Tea for You and Me

Teacup, spoon and sugar

hide captionAmerican interest in tea is on the rise.

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As the British tea company Twinnings marks its 300th anniversary, American interest in the traditional English beverage of choice seems to be on the rise. Anyone for a cuppa?

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News.

Three hundred years ago, Thomas Twinning opened the first tea shop in London. The shop is still standing, and a tenth generation Twinning is still in the tea business.

Americans regularly brewed Twinning's tea for a while in the 1700's, but then, in 1773, the British government passed the Tea Act, a measure designed to give an advantage to the British East India Company.

Merchants in Boston decided to have a tea party by dumping a load of British tea in to the harbor. Since then, Americans have pretty much put tea off the boil and on the back burner. But that may be changing, as WEEKEND EDITION'S food essayist, Bonny Wolf, explains.

BONNY WOLF reporting:

It seems that Americans are ready to let bygones be bygones.

When news of the Boston Tea Party got back to England, King George supposedly responded, So they threw their tea in the harbor. Let them drink coffee. And they did, for about 200 years.

Tea was something to have when you were sick or at a Chinese restaurant. Pouring boiling water over a teabag did not produce a drink to be savored. But last year, Americans drank more than 50 billion servings of tea, and marketing tealeaf readers say this will be tea's best year ever in America.

I knew things had changed when I went to a neighborhood Chinese restaurant with my husband and 20-year-old son. The waiter asked if we'd like a pot of tea. My husband said, Sure. My son said, What kind of tea?

What kind of tea?

It turns out there are about 3,000 variations. And here's the amazing thing: all tea comes from the same plant. All of it. Green, black, white, oolong, hundred-year-old Pooair(ph) tea, teas that bloom like flowers in hot water, tea that is picked by monkeys on dangerous mountain cliffs.

The white-flowered evergreen Camellia sinensis is the source of all tea. The differences are in the processing. Herbal teas, by the way, aren't teas at all, but infusions made from leaves and flowers of other plants.

American tea-meisters now travel the world seeking the best-nurtured, hand-harvested, pesticide-free leaves of the tea plant. Teas are discussed like fine wines. Cooks use teas as a rub for meats and a poaching liquid for pears. So what gives?

Well, the tea industry has not been shy about promoting studies contending that tea provides remedies for a broad spectrum of what ails you. But as any veteran British tea drinker will tell you, tea appeals to the spirit, as well as the flesh.

Sharing a pot of tea with a friend is a far more tranquil retreat than a coffee break, even in Boston.

LYDEN: For brewing directions and recipes using tea, go to npr.org.

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A Tea Primer, with Recipes

Tea in a Cup
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Types of Tea

All tea comes from the same plant, the Camellia sinensis. How the fresh leaves of this evergreen are processed and the level of oxidation determine what kind of dry tea they are.

White tea is the least processed of any tea. It is made from immature tea leaves, hand picked just before the silvery buds are fully opened. It is not oxidized or rolled and has the least amount of caffeine.

Green tea, too, is unfermented. Unlike white tea, the leaves are rolled to give them a desired shape.

Oolong tea is partially fermented which turns the leave from green to reddish-brown.

Black tea is the most popular tea in the world. (It is called red tea in China.) Its flavor varies widely, but it is stronger tasting and higher in caffeine than green or oolong. It is a fully fermented tea.

How to Brew Tea

Boil water and pour a little into the teapot to "hot the pot." Pour the water out. Add 1 teaspoon of loose tea for each cup you're brewing and an extra teaspoon of tea "for the pot."

Tea should be steeped in water just below the boiling point for 5 minutes.

Pour tea through a strainer into a cup.

Cooking with Tea

Cooking with tea is an ancient practice as well as a contemporary style. Teas are used in marinades, braising liquid, rubs, flavoring and garnish.

The following recipes are adapted from Eat Tea by Joanna Pruess with John Harney (The Lyons Press 2001):

Lapsang Souchong Gravlax

Scandinavian gravlax is cured with salt, sugar and dill Smoky tea leaves and Chinese five-spice powder make an Asian version.

1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped cilantro

1 1/2 pounds fresh salmon fillet, cut into 2 equal pieces

2 tablespoons coarse salt

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon lapsang souchong tea leaves, lightly crumbled

1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder

1 tablespoon mirin (sweet rice wine)

Lime juice, to drizzle on gravlax (optional)

Sprinkle about one third of the cilantro in the bottom of a deep glass or other nonreactive dish large enough to hold the salmon flat. Lay 1 fillet, skin side down, in the dish.

Combine the salt, sugar, tea and Chinese five-spice powder and sprinkle over the fish. Cover with another third of the cilantro. Drizzle with the mirin and place the remaining salmon, skin side up, over the first fillet. Scatter with the remaining cilantro. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and place a plate or dish with two 8- to 12-ounce cans on it to weight it evenly.

Refrigerate for 48 to 72 hours, turning and basting ever 12 hours, until the flesh no longer appears translucent. Once cured, remove the fish from the dish, scrape off the cilantro and spice mixture and pat dry. Thinly slice the salmon on the diagonal, working from the tip of the tail. Drizzle with a little lime juice, if desired.

Serves at least 6 for hors d'ouevres

Tea Grits

Green tea adds an herb taste to complement the spicy cheese mixture in these grits. Serve them with fried eggs for Sunday breakfast.

1 tablespoon green tea leaves

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup quick-cooking grits

1 1/2 cups Jack or Cheddar cheese

Bring 3 cups of water to just under a boil. Pour it over the tea and steep for 3 minutes. Strain the tea into a medium-heavy saucepan, pressing to extract as much liquid as possible.

Add the butter and salt, and bring to a boil. Whisk in the grits slowly to avoid lumps. Reduce the heat to low and continue cooking until the grits are tender and all the liquid is absorbed, 12 to 15 minutes. Add the cheese and stir until melted. Serve at once.

Serves 4 to 6

Green Fruits in Jasmine Tea Syrup

This salad was created by Jane Pettigrew of London, the author of several books about tea. Serve it alone or with a scoop of green tea ice cream.

2 teaspoons jasmine tea leaves

1/2 cup sugar

Grated zest of 1 lime

Juice of 1 lime

3 kiwi, peeled and sliced

1 ripe honeydew melon, about 5 pounds, flesh scooped into little balls or diced

8 ounces seedless green grapes, stemmed, washed and cut in half

Sprigs of fresh mint, for garnish

Bring 1/3 cup of water just to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the tea, remove from the heat and steep for 4 to 5 minutes. Strain into a clean pan, pressing to extract as much liquid as possible, and discard the tea leaves.

Add the sugar and lime zest to the pan. Over medium heat, stir until the sugar dissolves, then bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the syrup for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lime juice.

Place the kiwi, melon and grapes in a serving bowl and pour on the syrup. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator fro 4 to 6 hours. Remove from the refrigerator at least 20 minutes before serving, toss gently, and garnish with mint.

Serves 6

Books Featured In This Story

Eat Tea
Eat Tea

A New Approach to Flavoring Contemporary and Traditional Dishes

by Joanna Pruess and John Harney

Hardcover, 116 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • Eat Tea
  • A New Approach to Flavoring Contemporary and Traditional Dishes
  • Joanna Pruess and John Harney

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