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A cuppa in your food

Is tea the new wine? A quirky new phenomena is emerging in the culinary arts with tea playing a crucial part in the preparation of some truly fine food. We take a look at how its done.

Bibek Bhattacharya | Print Edition: September 19, 2010

Mukul Agarwal is happy when he's talking about food. But mention tea to the affable Chef de Cuisine at Hilton New Delhi/Janakpuri and his eyes light up further. Proffering a cup of Moroccan Mint tea with a chocolate brownie, he declares that 'tea is the new champagne'. Many might raise their eyebrows, but, to a tea lover, it's a no-brainer.

Agarwal is a new convert. A specialist in Indian and Mediterranean cuisine, he was one of twelve chefs invited from across the world to participate in the recent 'The Chefs and the Teamaker' event organised by the Dilmah tea company of Sri Lanka. The idea was innovative: after taking the chefs on a tour of the family-owned company's tea estates, Dilmah asked them to research and create interesting tea-infused dishes.

By Agarwal's own admission, he was sceptical at first. He says, "Growing up in India, tea is intrinsic to our life, but never as something to cook with." But all that changed in the fifteen days he spent on the island and he returned with a new appreciation of tea, and some crackling recipes of his own devising.

So how does tea work in food? In myriad ways, according to Agarwal. The trick is to not try and force it into recipes and hope for the best, but to see how different kinds of tea can play different roles in the creation of a dish. Turns out that tea can be used for "pairing, for flavouring, as an aroma enhancer or for balance." But you have to ensure that it never overpowers the main ingredients of the recipe. Here are Agarwal's pick of four dishes where tea plays a sparkling role. While he uses Ceylon tea in his preparations, the dishes can also be created with comparable tea leaves from other tea-growing regions.

Baked Sea Bass: With tea as palate cleanser
Sea bass is a delicious fish but it's also notorious for its, well, fishiness. In this context, the tea-infused risotto that it is served with-as a bed on which the sea bass rests-becomes important to the enjoyment of the dish. The risotto provides a balancing taste and, crucially, helps clear the palate of the lingering fishy aftertaste. In this, it is greatly helped by the tea or green tea, to be precise.

Now, tea is always praised for its concentration of anti-oxidants. Green tea, which is made from unfermented leaves, contains the highest concentration of powerful antioxidants called polyphenols, as it undergoes minimal oxidation during processing.

It is these anti-oxidants in the teainfused risotto that cut the fishy flavour of the sea bass and clear your palate for the next offering. At the same time, the green tea infusion does not interfere at all in the taste of the fish or the risotto. The dish is garnished with a parmesan wafer as a chewy treat, and fresh mustard sprouts for enhanced flavour.

Lamb Roganjosh: With tea as flavour
This most famous and familiar of Kashmiri lamb dishes is suffused with the strongest of spices. Tea, you would think, would be an unnecessary complication here, and find itself dead in the water competing with all the other flavours. And, indeed, this would have happened except for one key point-here, the tea is the flavour.

Traditionally, Roganjosh is flavoured largely with rattanjot and cinnamon. Now to try and substitute rattanjot and cinnamon would be foolhardy because that would change the very nature of the dish. Or would it? In this case, the chef uses cinnamon-spiced tea as a substitute, with startling results. The dish is still palpably roganjosh, but with a cinnamon flavour that's much subtler than usual. This subtlety, coupled with the flavours of other spices such as cloves, cardamom and bay leaves, the consistency provided by yoghurt, and the full body of the meat, makes it a stunning dish.

Poached Scallop with Orange Sorbet: With tea as complement
Scallops are always a delight to eat, not least for their robust full-bodied texture. However, like most sea food-especially molluscs-scallops have a salty taste which needs to be balanced and complemented with other flavours. Usually, chefs choose citrus flavours, such as lime or orange, to do this. In this preparation, the scallops are poached in a lively lime and orange tea liqueur that cuts the extra saltiness of the mollusc but in no way interferes with the taste.

But that's not all it does. The scallops are served with an orange sorbet, and sorbets are by their very nature acidic. But the abundant anti-oxidants in the tea counter this acidity as well as clear the palate. The dish is garnished with lettuce and dried orange chips. A tip here: You can also have the sorbet for dessert, with a cup of Moroccan Mint or any other green tea.

Salt Crusted Salmon: With tea as balancing agent
Salmon is a famously flavourful fish, and needs to be handled with care so that no flavour or aroma is lost. Which is probably why, you'd be hard pressed to find a good salmon dish that isn't baked, steamed or poached. Here, the salmon fillet is baked with a salt crust that helps cure the fish and prevents the juices and flavour from escaping. The method gives the dish a tender, succulent and very flavoursome taste but it also makes the fish rather salty. This is where the tea steps in.

Ceylon Suchong is a pretty intense, smoky tea which is traditionally prepared by drying the tea leaves in wood-fired smoke-houses. In this dish, it plays the role of a balancing agent. The salmon is marinated in tea before being baked. This ensures that, during the baking process, the tea absorbs the excess salt that would otherwise permeate the fish. It also imparts a smoky flavour to the salmon which adds to the intensity of its taste. The accompanying salad is made of capsicums, fresh fennel and cucumber.

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