Having had the pleasure of tasting some well-curated pu erh teas recently under the expert and gracious guidance of Linda Louie, I feel like I have entered another world. The process of experiencing these green tea-based beverages one after another set me to thinking about how they might best be paired (or with further research, used in cooking and baking). Traditionally the teas make the perfect accompaniment to a procession of dim sum, thought to aid in digesting these rich and sometimes deliciously unctuous small bites.
From the faintly floral varieties to the earthier ones with an almost marine salinity, there is a whole universe of possibilities and each example suggests a host of culinary partnerings. From astringent and sweet with a restrained fruity quality, these teas offer a completely different tasting experience but beckon me to enjoy the best of them on a daily basis. Frequent mindful tasting undoubtedly will lead me to appreciate these teas in all of their complexity. In the meantime, though, I will pursue sourcing and tasting the teas in this category with vigor in an attempt to recognize their flavor profiles.
Experiencing pu erh is a multisensory process. First the visuals: the beauty of the pressed cakes or blocks from which the desired amount of leaf is broken off to brew. Then the olfactory sense is awakened when inhaling the aroma of the unsteeped leaf, and the scent of the brewed leaf. Then, finally, gustatory delight awaits with that expectant moment when the first sips are imbibed and one is aware of a special mouthfeel along with complex tastes. After a few sips or even a few small cups, a feeling of alert well-being with a gentle buzz takes hold. And I am ready to taste more and ponder tea and food synergies.
Should the lighter tea be served with a delicate dish of scallops or some other seafood? Or might a dish of smoked duck or squab pair particularly well with the darker aged pu erhs? How about a small glass of aged port, imbibed alongside a fruitier tasting tea? Or, what about bittersweet chocolate bonbons with a cup of a 10 or 20 year old example? What will you be having with your cup of this fragrant, storied tea from southwestern China? Stay tuned as I arrive at some cooked or baked dishes enhanced by this tea.