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|October 2-8, 2008
• Our morning reference point
Dot’s is part of Boulder’s Breakfast Hall of Fame
by Clay Fong
Cha, te, tea
Exploring pleasures and complexities
by Maricel E. Presilla
When I opened my first Latin restaurant in Hoboken, N.J., I stumbled on archaic regulations that prevented me from purchasing a liquor license. Instead, I created a large menu of nonalcoholic drinks — juices, premium hot chocolates and coffees and quality loose-leaf teas.
In composing my tea list, I reached beyond the soothing herbal and floral “tisanes” of my childhood, the more familiar yerba mate of Argentina and Uruguay and the supple black teas I had learned to love on a trip to India and began to explore the amazing world of Chinese and Japanese green teas and aromatic Taiwanese oolongs.
I felt justified. Coffee and chocolate may be more closely associated with Latin America, but tea is also a part of our cultural experience. It is grown in Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Chileans take time for “Las Once,” afternoon tea, with family and friends (no doubt under British influence), and Brazilians measure recipe ingredients in “xicaras de cha,” tea cups.
The Portuguese word for tea, “cha,” is derived from the Cantonese “cha” or “ch’a,” and for good reason. By the 16th century, Portuguese traders were bypassing the perilous inland route to the Far East by circumnavigating Africa and crossing the Indian Ocean to the Malay Peninsula and southern China. They created coastal trading stations like Macao, and the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who followed them wrote the first Western descriptions of tea consumption among the Chinese.
Though the Dutch quickly supplanted the Portuguese as Europe’s foremost tea traders, it was Catherine de Braganza (1638-1705), the Portuguese wife of English King Charles II, who is credited with introducing the custom of drinking tea to the British upper classes.
Like other foodstuffs born of fermentation — wine, coffee, chocolate — tea is bewilderingly complex. Though all tea is processed from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, an evergreen native to Asia, the particular cultivar, growing conditions and methods of harvesting and processing produce myriad nuances of flavor, color and aroma.
How I wish I could have read Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss’s The Story of Tea: A Cultural and Drinking Guide (Ten Speed, $32.95) when I began to taste world teas in earnest back in 2000. The husband-and-wife team, with 30 years of experience sourcing teas for their Northampton, Mass., shop, produced a passionate and learned book that is as much a cultural exploration as a practical guide to tea and its full enjoyment.
The book, published last year, begins with a chapter on the history of tea from its cradle in a vast area of Asia stretching from Assam in northeastern India to Yunnan Province in southwestern China.
“Awareness of tea spread first from Yunnan, throughout China, then to the rest of Asia, and finally to the West,” the Heisses write, but it was in China that the consumption of tea became an art.
During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), teahouses became a fixture of Chinese social life and tea seeds were introduced into Japan by a Zen priest. The Japanese “were able to imbue the rituals of the tea ceremony with purely Japanese aesthetics, Japanese utensils, and a precise, practiced formality based on Japanese principles,” they write.
After recounting tea’s turbulent history in Europe and North America, the book examines the life of the tea bush Camellia sinensis, its regional cultivars (China bush, Assam bush, Java bush), the eight elements of tea production (plucking, sorting, cleaning, primary drying/withering, type-specific processing, final firing, drying, sorting/packing) and the six major styles of finished tea (green, yellow, white, oolong, black, pu-erh).
There are chapters on the health benefits of tea and the ethics of the tea trade along with expert advice on purchasing, storing, brewing and tasting tea — plus recipes.
The one I have chosen here uses oolong tea, a specialty of Fujien Province and Taiwan. The leaves are semi-fermented, meaning that they are partially oxidized. Ranging in color from greenish brown to reddish or dark amber, oolongs are fruity or flowery and highly aromatic.
Spicy oolong-smoked duck breasts
A fruity and complex oolong tea makes a wonderful smoking mix for duck when combined with peppercorns, cinnamon and star anise. Slice the breasts thinly and add to Asian cabbage salads or noodle dishes. Authors and tea merchants Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss (cooksshophere.com) recommend peach-scented Hairy Crab or floral Tieguanyin Fujian from China, but a good-quality Formosa (Taiwan) oolong is fine. Ten Ren Tea (800-650-1047, tenren.com) is an excellent mail-order option.
4 duck breasts
Coarse sea salt
2 ounces oolong tea leaves
3 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns (or a mixture of black peppercorns and whole allspice)
1 (5-inch) stick cinnamon (sold as Mexican canela in Hispanic markets)
1 teaspoon white peppercorns, crushed
6 whole star anise
1⁄4 cup light brown sugar or grated Latin brown loaf sugar
Wipe the duck breasts clean with a damp paper towel, pat dry and season with salt. In a small bowl, combine all remaining ingredients. Line a wok or Dutch oven with aluminum foil and spread the tea and spice mixture on it. Fit the pan with a round rack that will elevate the duck breasts.
Place the duck on the rack, fat side up, and cover the pan. Turn the heat to medium-high, and after 2 or 3 minutes, quickly lift the lid. The tea and spice mixture should be starting to smoke. If not turn the heat up a little and check again in a minute or two.
Regulate the heat so that the tea and spice mixture smokes but does not burn.
Smoke the duck breasts for 45 to 90 minutes, depending on the thickness of the meat. When done, they should be ruddy golden-brown in color, glistening on the outside and pinkish in color inside, with an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
Let the meat rest about 5 minutes before slicing. Makes 4 servings.
Source: Adapted from The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss (Ten Speed, $32.50).
Per serving: 492 calories (82 percent from fat), 44.6 g fat (14.9 g saturated, 21.2 g monounsaturated), 86.2 mg cholesterol, 13 g protein, 8.8 g carbohydrates, 0 fiber, 73.9 mg sodium.
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