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By Kelle Walsh
The hugely flavorful world of tea was revealed to me just a few years ago. As a kid, there was a ubiquitous red and yellow box of Lipton tea stashed in a kitchen cabinet for when the relatives visited. And I discovered the subtle floral beauty of herbal teas (tisanes) while working on an herb farm after high school.
But I knew nothing about the range and complexity that Camilla sinensis, or tea plant, offered.
It was my first exposure to genmaicha (green tea blended with roasted brown rice) that opened my eyes to the range of possibilities when it came to tea. I was at a Japanese-style spa for a massage, and the waiting area offered a tea service with lovely handle-less ceramic cups to hold this amazing nutty smelling elixir. I had no idea that tea could taste like that: savory, almost chewy, and refreshing all at the same time.
Not long after, I discovered matcha, the finely ground powder of high-quality green tea. This blew my nascent tea-heightened awareness even further open. I was introduced to it by way of a traditional tea ceremony, a mindful ritual less about the tea itself then the process involved in creating it: measuring out the bright green powder into a ceramic bowl, adding not-quite-boiled water, and whisking with a bamboo whisk until blended and frothy. You sip this tea silently, enjoying the layers of experience—the color, the aroma, the slightly grainy feel of the tea in your mouth, and finally, the subtle uplifting effect it induces.
This was not the Lipton of my childhood, to be sure.
Recently, another tea experience has given me even more reason to wax poetic about Camellia sinensis: cooking with tea.
During a recent visit to Tassajara, a Zen Buddhist monastery tucked deep in the Ventana Wilderness just east of Big Sur, California, chef and author Eric Gower, otherwise known as the Breakaway Cook for his unique style of using global ingredients in new and nontraditional preparations, demonstrated how the range of complexity of tea pairs wonderfully with food.
The workshop, which was infused with daily zazen, or seated meditation led by former tenzo (head of kitchen) Dale Kent, author of Tassajara Dinners and Desserts, had us experimenting with various tea preparations. We tasted gradations of matcha, discussing its qualities and terrior almost as if talking about wine. We created flavored salts with different teas, and used them in a variety of culinary preparations to explore the tastes they conferred. And on a beautiful sunny afternoon, we picked herbs from the garden to make tisanes, enjoyed in the shade for a lovely relaxed tea salon.
When I returned from Tassajara I went straight to my cupboard to take stock of my tea supply, brewed myself a pot of genmaicha, and made a list of the teas that I now knew I needed to have on hand for the drinking and culinary adventures that lay ahead.
Here, Eric Gower has generously shared some of his favorite culinary tea preparations. Enjoy!
1 teaspoon matcha powder
1 Tablespoon sel gris (a gray sea salt from Brittney)
Pulse just a few times; don’t over-grind, the salt crystals should be slightly coarse. Store in a Weck-type jar, or just simply in little bowls. Put somewhere very visible, so that you’ll be reminded to use it up quickly!
Tea-Crusted Tofu over Julienned Vegetables with Genmaicha Broth
1 tablespoon genmaicha tealeaves
1-2 tsp uncooked polenta (can also use cornflakes or breadcrumbs)
1 package soft tofu
An array of vegetables, such as carrot, red pepper, fennel, radicchio, and ginger, julienned
Cilantro, parsley, and/or chives for garnish, finely chopped
One serving of prepared genmaicha tea
Matcha salt (see recipe above)
olive oil spray
Pulse the genmaicha tea and polenta in a coffee grinder until fine. Set aside in a small bowl.
Gently dry the tofu by wrapping in paper towels to draw out excess moisture. Unwrap, and carefully cut the tofu in half making two thinner steaks, and then cut each steak in half on the diagonal to make 4 servings.
Spray each tofu serving on one side with olive oil and then, using your hands, generously coat one side of each tofu serving with the tea powder concoction. Spray again with the oil to make the powder stick.
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil a frying pan over medium high heat, and then add the vegetables. Sauté until just soft, about 5 minutes.
While the vegetables cook, heat another frying pan over medium high heat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Gently slide the tofu slabs, coated side down, and cook until golden brown and very crispy, about 5 minutes.
Remove the vegetables from the pan, and pour in 3/4 cup of the prepared genmaicha tea to deglaze. Reduce the liquid slightly, making sure to scape up any bits stuck to the pan.
In each of four shallow bowls, place ¼ of the sautéed vegetables and top with 1 tofu serving. Pour a small amount of the deglazed pan liquid over the top. Garnish with chopped herbs, and finish with a sprinkle of matcha salt.
Find more recipes for cooking with tea and other delights at the Breakaway Cook website.