Tea is fascinating. Though it's been enjoyed alongside food for centuries and is the second most popular drink on the planet after water, it's more likely thought of as a morning or afternoon beverage, than one served with a multi-course meal. And not that the boba craze or matcha lattes are going away anytime soon, but there's a lot more to tea than the adulterated versions (including blended versions) in the market today. When it comes to tea, I love it in its pure form for a number of reasons. It's sophisticated with varied textures, aromas and flavors. It's a digestive, relaxant and energizer all in the same sip. And, being "tea drunk" is pleasant, bringing on extra giggles, without the side effects of a hangover!
Like wine, tea merits a place on the table, each type defined by the terroir it comes from, as well as the process it undergoes, and the environment in which it is stored. It is a complex beverage that requires a great deal of time and contemplation for those who care to study it in depth. It is also a beverage that can simply be enjoyed at the table without too much fuss, if you just want a cup. After all, you don't have to be a sommelier to enjoy wine.
There are seven distinct styles of tea: white, green, yellow, wulong (also "oolong," semi-oxidized), red (or "black" as incorrectly referred to in the West), puerh, and black (post-fermented). There are also different qualities across the spectrum. Like wine, there is a lot of mediocre stuff out there, and then there are absolute jewels, and lots of in-between, some far more than acceptable, in fact delicious. And just like some wines that pair well with all sorts of food—think Pinot Noir—there are teas that also respond well to a variety of dishes. Start by looking for solid teas that please just about any palate, and are forgiving if steeped a few seconds too long or too little.
Some of my favorite teas are from the Wuyi mountains in the Fujian Province of China. They are solid and packed with flavor, and guests in general love these dark roasted wulongs, which pair well with both pan-crisped fish or roasted meats, for example. If you're a vegetarian like me, stir-fried or braised greens will also do well with these teas, which tend to be spicy and rich with minerals. More specifically, I have a great appreciation for balanced, dark roasted Wuyi oolongs like Shui Xian or Rou Gui. Others like Bai Ji Guan and Da Hong Pao are also wonderful for drinking throughout a meal from start to finish. I like Wuyi teas (also yancha, or "cliff tea") even more as they rest. The fresh harvest can have a heavily roasted note. Wait a few months, at least six, and taste your Rou Gui again, for example. You'll be drinking a different tea, the roasted note much softened leaving room for the actual flavor of the tea leaves to come to the fore, which, after all, is what you really want to taste and experience.
Now you may ask, "how does one serve tea during a meal using the gong fu method where leaves are steeped for just a few seconds at a time?" It's simple. The same way you would if you were sitting at the tea table. Have a gaiwan or teapot, the size based on the number of guests. Have small Chinese teacups (remember you'll enjoy multiple steeps so you'll get at least a mug's worth!), a decanting vessel and filter, and of course hot water in a thermos. (Once you've done your mis-en-place, it's smooth sailing going forward.) Add leaves to the gaiwan, top it with hot water, and decant the "soup" in a matter of seconds. After the third or fourth steep, simply increase steeping time by a few seconds. Also don't be shy with leaves. Fill your gaiwan halfway up with dry leaves, so your tea may last several steeps and for the duration of your meal. For good quality leaves, expect at least 9 steeps. And don't feel in a hurry to sip too quickly. The chemistry of the tea changes as it sits in its cup, much like wine does as it is allowed to breathe. Seconds make a difference and the results can be wonderful.
You'll quickly notice that preparing tea and decanting it at the dinner table, takes no more time than it does pouring wine into a glass. Given that in many parts of Asia, tea has been enjoyed with food for centuries, we're not reinventing the wheel but reintroducing the idea that tea has a real place at the table. The added bonus is that there is really no greater way to digest food than with tea. I also love the idea that I can serve it hot, at room temperature or cold, making it a perfect pairing to food any time of the year.