The ABCs of tea


Published: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 8:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 8:14 p.m.

The story of tea begins with an ac-cident: more than 5,000 years ago, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung supposedly saw some dry leaves blow into boiling water and sampled the resulting brew. Since then, tea has become one of the world's most popular beverages, second only to water. Grocery store shelves are lined with a bewildering variety of teas, from black and green to oolong and herbal.

All true teas, however, come from one plant, camellia sinensis. Growers determine the tea's flavor and character by how long they allow the leaves to oxidize and how the leaves are dried and aged.

Black, white & green

Stateside, the most common variety is black tea, in which the leaves have been allowed to fully oxidize before drying. English and Irish Breakfast and Darjeeling are both black teas, as is Earl Grey, infused with bergamot oil for a distinct, slightly bitter taste. Lapsang souchong takes the black tea process one step further: After drying, the leaves are smoked over a pine fire, giving it a taste reminiscent of whisky and cigars. Indian chai is also made from black tea, sweetened and brewed with spices and served with plenty of sugar and milk. (Want to sound more tea-savvy? Just call it chai, not "chai tea." "Chai" means tea in Persian, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Turkish and Russian, making the phrase redundant.)

Green tea, the variety used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, is dried before the leaves oxidize, resulting in a more delicate flavor and lighter color. Oolong, made from partially oxidized leaves, is described as halfway between black and green.

White tea, which has begun to gain popularity in the United States, is steamed just after picking to prevent oxidation, giving it a subtle, mellow flavor even milder than that of green tea.

The un-teas

Lots of teas on the shelf don't contain any tea leaves: They're more properly labeled tisanes or infusions. Such is the case with chamomile, lemon, mint and a host of other herbal teas, as well as red tea, which comes from an African plant called rooibos. Red tea is preferred by those looking for tea's antioxidant benefits without the caffeine.

Then there's kombucha, a tart-tasting brew that's made when a blend of bacteria and yeast is fermented in sweetened black tea. Kombucha fans swear by its health benefits, but many tea drinkers can't get past its vinegary taste.

Whole leaf or bags?

Tea purists prefer loose tea to tea bags, which, while convenient, are filled with the pieces that remain after the higher grades of tea are packaged. The finest grade FTGFOP (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) is jokingly referred to as "Far Too Good For Ordinary People."

If you've ever sipped a cup of Lipton and wondered where plain old orange pekoe falls in the tea spectrum, the answer is near the bottom, below Flowery Orange Pekoe and above Dust. Does that affect the taste? Purists say for an experience like Shen Nung's, only loose tea will do. For convenience, however, tea bags are hard to beat.

The good news: Tea bag technology has improved, with high-end companies and even some grocery-store brands experimenting with shapes that allow larger pieces of tea leaves to unfurl, as they would in a loose-tea infuser. Lipton's upscale teas use a pyramid-shaped silken bag filled with herbal and fruit-infused flavors, including a Vanilla Caramel Truffle variety with candy bits inside the bag. One can't help but wonder what the next 5,000 years of tea technology might bring, but no matter how many varieties hit the shelves, plenty of tea drinkers will likely go on taking their cuppa the way Shen Nung did: with nothing more complicated than tea leaves and hot water.

Where to Buy It

All of the recipes here use ingredients available at most American grocery stores. For more adventurous cooks and for recipes calling for more specialized ingredients, such as chili oil, ginko nuts, Chinese black vinegar or bean thread tofu skins, try one of these Asian markets:

August Moon Market

1236 NW 21st Avenue

(373-7866)

Chun Ching Oriental Food and Gift Supply Center

418 NW 8th Avenue

(376-5885)

New Asia Oriental Market

1202 NW 20th Avenue (335-6450)

Oriental Foodand Gift Market

3345 SW 34th Street

(372-4591)

Yang Chow Fried Rice

Courtesy of Mr. Han

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

4 cups cooked rice

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon white or black pepper

8 small shrimp, cooked

1/4 cup chopped ham

1/4 cup cooked, diced chicken

1/4 cup chopped green onion

1/4 cup frozen peas

1 egg

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Preparation

Heat a wok over high heat. Add oil and swirl to coat the wok.

Stir in the egg, green onion, ham, peas, chicken and shrimp, tossing often for about 1 minute.

Add the cooked rice and salt. If the wok is too hot, turn down the heat.

Cook, tossing often, about 2 minutes. Add the pepper to taste.

Transfer to a serving platter and serve hot.

Chicken and Sweet Corn Soup

Courtesy of Mr. Han

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

One can creamed corn

2 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons shaoxing rice wine or white wine

1/2-1 teaspoon salt (to taste)

1/2 cup cooked chicken breast, minced

1 egg white, beaten

2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water

White pepper

Preparation

In a medium pot, combine the chicken stock and creamed corn. Bring to a gentle boil. Stir in the white wine and salt. Then add minced chicken. Cook until the soup is steaming hot. Add the dissolved cornstarch, stirring until soup thickens. Add the beaten egg white and stir. Ladle soup into serving bowls. Garnish each bowl with a pinch of white pepper.

Pork with Peppers

Courtesy of Ziyu Qian

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

1-1/2 pounds chopped pork (butt)

4-5 Cubanelle peppers

1-2 tablespoons canola oil

Salt to taste

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

Preparation

Cook pork in oil until it changes color. Add peppers, salt and soy sauce. Cook 4-5 minutes until peppers get a little soft. Serve immediately over white or fried rice.

Egg Drop Soup

Courtesy of Ziyu Qian

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 egg

1 tomato, chopped

Dash of sesame oil

1 teaspoon salt

Dash light soy sauce

1 tablespoon tapioca starch (or corn starch)

Cilantro (bunch)

2 cups water

Preparation

In a medium saucepan, heat water to boiling. Scramble egg. Add to boiling water with seasonings. Cook less than one minute. Pour over chopped cilantro and serve.

Kung Pao Chicken

Courtesy of Ziyu Qian

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

1 cup medium Cubanelle type peppers, diced (or cucumber or carrots)

1 large potato, chopped

Chicken breasts (2 halves, boneless, skinless),

cut into bite sized pieces

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon Chinese vinegar

1/2 teaspoon chili oil (to taste)

2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons green onions

1/2 cup peanuts or cashews (optional)

Preparation

Heat pan. Add oil, then chicken. Cook until chicken changes color.

Add soy sauce, vinegar, chili oil, potato and cup water. Cover pan and cook 7 minutes.

Add salt, peppers and green onion and cook another minute. Serve immediately.

Beef with Broccoli

Courtesy of Mr. Han

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

1/2 cup chicken stock

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon sugar

4 teaspoons cornstarch

2 cups vegetable oil

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

1/2 pound thinly sliced beef

2 cups broccoli crowns

1 whole egg

1 tablespoon white wine

Pinch salt

Preparation

Place the beef, whole egg, wine and 2 teaspoons cornstarch in a medium bowl. Mix together with pinch of salt. Let the mixture sit for 45 mnutes.

In another bowl, combine the chicken stock, oyster sauce, soy sauce and sugar. Stir to make a smooth sauce.

Cut up the broccoli into bite size pieces.

Heat the wok and vegetable oil. Cook the beef about 30 seconds, then add the broccoli and stir fry until it turns shiny and bright green.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the beef and broccoli from the wok and set in a colander to drain. Discard the oil.

Using the same wok, pour in the sauce, heating it for about 30 seconds.

Add the beef and broccoli to the sauce in the wok. Mix and stir.

Add the cornstarch and water mix to thicken the sauce. Serve immediately.

Eggplant with Peppers

Courtesy of Ziyu Qian

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

1 large eggplant, peeled

canola oil

1 clove garlic

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

1 green pepper, chopped

salt to taste

Preparation

Place enough canola oil in pan to cover eggplant.

Heat oil.

Roughly chop eggplant in chunks. (Do not chop until ready to use.)

Drop eggplant in hot oil and deep-fry until tender. Do not overcook.

Remove eggplant from pan and allow to drain.

Drain oil from pan, reserving 1 tablespoon of oil.

Heat oil, add garlic and cook for one minute.

Add pepper, soy sauce and salt to taste. Cook for two more minutes.

Mix together eggplant and sauce.

A Guide to Cooking Great Chinese Food

According to Ziyu Qian, the best Chinese food satisfies the following requirements:

1. The ingredients must be fresh. Ideally, you'd want vegetables that were harvested on the same day. The same holds true for seafood or poultry. "We don't like frozen or canned foods much," Qian says.

2. The food must look good. "Timing is key," says Qian. It's important to maintain the nature of the color and nutrients in the food. He makes no distinction between overcooked and undercooked food. "If the food is overdone, then it's not done," he says.

3. The food should smell good. "When the people living across the street smell the food, they should have the desire to eat it," Qian says.

4. The food must taste good. "If it tastes weird, they won't eat it."

5. The meal must be balanced. Strive for variety in the dishes you serve at every meal. They should be a balance of meat and vegetables.

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