Black Tea Risotto

As winter seems to keep coming earlier than I want, I went into the kitchen looking for something warm, soothing, and filling. Nothing fits that bill like risotto. Now, I will admit I am usually looking for ways to make the everyday recipes my own and that is why I thought to replace the traditional stock in this dish with tea.

In figuring out which tea to use, it is helpful to remember that risotto gets its creaminess from both the butter added at the end of cooking and the starch released from the rice during cooking. So whatever tea is chosen needs to hold up against dairy and nothing does that better than a good strong black tea. I am sure an Assam black tea or Yunnan would have done fine, but I opted for one of our favorites, Kosabei TGFOP, a black tea from Kenya with both a malty flavor and slightly floral notes.

Experiments with Risotto using Black Tea

Black Tea as Stock for Risotto

Black Tea Risotto

  • 4-6 tablespoons room temperature butter*
  • 6½ cups water
  • 1½ tsps of Kosabei TGFOP (Yunnan Sunrise, Classic Assam, or other bold black tea would work too)
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1½ cups Arborio rice or another short grained rice
  • 1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

*You can use oil, just use a lighter oil like corn or safflower, olive oil will overpower the tea flavor

First you will need to brew up your tea. Using a small stock pot or sauce pan, bring 6 ½ cups of water to a boil. Once it reaches a boil take the pot off the burner and then drop in all the tea. Allow the leaves to steep for 5 minutes and then pour everything through a strainer into a pitcher. Wipe any residual leaves out of the pot and then return the liquid to the pot. Put it over low heat so it stays warm while you are cooking the risotto. The best way to guarantee success with risotto is having warm liquid to pour over the rice.

Dice the onion into small pieces. Put a medium to large sauce pan (2 quarter sauce pan will give you more room to stir) on the stove at high heat. Put in 2 tablespoons of the butter and allow to melt. Add the onion to the butter and allow to cook for 3 to 5 minutes (the onions should look translucent). Stir periodically so your onions don’t brown. Then add the rice to the pan and cook for another 3-5 minutes. Stir occasionally to get the butter over all the rice and to evenly incorporate the onion. If using Arborio rice, when the kernels become clear around the edges it is the signal to start adding the tea.

Using a ladle, scope in one ladle of the tea and then stir until the liquid disappears. Then add the next ladle and repeat. Keeping going until you have roughly ½ cup left of the tea. Your rice should look plump and by in a slightly creamy sauce (it should not look soupy and the rice kernels should be apparent). Now add in the remaining butter 1 tablespoon at a time. If you cut the tablespoon into quarters it will melt faster. Also, this is where it is time to take a small taste of the risotto and see if you like the creaminess. It is not necessary to add all four tablespoons, it is more of a personal preference. Next, stir in the cup of cheese until it is fully incorporated.

Black tea risotto with some peas and garnish.

The Finished Black Tea Risotto Dish

Now is the time to judge if the remaining ½ cup of tea is necessary. If the risotto is looking dry, try adding a little at a time until it looks shiny. You can also skip the last half cup and save it for the morning if you like the taste of the risotto and how it looks. Salt and pepper to taste and if you want you can stir in ½ to ¾ cup of your favorite vegetable and a couple teaspoons of herbs (rosemary and green peas is one of my favorite combinations in this dish).

I was surprised at how the warm malty flavor of a good black tea adds unique note to this creamy dish. Not to mention, it turns it a warm wheat brown color almost like a loaf of bread. I hope this inspires you to try using tea in one of your favorite recipes.

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The Tea of Assam, India

Assam tea plantation worker carrying a basket supported from her head.

Assam Tea Plantation Worker, by Flickr User Akarsh Simha, CC BY-SA-2.0

Teas from the three main growing regions of India, Nilgiri, Darjeeling, and Assam, have become highly regarded over the years, forming the base to many popular teas including English and Irish Breakfast teas as well as great stand-alone specialty teas.  Known for its black tea, the Assam region produces tea with a distinct malty taste, known for its briskness (which by the way is another way of simply saying that its taste makes you sit up and take note vs having a flat, dull, or otherwise non-memorable taste).  Tea is produced in this region comes from some 600+ tea gardens and is manufactured both as CTC (crush, tear, curl) as well as orthodox or specialty tea.  The sheer volume of tea produced in Assam contributes substantially to making India the second largest producer of tea after China.  While known almost exclusively for its black teas, it should be noted that the Assam region of India also produces some green and white orthodox teas.

Assam Tea and West Bengal (Darjeeling Tea) India along with its neighbors.

Map of India with Assam Tea and West Bengal (home of Darjeeling) Tea Growing Regions

Assam Tea History

The history of tea in India likely dates back thousands of years, as it does for its neighbors in Nepal and China.  However, most agree that commercial development of tea in Assam began with the British in the 1830’s when Britain, and in particular the East India Company, which wanted to find cheaper alternatives to Chinese tea, started looking for tea and suitable growing conditions in other corners of the empire.  Since it appeared the climate was similar to that of tea growing regions in China, the British imported seeds and plants of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, the variety found in China.  This, unfortunately for the East India Company, turned out to be a failure, as the variety wouldn’t grow successfully in India.  Around the same time, beginning in 1815, Major Robert Bruce discovered a plant in Assam that he thought was likely the tea plant growing in the wild.  It wasn’t until nearly 30 years later, in 1834 that his brother Charles Alexander Bruce successfully got testing and recognition that the plant was indeed tea.  As it turns out it was simply another variation of C. sinensis, the assamica variety.  Much more recently, using DNA sequencing techniques, research is suggesting that C. sinensis var. assamica (Assam), along with C. sinensis var. sinensis (China) and many other varieties, are in fact all related to a single parent from Mongolia, which migrated over time to give us the varieties we see today.

Assam Tea Garden, India

Assam Tea Garden, by Flickr User Bidyut Gogoi, CC-BY-2.0

Terrior of Assam Tea

It is the terrior found in Assam, combined with the C. sinensis var. assamica variety, which produces the significantly different taste that has become so highly regarded.  The leaves are larger in Assam and the nutrients in the soil lead to different taste and flavor compounds in the leaves.  Whereas in China tea is often grown at higher elevations, in Assam it is grown at low elevations along floodplains with sandy, nutrient rich soils which are typical of floodplains.  Also unlike tea grown in other parts of the world, it is the second flush, not the first, which is preferred.  The second flush is considered to produce a sweeter liquor with a more robust full bodied taste.

Given the proximity to other great tea production regions like Darjeeling, Nepal, and China, along with the historical thirst for tea driven by colonialism, it is really little wonder that Assam has developed to play a major role in the global tea trade.  We are looking forward to further exploration of Assam and the specialty teas to be found from this great region.

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Terroir of Tea

Tea Plantation

A Tea Plantation somewhere in Alishan
By Alexander Synaptic (Flickr id)
CC BY-SA 2.0

Terroir (ter-war) is used to define the characteristics of a place (soil, water, altitude, latitude and climate) that effect the taste of a final agricultural product.  Wine is the main agricultural product defined by terroir.  The French really drove the use of terroir in describing agricultural products with its regulations requiring use of region in labeling of French wine. For example, wines produced in the Bordeaux region of France are classified by a sub region in relation to where they are to the Garonne River – Saint-Estèphe, Paulliac, Saint-Julien, Margaux, Graves, Saint-Émilion and Pomerol.  These classifications were originally made in 1855 and have been adhered to since then because they have helped the producers to distinguish their products from each other, define quality and drive up prices.  Tea can also be defined by terroir; the only problem is that the producers of tea are not always using this to their advantage.  India is one exception – Assam, Darjeeling, Kangra, Dooars, Terai and Nilgiri teas are all named after the region in which they are grown and marketed in a fashion that helps the consumer associate the region to the flavor of the final beverage.

So what conditions does tea need to grow?  To its advantage, the tea plant is a very versatile perennial, so it can grow in a variety of soil types.

Photo of Dragon Well Plantation

Dragon Well Tea Plantation – Hangzhou
By Dave Proffer (Flickr id)
CC BY 2.0

However, for optimal production the soil should be acidic, between 4.5 to 5.5 ph., loose enough to allow the 6 foot tap root to burro down to its preferred length, and contain a good mix of nutrients (Nitrogen, Magnesium, Calcium, etc.) that the tea plant uses to grow.  Like other plants, it will strip nutrients from the soil necessitating replenishment via some manner of fertilization.  The Japanese use grasses to re-fertilize their tea plants, which influence the taste of the final tea and is credited by the tea farmers for the complex flavors of their teas.

Five hours of direct sunlight is optimal, however, less light disturbs the chloroplasts in the tea leaves, creating more aromatic oils and slowing growth.  This is why high altitude teas are considered the higher quality tea, they get between 2-3 hours of sunlight, creating more aromatic oils.  Those oils create the complex flavor of those teas.  More than five hours and plant will continue to grow, but the flavor will be dramatically different.

The tea plant likes lots of water, but doesn’t want to sit in it.  Plants need at least 50 inches of rain annually and 70-90% humidity.  By definition the water and humidity requirement put the plant in the sub-tropic to tropic zone, and while it can handle some weather variation it cannot survive prolonged dry seasons or freezing.

Latitude effects terroir through the length of the growing period.  The closer to the equator (think Kenya and Argentina), the longer the growing period.  In Kenya, tea is harvested year-round while it is only harvested twice a year (spring and fall) in most Chinese regions.  Tea in Taiwan is harvested five times a year between April and December with the July and August harvests continually ranked as the finest.

Photo of Munnar Plantation

ST831850 – Munnar tea plantation
By fraboof (Flickr id)
CC BY-SA 2.0

So how does one use terroir when purchasing tea?  Look for where the tea comes from, and if possible search for single origin teas from one tea plantation.  This will allow you to identify the flavor unique to the tea produced in that region, for instance Assam tea is consistently malty in flavor.  Dongding Oolong produced in the Nantou county of Taiwan is said to gets its unique award winning flavor from the constant fog in this mountainous region.  There are many black teas from China associated with the provenience it is grown it.  A Yunnan black tea tastes very different from a Fujian black tea.  So treat your teas like wine, know where they come from, learn their flavors and enjoy comparing them.  It makes drinking a cup of tea a truly special experience.

What do you think?  Can you taste the terrior in your tea?

@HillaryColey

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