but all were delicious.
While purists may argue that the best tea should only be enjoyed in a ceremony like gongfu cha (Chinese tea ceremony), I am of the firm belief that limiting oneself to consuming tea purely as a beverage is selling this iconic dried leaf very short.
Tea, with all of its nuance and flavor, is a fabulous ingredient to cook with. When used correctly, I think tea adds a remarkable depth and complexity to dishes that simply cannot be emulated with your everyday spice cabinet.
The other great bonus to cooking with tea is the sheer number of ways that tea can be incorporated into your diet. Green tea powder, or mo cha (matcha), has found its way from Japan into all manner of snacks and baked goods here in China. It also makes for an especially delicious ice cream; bitter, sweet and utterly addictive.
White tea leaves bloomed in soup add a delicious earthiness to an otherwise classic dish. Green tea, rubbed and chopped, makes a great crusting for fatty cuts of meat. Earl Grey finds a home in a non-traditional martini made famous by the iconic cocktail bar Pegu in New York City.
I've braised in tea, poached in tea, and baked with tea. If you have the time and the inclination, I recommend smoking meat and fish with tea as in the classic tea-smoked duck. It's delicious and here in Shanghai tea leaves are far easier to come by than hardwood chips. You can even simply saute hydrated tea leaves with a little protein for a quick stir-fry.
For today's recipe, though, I've chosen to make a dish that is timeless and familiar to most: roast chicken. The addition of Pu'er tea in my traditional brine seems like a minor inclusion but I think that after tasting the results you will be very surprised at how far a little bit of tea can go.
Further research online will yield countless other recipes for some of the items I mentioned in passing. While I would never dissuade anyone from enjoying tea in the traditional fashion - it is, after all, both healthy and delicious - I merely hope to open some eyes to the limitless possibilities that tea and food have together.
Pu'er roast chicken
1.5-2kg whole chicken, preferably not frozen
200ml brewed Pu'er tea
5g black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1. In a medium pot, bring water, tea, and all dry ingredients to a boil, ensuring the salt and sugar are properly dissolved.
2. Cut orange and lemon in half and squeeze into the liquid.
3. Add ice and stir until liquid comes down to room temperature; if it is still warm, place in the refrigerator until it drops to room temperature.
4. Remove wing tips and feet from the chicken and place the chicken and brine in a double layered plastic bag.
5. Refrigerate for at least two hours and up to six hours. If you plan to roast the chicken later, remove the chicken from the brine since it will be too salty to eat if left in the brine.
6. Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
7. Dry chicken thoroughly with a towel or napkins and rub the skin lightly with a neutral oil.
8. Place chicken breast-side up on a roasting rack or a baking tray lined with crumpled aluminum foil.
9. Roast in preheated oven for about 50 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 65 degrees Celsius at different points.
10. Remove chicken from oven and cover loosely with aluminum foil.
11. Let rest at least 20 minutes on the counter before consuming.
You can serve the chicken with all manners of side garnishes. For an easy weeknight night meal, just toss some large cuts of vegetables in a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper and roast with the chicken.
If done correctly, you will have a roast chicken that puts any delivery service or supermarket bird to shame. The skin should be a beautiful dark golden brown and the flesh succulent and moist with a hint of citrus and smoky herbality.