A Brief Introduction to Tea

Excerpted from Haute Tea Cuisine: New Techniques for Tea-Infused French Cooking by F. Lit Yu

Tea comes from the plant Camellia sinensis. Although there are many herbal concoctions, such as chamomile, that are also referred to as tea, for the purpose of this book [post] we will only refer to variations of Camellia sinensis as tea.

The finest artisan teas are grown in mountainous and hilly regions where the soil drainage is good and moisture is well maintained by continuous fog. Tea plants grown thousands of feet above sea level can be difficult to harvest and transport, making them increasingly rare and valuable. Premium teas are worth hundreds of dollars per pound while connoisseur teas may cost thousands.

Tea can also be grown in low, flat areas, but these generally produce bitter, coarse brews commonly consumed with milk and sugar. Most teas in the world are grown this way, usually in Africa, and sold in teabags in bulk.

Camellia sinensis is indigenous to China, but over thousands of years, tea culture has spread throughout the world. Plants are now grown in other parts of Asia, Africa, South America, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Australia. Most premium teas come from the mountainous regions of China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, India, and Sri Lanka.

All premium grades of green and oolong teas, with the exception of some Korean and Japanese tea powders, are offered in whole-leaf form. Most Indian teas are sold in a broken-leaf form but must be handpicked to be considered premium. 

Tea essentially comes in four different categories—white, green, oolong, black, and Pu-erhs. Green and white teas are not oxidized, and both are very low in caffeine and very high in antioxidants. White teas are from white tea varietals, which are merely hot-air dried, while green teas are best when they are made from small leaf buds and shaped and fired on a wok or by machine.

Oolongs are partially oxidized, more mature tea leaves, and the degree of oxidation, or roasting, can yield infinite variations. Red teas (known as black teas in the West) are fully oxidized leaf buds or mature leaves. The Chinese refer to the tea by the color of the liquid while the West refers to the tea by the color of the tea leaves. Thus, the fully oxidized teas are red teas to the Chinese and black teas to the West. Pu-erhs are fully oxidized and fermented. Antique Pu-erhs aged 40 years or more have, in recent times, become extremely rare and prohibitively expensive. Pu-erhs aged a mere 20 years can be worth thousands of dollars a pound. 

About the Author

Fred Yu went to film school but ended up working in a bank, yet he remains a martial arts junkie who welcomes any new martial arts knowledge that comes his way. Along with the Wuxia novel THE LEGEND OF SNOW WOLF and the instructional book YIN YANG BLADES released on June 2018. THE ORCHID FARMER’S SACRIFICE (The Red Crest Book 1) premiered on Amazon.com October 5, 2021 including Kindle & audiobook editions. Part 2: The Commoner’s Destiny will debut April 5, 2022.

My journey with artisan teas began over 14 years ago, when I passed by a fancy teashop during my first trip to Beijing and peered in at the locals drinking tea out of tiny porcelain cups. Servers in traditional robes stopped by each table at frequent intervals to steep the tea in pretty little clay pots, meticulously emptying and straining each infusion before serving their customers. What struck me most, when gazing into that part of Chinese culture completely unfamiliar to me, was the demeanor of the customers. They were not joking and laughing and slapping their knees like beer drinkers in a bar. They were not speaking at high speeds, their words colliding with each other in rapid conversation as you might see in a coffee house. The tea drinkers were calm, contemplating, almost detached. The slow, multi-step process of steeping the tea seemed to be as enjoyable to them as the tea itself. 

After many years, I gradually became familiar with the sophisticated world of artisan teas, the many intricacies behind each tea varietal, the complex nuances emerging from minor differences in water temperature, timing, vessel, and tea leaf movement. The number of different aromas and tastes were mind-boggling. The same plant grown from the same soil, when processed differently, could yield an infinite variation of notes and fragrances.

Much later, while shooting a documentary on artisan tea farmers in China and Taiwan, sipping on a rare tea known as Honey Jialong, an interesting thought came to me. The dark grape notes in the tea were well balanced by a honey undertone. What if I extracted these aromas and cooked them with a lobster browned in butter and deglazed with cognac? Would the butter and the Honey Jialong support each other? What if I drank a light merlot with such a lobster dish? At that moment, I could not wait to return home to try my lobster dish. I decided then that I would use tea not only as a beverage, but as a source of contrast and fragrance in my sauces.

Tea is not like coffee. It’s not like soda or juice or any of the beverages that humans created to overwhelm their senses. Tea is subtle, complicated; it caresses our senses while also demanding acknowledgment.

And tea, unlike other beverages, is very hard to cook with. Concentrated tea becomes bitter. Light teas are easily overwhelmed by other flavors. Can we hide the bitterness with sugar every time? Can we avoid powerful spices so the complex aromas of so many tea varietals can be tasted in every dish?

To learn more; see our interview on KungFuMagazine.com

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