Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Wonders of Tea

Polly put the kettle on,
We’ll all have tea.
-Charles Dickens



The tea trade is booming. Both the variety and number of quality teas in North America are expanding — even remote convenience stores usually have a modest selection of bottled teas on offer. According to the Tea Association of the USA, tea sales of all kinds have nearly quadrupled since 1990.
Tea is the most popular beverage in the world and has always been a favorite in Asia, where it originated some 5000 years ago. Its popularity in Europe dates to the early 17th century. Britain in particular has long had a love affair with tea. In the U.S., tea is now encroaching upon territory once dominated by coffee and soft drinks.

Tea and Health
This burgeoning interest in tea is due to a new realization of its health benefits. Recent studies have confirmed what tea drinkers in Asia have known for centuries: that tea is good for you. Many consider true tea to be the ultimate health beverage. Now that medical science is validating tea's health claims, Americans are embracing it wholeheartedly.
More than just a beverage, true tea of all kinds — from white to black — is an elixir brim full of antioxidants that are beneficial to the body. Antioxidants reduce oxidation reactions in the body that are associated with aging and other disease processes. Specifically, tea has been shown to help promote healthy cholesterol levels, increase metabolism and improve mental performance. Green tea may also inhibit plaque buildup on teeth and may help the body deal with stress.
Benefits can be realized by consuming three cups a day, which is the historical average for most Asian tea drinkers and the base line for many recent studies. Because the antioxidants in tea are water-soluble and therefore short-lived, tea should be drunk at intervals throughout the day. The best time to drink tea is on an empty stomach between meals. Antioxidants are best absorbed in the absence of food and tea can interfere with the absorption of some nutrients, particularly iron.
If you enjoy milk with your tea, you may want to consider recent research published in the European Heart Journal reporting that adding milk to tea negates its health benefits. Caseins, a group of proteins found in milk, react with the flavonoids in tea to cancel out their beneficial effects.

Types of Tea
All true teas come from the leaves of the tea bush or tea tree (Camellia sinensis), which is native to Asia. Just as there are many varietals of wine from grapes, so too are there many varietals of tea from this remarkable plant. Most quality teas produced today come from five countries in that part of the world: India, China, Japan, Sri Lanka and Taiwan. Each country has its own unique growing conditions (terroir) and culturally influenced production methods that combine to give you the distinctive taste of the tea in your cup. Though deeply integrated, one with the other, each contributes special characteristics to every style of tea.

Tea Terroir
Terroir is a term usually associated with wine but is also appropriate for tea. It is the sum of sun, soil, precipitation, temperature and elevation in a specific area that conspires to produce particular qualities in tea leaves (or grapes) peculiar to that area or region. Here are the categories of tea from the five major tea-producing nations:
India — known for its black teas, especially Darjeeling and Assam, India is the largest producer with close to two billion pounds of annual production, much of which is consumed domestically. Most of India's tea is produced on several thousand large estates in the south and northeast part of the country.
China — home of all tea types, China is the 2nd largest producer. It produces the largest variety of leaf styles and more specialty types than any other country. China sets the standard for pan-fired green teas with varietals like Dragon Well and also exports exceptional white teas, black teas such as Keemun, and pu'erh teas. Most of China's tea is produced on small family lots in south and east China.
Sri Lanka — the classic black teas of this island nation are well-known as Ceylon teas.
Taiwan — produces the world's finest oolong teas such as Tung Ting and Ali Shan.
Japan — exports fine green teas such as Matcha and Sencha.

The Colors of Tea
In each of these countries, various production methods have evolved over time, giving us four basic categories of tea that, when combined with terroir, give us a tremendously rich selection of quality tea:
White_Enjoyed for nearly two centuries by the Chinese, white tea has just recently come to the attention of Westerners. Its delicate, translucent color — from pale straw to light amber hues — comes from a high percentage of immature leaves or buds. Its flavor is subtle and smooth, a delicate infusion of citrus and floral notes that is never astringent.
Actually a minimally processed form of green tea, white tea is the least processed of all teas. The leaves and buds are merely dried (withered), sorted and packaged. Though researchers are still not certain, this minimal handling may be the reason for the relatively high antioxidant and low caffeine content of white tea. Harvested only in the spring, white tea is generally more expensive than other types.
Green_Green tea is leading the tea revolution in North America, sparked by reports of its health benefits. It's available in a bewildering array of infusions and styles that can be traced to two general regions: China and Japan. Chinese-style green tea is described as light, with a soft natural sweetness and hint of smokiness, whereas tea produced in Japan is fresh, with grassy notes and a hint of the ocean. These subtle differences are due to the variant production methods used in each country.
Green tea undergoes only slightly more processing than white tea and has a little more caffeine. Its high antioxidant levels are the basis for the health claims that have made it so popular.
Oolong_Oolong tea occupies that middle territory between green tea and black tea. Its unique flavor is due to a modest level of oxidation — a process that exposes the bruised leaf to oxygen in the air — that, like green tea, varies by region of origin. The two main regions in this case are China and Taiwan. Taiwan's oolong tea, regarded by many as the best, is characterized by light, floral and fragrant liquors, and highly complex fruit, spice and floral aromas. Its color often has a green cast. In contrast, Chinese oolong is darker, due to longer oxidation, and exhibits roasted "toasty" flavors.
Oolong tea (known as red tea in Asia) is valued in China for its purported digestive properties. Its antioxidant levels are high and the caffeine content is somewhat higher than green tea.
Black_The most widely consumed tea in the world, black tea is so called because the relatively lengthy oxidation period (several hours) darkens the leaves. This color is transferred to the cup in pale sienna and red-orange tones. Black tea flavors can be differentiated by region more so than other teas:
India
Darjeeling — The Champagne of teas with light, complex muscatel flavors and flowery aromas Assam — Strong and malty, the ultimate breakfast tea with or without milk and sugar.
Sri Lanka (Ceylon)_Straightforward flavor, good straight — up or with additions.
China_Wine-like, with a sweet finish and subtle smokiness, the Burgundy of teas.
Black tea also has the high antioxidant levels desired by so many health conscious tea drinkers as well as higher levels of caffeine, but still only about half as much as a similar serving of coffee.
Other Teas
Tea terminology beyond the main categories discussed above can be confusing, with many overlapping definitions. Here are some additional terms to assist you in deciphering tea classifications.

Specialty Teas — narrowly defined, a term used to describe unadulterated teas of exceptional quality and flavor, including such attributes as hand harvesting. Now used more broadly in the public domain to include virtually any tea that exhibits attributes above the ordinary.
Estate Teas — named after specific tea gardens in India, Sri Lanka and other prime producing regions, thereby representing and branding the best these gardens have to offer.
Blended Teas — describes various combinations of tea leaves from more than one region or crop to obtain a desired flavor, aroma or character. This term is sometimes abused — used in reference to flavored or scented teas from a single region or crop.
Flavored Teas And Scented Teas — true teas to which flavors — from almond to wild cherry — and/or aromatic oils have been added for flavor and aroma. Examples include Lemon-flavored green tea; Earl Grey, a blended black tea with oil of bergamot; and Jasmine tea (scented with the fragrance of jasmine flowers). The best teas of this sort use natural flavors or essential oils derived from natural or organic sources. Avoid teas with artificial flavors or those that do not declare whether or not their flavorings are natural or artificial.
Chai Tea — a derivative of cha, the Chinese word for tea, chai means "tea with spices;" usually of the more assertive sort, such as ginger or cinnamon.
Russian Tea — can refer to tea produced in Russia or drunk in the Russian style — in a glass with lemon.
Souchong and Lapsang Souchong — a Chinese-style black tea made from the third, fourth and fifth leaves from the tip of the branch. These leaves are older and larger than the young leaves at the tip and have less flavor. Leaves used for lapsang souchong are dried over a fire, giving it a distinctive smoky taste and aroma.
Pu'erh — a black tea made in the Chinese-style that is then moistened and selectively aged (fermented), sometimes for decades, giving it a rich, complex character with earthy, clove-like flavors. A good tea for coffee drinkers.
Gyokura and Kabesucha — Japanese green tea for which the leaves have been shaded from the sun in bamboo boxes prior to harvest, raising their carotenoid content and giving the finished tea a unique flavor with subtly sweet, vegetal notes.
Hoji-cha — standard Japanese green tea that is roasted at high temperatures (360°F), elevating the volatile oil content and intensifying the flavor.

Iced Tea and Sweet Tea
Initially, iced tea was simply tea that was chilled after brewing and served over ice, usually in a glass with a slice of lemon. The term "iced tea" now includes bottled tea that is drunk chilled without ice. Sweet tea is merely iced tea sweetened with sugar. More than sixty percent of the tea consumed in the United States is in the form of iced tea, a significant portion of which is sold in restaurants or bottled. Most iced teas are brewed from black tea though any type of tea may be used.
Iced tea is traditionally brewed with about 50% more dried tea per cup to compensate for flavor loss due to melting ice. Adding ice to hot-brewed tea can make it cloudy. One way to prevent this from happening is to brew the tea at room temperature for several hours instead of the normal hot water method. This reduces the amount of caffeine compounds responsible for clouding on contact with ice.

Tea Substitutes
Herbal teas, called Tisanes in Europe, are not true teas and therefore do not supply the same health benefits as real tea. They do provide an abundance of flavor alternatives and other healthy attributes depending on the herb used. Chamomile tea, for example, is used as a relaxant, while peppermint is considered a digestive aid. Many herbal teas are blends of various botanicals and spices. Except for Yerba Mate, they are caffeine free and usually need to be infused longer than regular tea to release their full flavor. It's always a good idea to ask a qualified medical professional before taking any unfamiliar herbs.
Other tea substitutes include Red tea, sometimes called Red Bush, a mild, nutty-flavored infusion from a South African flowering shrub called rooibos, and Yerba Mate, a South American botanical that contains traces of caffeine and has a full-bodied, woody flavor. Often other ingredients, such as cinnamon or vanilla, are added to these non-tea brews for aroma and flavor.

Which tea is right for me?
Selecting tea is a highly subjective exercise, much like deciding which wine to drink, and vulnerable to such ephemeral things like mood and time of day.
However, some general guidelines can be attempted. If you want to gain maximum health benefits (i.e., antioxidants) from drinking tea, try white or green tea. If you want maximum caffeine content along with antioxidants, go for black. Beyond that it boils down to personal taste.
For example, if you like milk in your tea, choose a robust black tea from Sri Lanka or Assam, India, or perhaps a good English blend like English Breakfast. All of them tolerate milk and sweeteners very well.
If you want to curl up with a cup in a window seat on a rainy day and ponder life's big questions, then a delicately fragrant white or green tea is a good choice; but if you're bolstering your nerve for that showdown with the boss after lunch, then a more intrepid tea like Earl Grey or perhaps a seductive oolong is just the ticket.
So you see, tea is what you want it to be. At its best, tea encourages reflection and personal serenity but it can also be energizing and uplifting. The novelist Alice Walker wrote: "Tea to the English is really a picnic indoors." But to a Zen Buddhist priest in Japan, tea exists on a whole other plane.


A Brief History of Tea
For more than 3000 years, the people who live in what is now modern China were the sole beneficiaries of the pleasures of tea. It wasn't until the 8th century CE that this beverage was introduced to Japan, where it eventually rose to iconic status in the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
In the 17th century, Chinese tea crossed into the larger world by two routes: Ships of the Dutch East India Company transported it to Holland and beyond, and Russia began importing it via camel caravan. One hundred years later, the British afternoon tea was commonplace and their empire served to establish tea around the globe, including China's near neighbor India, a country whose people had never experienced tea's epicurean delights but — as was discovered in the early 19th century — had its own indigenous tea plants in the northeastern province of Assam.
Tea has since become the most widely consumed beverage on earth next to water. It has achieved a secure place in the history of its homeland, China, and in the cultures of at least two other countries: Japan and Great Britain. Its popularity has grown exponentially in recent years, evidently fending off spirited onslaughts from its sister beverage coffee, and ensuring its dominance in the world of refreshment.

Cooking with Tea
A great, even legendary beverage, tea is also a remarkably versatile asset for cooks. Infusions of this mildly bitter leaf add a subtle herbaceous depth and richness to all kinds of dishes — from soups to sweets.
Different teas will provide different flavors; lapsang souchong, for example, will lend a mild smoky flavor to stocks or stews. Some very dark black teas have a chocolate finish that complements sweet sauces for pork or poultry. Expand your culinary horizon by experimenting with a variety of teas, both in the teapot and cooking pot. Already have a favorite? Try adding either the leaves or an infusion to one of your favorite recipes and see what a difference it makes. Here are a few suggestions for enhancing meals with the unique flavor of tea:
v Add a sprinkle of green tea leaves to chicken-based stir fry.
v Substitute brewed tea for water when cooking rice.
v Add broken tea leaves to flour when dredging fish or poultry for extra crunch and flavor.
v To add interest to cakes or pastries, infuse the butter by adding tea leaves when melting it, let stand for a few minutes, then remove the leaves and rechill the butter.
v A few tablespoons of brewed green tea can perk up homemade salad dressing.
v Steep white tea bags in simmering chicken stock for up to 10 minutes to add a new spectrum of flavor.
v Substitute tea leaves for wood chips when using a smoker.

Brewing Tips for Cooking with Tea
Brewing tea for cooking requires a slightly different approach than brewing tea for drinking. See recipes for specific instructions. If you like to improvise, follow these brewing guidelines.
v If you want to minimize potential astringency or bitterness, brew the tea at room temperature for a half hour or more; if you need to brew it faster, use cooler water (185°F) and brew slightly longer than normal (3 to 5 minutes).
v Use the tea immediately-allowing it to stand will increase its bitterness. Do not use leftover tea.
v Start small. Tea leaves scorch easily and some teas are quite strong. Use small amounts so you don't overwhelm other flavors. Don't use strong teas in delicate dishes and vice versa.

Other Uses
After the tea has been drunk and the recipe made, don't throw away those tea leaves. They can be used in compost or for mulch around both indoor and outdoor plants. Leftover brewed tea? Use it to water indoor plants — they'll love it.



The Japanese Tea Ceremony
Tea is a central icon in Japanese culture and society, arriving at this lofty station after a centuries-long evolution from a common beverage to an enlightening one through association with the meditative tradition of Zen Buddhism. It first arrived in Japan in the 8th century CE to mixed reviews and it wasn't until the 12th century that tea — as an aid to meditation — began its slow ascendancy to a place of reverence.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony began as one of several Zen "ways" or rituals for which enlightenment is the ultimate goal. Still an important tradition in Zen temples, the tea ceremony is also a well-established social phenomenon that does not require the ministration of priests, merely a host with the requisite sincerity and intent.
The ceremony itself, called chanoyu, uses a powdered form of green tea called matcha. Its high caffeine content necessitates it being preceded by a three course meal (cha kaiseki) that is highly attuned to the seasons and has become influential in Western nouvelle cuisine. Every activity associated with the tea ceremony — from preparation to consumption of tea to the departure of guests — is highly ritualized with an eye to the aesthetic, intellectual, physical and psychological pleasure of the guests and planned down to the smallest detail.
Storing, Brewing and Serving Tea
Air, light, moisture and heat are all detrimental to tea. Good quality loose-leaf tea will keep for several months — or longer — if kept in an airtight container in a place that is cool, dry and dark. Avoid glass or plastic containers if possible and do not refrigerate or freeze tea. Tea that is too old will have lost its briskness and aroma and the color will be dulled.
Loose or Bagged?_If you are using teas of high quality, there should be no discernable difference in flavor between loose and bagged tea. Bagged tea is more convenient for individual servings while loose tea is generally cheaper and more efficient for serving tea to a group of people. Loose tea is preferred by some simply because of the ritual involved.
How to Brew Tea_In the U.S., brewing tea is a relatively straightforward process involving a single infusion of tea leaves in hot water. Tea brewing in Asia can be much more complex, with several infusions, each lasting a prescribed amount of time from 15 seconds to 5 minutes with variations depending on leaf size and water temperature.
Since tea is more than 95% water, the quality of the brewing water is critical. Use fresh spring water or light mineral water if available. Water with high iron content or chlorinated tap water should be avoided.
Rinse out the tea pot with boiling water just before adding the tea. Use one teaspoon of tea per serving plus one more for the pot. Pour the water over the tea and steep according to these guidelines by type:
White and Green Tea Use water that has cooled for a couple of minutes — to about 185°F — and steep for 2 to 4 minutes.
Oolong Tea Use water that has cooled for about a minute to 195°F and steep 3 to 5 minutes for greener, Taiwan-style tea and 3 to 4 minutes for darker, Chinese-style tea.
Black Tea Use water just off the boil (208°F) and steep 3 to 5 minutes or to taste.
Herbal Tea Use water on the full boil and steep 3 to 5 minutes or to taste.
In a typical infusion, caffeine is extracted from the leaves first, usually within the first 30 seconds, while the more complex polyphenols (antioxidants) take a bit longer. Tea bags infuse more quickly than loose-leaf teas due to greater surface area.

How to Serve Tea
Once brewed, remove the leaves from the water immediately — continued steeping results in harsh flavor — and drink as soon as cooling allows. Fresh tea tastes much better than tea that's stood for even a short time.
If using milk, add the tea to the milk instead of the milk to the tea. This heats the milk more gradually and helps prevent curdling. Though many tea lovers avoid it, lemon juice can be added to black tea to lighten the color. Honey is the preferred sweetener for many tea drinkers, though there are probably others who would still agree with Henry Fielding, the famed 18th century English novelist, that "Love and scandal are considered the best sweeteners of tea."

And a random picture of me with a Rose. Did I ever mention that I LOOOOOOVE roses?

2 comments:

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