Eating Tea and Humble Pie

Eating Tea and Humble Pie

The 2009 Culinary Tea Competition was held May 15 at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts run by fellow IACP member, Roberta Dowling. Seeing Roberta for the first time since her warm welcome at the Denver conference made me wish we had some secret handshake or something. Anyway, she was lively as ever and a gracious host for the event, opening her school to the judges and crowd, feeding us too. There were several outstanding entries in this slate of 17. Obvious care went into the conception, execution and presentation of all of these dishes and drinks.

One young chef even confessed to me "Before this competition I never had a cuppa tea in my life. It really intrigued me." That, I think, epitomizes the spirit that will encourage more young chefs to bring culinary uses of tea to consumers.

Tea and No Sympathy

"The green tea incident" as I now refer to it, would have the exact opposite effect on me if I were a young chef, new to culinary uses of tea, perhaps new, even to tea...

Green Darjeeling, Matcha Foam, Raspberry pearl, tea-sugar and dehydrated, candied mint leaf made for a gorgeous presentation

I have many friends who are experts in a variety of culinary fields. It's my great pleasure to learn from them as I write about their "thing" whether it be wine, or mushrooms, spices or unique cuisines. Some fields, like wine, have a reputation for snobbery and are trying hard to lose that reputation. Nothing kills genuine interest and inquiry than a public dressing down.

Here's what happened:

Inquiring about this beautiful libation (which ended up winning the category, partly on the merits of the balance of flavors, precisely what I was inquiring about...) I was scolded about describing matcha as “bitter.” Though I don’t believe it’s inaccurate and I don’t believe I’m the first or last to describe it as bitter. It was wrongly assumed that I needed instruction on how to properly brew green tea. I was treated (in front of the assembled crowd) to a correction: “green tea should never be bitter”. Another judge was invited to corroborate the first judge's point and to weigh in on my gaffe.

The first judge continued as the crowd waited and the judges waited, “it should never be bitter if it’s brewed properly, don’t you agree?” *

Think how differently this might have sounded:

"You know this drink does have a balance of astringent and sweet. Do folks know about brewing green tea as opposed to other teas and how critical the water temperature is to well-brewed cup?" Then the range of temperatures could have been offered to the crowd. Instead, this was more of a "you're wrong, and I'm going take everyone's time to ensure you know it" approach. Talk about bitter and astringent.

Well, perhaps “astringent” would be a more accurate word. I, for one, do not feel “bitter” is a negative at all. At least I’ve got the whole of India on my side in that regard, and a good part of the rest of Asia, too. In that part of the world “bitter” is a sought-after flavor component of many dishes.

If I have to eat humble pie, I will offer to share it with my would-be teachers. More than a public correction, I was really much more interested in the beverage being presented. That was one bitter cup for me to swallow. Ironically, I just read the tea service chapter in Oishinbo where the graciousness of the tea ceremony is explained as one of its highest goals.

*For the record, green tea is best made with water just under boiling point. Various grades are best brewed at different temperatures. Steeping times are also generally quite short. Being Japanese and having sat through a demonstration of the tea ceremony in its birthplace in Kyoto, I know these things. But I didn't interrupt the competition to make sure everyone knew this.

Maybe it was just the suicide on the tracks at Porter Square that made me a little sensitive...

Culinary Tea

And now, back to the main event. 

The first-place winner of each category received a $300 cash prize, recipe featured in Tea, A Magazine, and their recipe will be published in the forthcoming book Culinary Tea. They'll also get a 2-night stay at The Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers, and their recipe will be featured on the menu there.

More than 15 finalists selected from 100 original entrants, competed. Competitors were students or alumni from The CSCA, Johnson & Wales University, Bunker Hill Community College, Boston University, and Newbury College.

Later, after the green tea incident, it was confirmed that sweet and bitter/astringent was truly, a winning combination. The “Vanilla Green-Tea-Ni” developed by Sharon Artsi was the winner in the Tea Cocktail category. Green Darjeeling was topped with Matcha foam.

Green Darjeeling was new to me entirely. It is from a prime tea growing region in the North. India’s Embassy was represented by the gracious Banrashri Bose Harrison, Minister of Commerce, and the Tea Board of India. She shared the Green Darjeeling knowledge with me. I later learned that Makaibari Green Darjeeling is new tips of Darjeeling tea. This rare tea is described as "floral."

Teas used included: Oolong, Darjeeling, Green Darjeeling, Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong, Chai (all or most of them hand-blended) Assam, Ceylon, and Pu-erh.

Techniques included: brining, marinating, smoking, steeping, saucing, infusing. It was really something to see the creativity on display and a treat to taste the results. I was particularly impressed by the chefs who had admittedly recent familiarity with tea at all, coming in with such strong final entries. Surely, this speaks volumes of their skill and promise. Hopefully, they'll carry this experience forward as they build dishes and menus.

Winners of this inaugural competition were as follows:
?First Place Tea-Cocktail:
Sharon Artsi - a student at CSCA - Vanilla Greentini
First Place Overall: Sharon Artsi (Sharon was a finalist in the savory category with his Seared Salmon in Darjeeling-Coconut Sauce)

First Place Savory: Jon Riley, JWU alumni - Lapsang Souchang Braised Short Ribs of Beef (below, foreground)

First Place “Best Use of India Tea” Category: Jakob White, BU Culinary Student - Black Tea Smoked Chicken with Tea Blanched Shrimp and Udon


First Place Dessert: Yun-Jeong Hwang, Newbury College - Green Tea Tiramisu with Lemon Ginger Tea Gelee



Winners All

Cynthia Gold, Tea Sommelier at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel is working on a book called “Culinary Tea” to be released in 2010 from Running Press/Perseus Books.  It explores the culinary side of fine teas looking at tasting, proper food/tea pairings, techniques and approaches to cooking with tea and much more. Gold was so impressed with many of the entries she promised a good number of them would be appearing in her upcoming book.


Cynthia's White Port Tea infusions include one with black tea, lavender and rose petals and one with Jasmine. As with that Tea service at the Park Plaza, this competition was begun with Cynthia's Tea-infused white Ports.

  • You can read more about Cynthia Gold in my Editor's Choice award-winning article: Meet a Tea Sommelier.
  • Oishinbo is a wonderful introduction to (or refresher on) Japanese cuisine and techniques, even the culture around food rituals. It's written in graphic or "manga" style with a substantial glossary in the back.The series also includes a book on Sake, on Gyoza and Ramen, Vegetables, and Fish.
  • The Tea Board of India
  • The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts

I urge you to try the Boston Park Plaza's Afternoon Tea. It's a wonderful civilized way to enjoy an afternoon, as well as an introduction into many culinary uses of tea.

Here's to culinary tea, L'Chaim!


Recipes available. Drop me a comment and I'll share!