Apr 26, 2017
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Why I Pair Food with Tea Instead of Wine

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Why I Pair Food with Tea Instead of Wine

“To me, tea washes away the memory of the flavor, and prolongs pleasure. Each sip wipes the palate clean, and allows us to taste each bite as though it were the first.”

Chi Wah Chan was born and raised in Hong Kong. After he met his future wife, Michelin-starred French chef Adeline Grattard of Yam’Tcha, the former graphic designer decided he would make a career out of pairing dishes with tea instead of wine.

You know, I’m not sure that my story is all that interesting. If you want to talk about cooking, you’re better off speaking to my wife, Adeline. Wouldn’t you rather have us both at the table? Just me? All right, fine.

I never went to culinary school. Nothing on my resume had to do with cooking. Originally, I was a graphic designer. It’s through Adeline’s work and the restaurant Yam’Tcha that I started asking myself questions about the relationship between tea and food. I went down the rabbit hole, if you will. I was already passionate about tea. I drank it all the time when I was growing up, and I still do today.

I come from Hong Kong. When I was little, my mother made pu’er [a type of fermented tea] in large batches. She would put it inside a thermos and I would keep it with me all day. It became a habit.

Chi Wah Chan pouring tea. All photos by Mila Olivier.

Yum cha also had a strong influence on my relationship to tea: the Cantonese tradition of eating dim sum for breakfast while drinking tea. When I was little, my parents sometimes took me to tearooms in the morning. That’s where I tasted my first white teas like anji bai cha and blue teas such as oolong, but mostly the lower end kind. It’s a very common practice. So common, in fact, that when you bump into someone in the street—a friend or a neighbor—instead of saying, “Hello, how are you,” you ask, “Have you had yum cha?” It’s another way of asking if everything’s OK. Because in order to eat there regularly, you need the means to do so.

But I feel like I really rediscovered tea in France. When I tasted Adeline’s cooking and her way of using Chinese ingredients, it led me to think about the combination of food and tea. In fact, I appreciate tea so much more now. When I drink it, I don’t necessarily think about what I’m going to eat. I like this freedom, and I want to hold onto it. I don’t like to over-intellectualize that moment. It would ruin it if I systematically thought about what would make a good pairing; what would go well with it.

I try to recreate the memories of certain flavors I remember from my childhood: the taste of certain dishes that really had an impact on me that I want to marry with other flavors. I like taking risks. I have an adventurous side. When Adeline asked me to find her some tea-and-food pairings, I said, “I’m on it.” I just went for it and that was that. We thought things through together. When she asked, “How do we incorporate this?” I expressed that I didn’t know, that we’d see. The next morning, boom: she’d make a dish, and I’d propose a pairing.

The most difficult pairing? I’d have to say cheese. With certain teas, it really doesn’t work. For the first two years we were open, I tried to find some combinations and we tried all kinds of things. There is no methodology, no dashboard. It’s all about intuition and flavor. If something’s a little milky, it might go with this or that. We make a final choice depending on the different characteristics.

I grew up with Cantonese food. I love it because it’s so varied. There are still plenty of things I don’t know, but what I remember most is the stovetop cooking, especially traditional soups and steamed fish. At Yam’Tcha, there are dishes that remind me of that. Adeline was familiar with this type of cooking before she met me, and she creates things that are inspired by every region, from places like the Sichuan province and Guangdong, and utilize different tools, like the wok or steamer.

I would say that Chinese tea is as eclectic as its cooking. Some come from Fujian, others from Yunnan, Zhejiang, or Taiwan. They all have different flavors. Even if they belong to the same family, an oolong from Taiwan will differ from one that comes from Guangdong. It’s like wine.

I know we think of them as different, but tea and wine are actually quite similar. Contrary to popular belief, there are even teas that can produce similar sensations to those you might experience while drinking wine. There are pu’er teas that are as strong as certain Bordeaux. The difference is that wine is explosive, because of the alcohol, while tea plays the long game. But they aren’t unconnected.

To me, tea washes away the memory of the flavor, and prolongs pleasure. Each sip wipes the palate clean, and allows us to taste each bite as though it were the first. The sensation it provides is honest and fresh. Its warmth makes you hungry. People are surprised to drink teas with levels of flavor that are comparable to those of wine. Maybe it’s because they mostly drink mass-produced teas from big brands. I prefer working with small-scale producers, and one tea master in particular, whom I go see regularly in Taiwan.

What I also love with tea is the gong fu cha, in other words, the way you drink it. In China, we don’t drink it like the British, with sugar or milk. We discover it from one infusion to another. I like this way of doing things because, during the time it takes to pour and drink it, you can relax, live, think… You can stare out at nothing and daydream.

There aren’t many moments like that in daily life, so this is important to me. These moments allow us to ground ourselves. It’s a kind of life philosophy. They say that when you make tea, your character is reflected in the drink. Conversely, tea can also impact your character.

When I buy tea, I don’t make my own mixtures. For now, I’m not at that level. I don’t mix the leaves. I have tried mixing different brews, but then I came back to something more simple. What I do at Yam’Tcha is very different from the tea that I serve at the shop, gong fu cha style. At the restaurant, I don’t stick to Chinese traditions. Maybe that’s my creative, designer side at work—or maybe just my way of seeing things. In my experience, you have to learn the rules in order to know how to break them. So when I make something, I shatter everything. Learning the rules is a good thing, but leaving them aside for a moment yields the best results.

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