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When tea is a dish

By Ye Jun (China Daily)

10:01, July 23, 2012

Sea bass is steamed with Xinyang maojian tea. Photos by Ye Jun / China Daily

It was going to happen sooner or later. The idea of using tea leaves or tea infusions in food is so intriguing that many chefs have adopted it. Ye Jun looks at an increasingly popular trend in modern Chinese cuisine.

The idea of combining tea with food may be tempting but it is precisely its special characteristics that make it so hard to succeed. It was inevitable that a top class restaurant in a top class hotel in Beijing would play with the idea. Take Jewel Chinese Restaurant at the Westin Beijing Financial Street for instance. It recently pushed a new menu featuring 16 dishes using more than 10 types of tea.

Many of the major Chinese tea varieties were used, ranging from green tea, the semi-fermented oolong, jasmine tea, and aged pu'er. Infusions such as chrysanthemum and kuding were also included.

Chinese cuisine has long included classics with tea as a main ingredient. In the Hangzhou area, prawns with longjing (dragon well) tea leaves have been on the menu for hundreds of years. Shelled prawns that have been massaged in clear cold water are then fried in an intensely fragrant tea infusion with green tea leaves.

The tea produced in Hangzhou, harvested just before the Tomb-Sweeping Festival rain, is known for its chestnut-like aroma which gives the dish its distinctive taste.

Another classic dish using tea comes from Sichuan, where black tea leaves and camphor wood chips are used to smoke a duck, creating zhangcha ya, or camphor tea duck. The smoking cuts through the grease under the duck skin and the meat is turned a beautiful golden amber, with an appetizing smoky musk.

It is upon these foundations that Beijing's Chinese restaurants are trying to create new tea dishes. There have been hits and misses.

The flavor of tea is hard to capture and the dishes do not fully absorb that elusive fragrance.

Tea leaves added to the dish are sometimes more ornamental. There have been some attempts to coat the leaves in batter and fry them, but the results have been greasy and disappointing.

So it is that the chefs at Jewel must have spent considerable time slaving over their new menu. And they have done a good job at conquering the odds.

Dishes look good, taste good and in most of the dishes, you can taste the tea.

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