Cooking With Tea

We make a 3-course tasting menu featuring one of the world's favourite beverages: tea.

Step into any pastry shop today and you will likely find a sweet ode to matcha, or perhaps chai or Earl Grey. Tea has broken into the pastry game, and the results are delicious. Cocktail bars have also adopted the brew, incorporating it into their revisions of old classics. Before long, tea will be making its way into savoury dishes in the hottest spots around town. I’m surprised it hasn’t already. What’s taking so long? After all, it’s no novel idea.

Tea is steeped into the traditions of my Chinese ancestry. Having been credited with its discovery thousands of years ago, it holds a place of honour at weddings as much as it holds a permanent space on the kitchen counter. For hundreds of years, if not more, tea has also been used as a key ingredient in cooking, in things like tea eggs, tea-smoked duck, rice, and yes, even desserts.

Perhaps the challenge of identifying tea as a cooking ingredient is that we are so used to seeing it as a beverage in its final brewed form. And in its brewed form, many Westerners add milk and sugar to theirs, making it easier to envision it in desserts or sweet cocktails than in savoury dishes. But tea can take many forms, which is what makes it a versatile seasoning.

HOW TO COOK WITH TEA

Here are various ways you can use tea in the kitchen. Keep in mind that, contrary to cooking with wine (where drinkable will do), quality matters when cooking with tea. Also, for best results, use full loose leafs.

Infuse tea into cooking liquids

Brewing tea is the most familiar method to everyone, so the simplest way to cook with tea is to replace water with various types of cooking liquids. Steep tea in a broth, in cream, or in juices and there you go. Infusing milk or cream with teas that go well with dairy and sugar is usually how we make desserts.

Replace water and other liquids with tea

While the previous method calls for brewing tea into a liquid other than water, here you are replacing water or a liquid ingredient with brewed tea. For instance, in making rice, rather than cooking the rice in water as you normally would, cook the rice in tea. You can also swap stock or broth for tea, or use it to brine meats.

Grind tea

Grind tea leaves and you can add it to anything, just like you would a herb or a spice. Add ground tea directly to sauces, glazes, pasta, and baked goods. Or, you can add it into a spice mix and create a rub.

Smoke with tea

One of the most ancient ways to cook with tea is to use tea to smoke meats. This is probably the most difficult method and will yield different results depending on what is available to you. A MacGyvered countertop or stovetop creation will likely render a much more subtle smoky flavour than a smoker or a barbecue. Use oolong, lapsang souchong or a strong green.

A 3 SPOONS TEA MEAL

Despite its historical presence in my heritage, I only began cooking with tea by hopping on the tea dessert bandwagon. Matcha has been a staple flavour in my annual holiday truffle-making sessions, with the usual suspects - chai and Earl Grey - making appearances in the past couple of years. This needed to change. So I challenged the 3 Spoons to come up with an entire 3-course menu using tea as an ingredient.

Each of the following recipes serve 4.

Appetizer: Salmon Ochazuke (Kim)

Ochazuke, a rice soup that uses tea as the broth, is one of my favourite Japanese dishes. Most recipes I found use only green tea with no seasonings or additives as the liquid component. I felt that it lacked some of the umami that I remembered being present in some of the ochazuke I’ve had in restaurants, so I added dashi to my recipe.

 

The Ingredients

  • 2 cups cooked short grain rice (approximately 1 cup uncooked)
  • 125 g of salmon
  • 4 tsp of sencha, genmaicha, or hojicha
  • 4 cups of dashi (you may not need all of it - some like it more soupy than others)
  • Wasabi paste (to taste)
  • Furikake
  • Crispy quinoa or rice puffs (roast to add some crunch)
  • Soy sauce (to taste)

The Payoff

  1. Salt the salmon and let sit for about 10 minutes. Turn oven to broil, grind pepper over the salmon, then broil for 5-6 minutes until cooked. Do not overcook the salmon. Let cool.
  2. Divide cooked rice into bowls, about ½ cup per bowl. You can shape these into mounds or balls for presentation.
  3. Once cool enough to handle, flake the salmon with your hands, removing any bones. Place on top of each mound of rice. (Bonus: if you’re up for it, crisp the salmon skin and add as a delectable garnish.)
  4. Add a tiny dollop of wasabi paste on top of the salmon. Be sparing with the wasabi; not all wasabi are of equal strength and not everyone can handle the heat. Sprinkle the furikake and the crispy quinoa or rice puffs across each bowl.
  5. Now for the broth. Heat 4 cups of dashi. Bonito flakes and kombu are hard to come by, so I use Hondashi. For this recipe, I use ½ tsp of Hondashi per cup of water so as not to overpower the tea. I boil the water on the stove and once bubbling, throw in the powder, wait a minute, stir, and remove from heat. Once the dashi has reached the right temperature for the tea (about 85C), add the tea and steep for 1 minute and 30 seconds. Strain the liquid into a teapot or any implement with a spout.
  6. Pour over each bowl, above the wasabi so that it incorporates into the liquid. Pour as much or as little as you like, and add more wasabi or a little soy sauce to taste.

Main: Oolong-Smoked Duck Breast (Nick)

We tried to think of another meat to smoke, but in the end, Nick went with an old faithful with a modern twist. Who could pass on an opportunity to eat duck? And because it’s Nick, he pulled out the sous vide.

 

The Ingredients

  • Duck breast, 1 lbs (450g)
  • Navel orange, 1 large, juiced and zested
  • Light soy sauce, 2 tbs
  • Mirin, 1 tbs
  • Brown sugar, 2 tbs
  • Salt & pepper
  • Loose leaf oolong tea, 1.5 tbs
  • Vegetable oil, 1 tsp

The Payoff

  1. Set immersion circulator (sous vide) to 130F (55C)
  2. With a sharp knife, lightly score skin on duck breast. Season with salt, pepper, and zested orange peel. Vacuum seal breast, place into immersion circulator for between 1-2 hours.
  3. In a small saucepan on medium heat, combine orange juice, soy sauce, mirin, and brown sugar. Reduce, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced by half - about 10 minutes. Set aside.
  4. Remove duck breast from immersion circulator. Pat dry with paper towel.
  5. Place oolong tea in a wok set on medium heat. When the tea starts to smoke, suspend duck over tea using grate or steamer insert and cover with lid or aluminum foil. Let smoke for 10 minutes.
  6. In a separate saute pan, heat small quantity of vegetable oil on medium. Place duck skin-side down, holding the skin against the pan using hand or spatula. Sear until skin is brown and crispy, about 4 minutes, occasionally basting meat side of breast with rendered oil.
  7. Remove from pan. Using pastry brush, lacquer skin with orange-soy reduction. Reserve some reduction for presentation (optional).
  8. Slice breast thinly, serve with white rice.

Dessert: Earl Grey Pots de Crème (Abhi)

When cooking something we’ve never tried before, we typically rummage through dozens of recipes and either try our favourite and modify it, or we build one based on what makes sense and modify as we go. Abhi found this classic Martha Stewart recipe and it was so delicious, there was nothing to change. If it ain’t broke...

 

The Ingredients

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons Earl Grey tea leaves
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

The Payoff

  1. Preheat oven to 325F degrees. In a small saucepan, bring the cream, milk, and tea leaves just to a boil over medium heat. Turn off heat; let steep at least 30 minutes but no more than 2 hours.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar, lemon zest, and salt. Reheat infused cream over medium heat; slowly whisk into yolk mixture. Strain through a fine sieve into a bowl to extract as much liquid as possible without pressing on tea leaves. Discard leaves.
  3. Working close to the oven to minimize risk of spilling water, arrange four 6-ounce ovenproof cups in a baking pan large enough to hold the cups without touching one another. Pour boiling water into pan, being careful not to splash any inside cups, until water comes halfway up sides of the cups.
  4. Divide infused liquid among cups. Cover pan tightly with aluminum foil, poking a few holes to let steam escape. Bake until custards are set but still slightly wobbly in centers, about 30 minutes.
  5. Carefully remove baking pan from oven; remove foil. Transfer cups from the hot water to a wire rack; let cool about 30 minutes. Cover cups with plastic wrap; chill in the refrigerator until custards are firm, at least 2 hours and up to 3 days.

Incredibly nuanced, incomparably versatile, rich in history, and accessible to all, there are hundreds of ways to drink tea. So there is no doubt that tea can be enjoyed as more than a beverage. Whether you prefer starting with a safer tried and true cookie, or want to experiment with a more savoury application, if tea can inspire hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to blend it, then it can inspire that many ways to eat it.

Bon Appétit!

Words by Kimberley Kwo. Photos by Abhishek Dekate.