Culinary Tea: A Conversation with Cynthia Gold
Pairing tea with food is an art that’s parallel to wine pairing. If you’d like to learn more about this art that’s both ancient and modern, read on for this informative Q & A with Cynthia Gold, an expert tea sommelier and co-author of Culinary Tea: More Than 150 Recipes Steeped in Tradition from Around the World (Running Press, 2010).
Q: What inspired you to write a book sharing recipes featuring tea?
CG: I have been cooking with tea for around 14 years. I have always enjoyed sharing the recipes, techniques and concepts involved with the hope of opening people’s eyes to the tremendous culinary potential of tea. This book is not about showing what we have done with tea, this book is about showing what tea can do!
Q: Prior to writing Culinary Tea, what was your relationship with tea? Has it changed as a result of writing this book?
CG: My relationship with tea has always been affected by my being a chef. From the first time I was introduced to the beauty of fine tea, I thought of it in terms of its flavor profiles, textures and aromatics. How it combined with food, whether as a paired beverage or within the recipe is at the core of how I approach tea. This book excites me in that I hope to share this approach with a wider audience than my current guests (at The Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers) and students, but my relationship with tea has not changed in any way.
Q: Tea has been a popular beverage for many years, and recent years have only seen the trend growing. What makes tea so timeless and universal?
CG: That is a difficult question to answer. There are few things in life that truly have no downside. Tea can be both energizing and relaxing at the same time. It touches all of our senses and has played a crucial role in the cultural, economic, political and social development of many nations. From the culinary side, the fact that teas can be found to pair with any style of cuisine helps add to its universality. The current Western interest in tea however I believe has been revitalized by the myriad research findings as to its health benefits. The fact that it is so good for you physiologically as well as promotes spiritual well-being while being affordable is too appealing to not at least explore. And then when that exploration leads to the discovery that it is delicious as well, what could be better!
Q: Do you have a favorite tea?
CG: I’m fickle, and what I desire to drink will be affected by the weather, the season, my mood, what I’m eating, etc. That is the beauty of tea, there is a tea to meet all needs. That said however, I am probably most drawn to a good oolong which exhibits a complex layering of flavors and aromatics that are to die for!
Q: China, Japan, India, Tibet, and Myanmar are all listed as cultures that used tea as an ingredient in food dishes, some for hundreds of years or more. Why is this just now becoming more common in the United States?
CG: In most cases, the culinary tea specialties of these nations have remained static. There may be traditional and revered dishes, but these techniques did not become more widespread in these nations let alone here in the U.S. I am hoping to help facilitate an understanding of the wider potential of tea not just here in the U.S., but overseas as well. The culinary world in the U.S. has in many ways been more open to exploring and embracing new techniques and ingredients than some other nations who developed magnificent regional cuisines and then tended to keep those cuisines pure and consistent. The American melting pot has tended to be constrained less by the traditional approaches.
Q: What would your response be to those who feel tea is an unnecessary or inferior ingredient?
CG: I would say that they must have never tried it! No ingredient is ever truly necessary, but if what it can offer to us gives exciting results that vary from what can be achieved without it, than we are doing ourselves a disservice by discounting it. Using any ingredient effectively is simply a matter of getting comfortable with what techniques bring out the best in that ingredient and understanding what it will do for a dish under different circumstances. Once cooks achieve a certain comfort level with an ingredient, it becomes a part of their arsenal. Tea certainly is not right for every dish, just as garlic or whole wheat flour or fennel or portabella mushrooms or any of the diverse world of culinary possibilities aren’t always appropriate, but used well, a wider range of culinary achievements are possible with them.
Q: Tea has been hailed as many things: a beverage, an ingredient in meals, an herbal remedy, and a comfort. Which role do you feel is most important?
CG: To me these roles are all so intertwined that it is impossible to rank them.
Q: Did the recipes in your book come from trial and error, or inspiration from other recipes?
CG: Both. Sometimes I will taste or read about a dish and it hits me that I might enjoy changing it in a certain way with a certain tea. Other times it is the tea itself which leads me to want to wrap a vehicle around it and highlight some aspect of the tea.
Q: Why is it that non-professionals are so hesitant to trust their own judgment in pairing food with tea or experimenting on their own? Do you think that everyone should seek advice from an experienced tea drinker?
CG: I think people are equally nervous about pairing foods and wines until their experience and palates develop. That is why they first tend to embrace very basic rules and only later begin to understand that there is so much more potential for pairings to enhance their experience. Those who have learned to taste and pair food with wines, and not just follow a list of recommended pairings, will find that pairing teas is quite parallel and that they have a tremendous head start. Just like with wines, classes can be fun and enlightening, and can speed up the learning process, but you can also learn a tremendous amount by reading about some guidelines and then tasting and experimenting on their own.
Cynthia Gold, tea sommelier at The Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers, discovered her passion for tea after enlightening excursions into the tea fields of Asia. Ms. Gold was one of the first chefs practicing “culinary tea” in the United States, and her recipes featuring tea have appeared in numerous publications. A recognized authority, she has taught classes on how to cook with tea and tea pairing both nationally and internationally. She lives in Boston. Learn more about the book Culinary Tea here.