Turning a new leaf

Published on 12 April, 2014 in BLink – The Hindu Business Line

Don’t just drink it, steep, smoke and cook with tea

For over a 100 years, chai has been a permanent resident of the Indian kitchen. Yet in recent years, exposure to contemporary cooking techniques and global cuisines has meant that tea has undergone a notable transition — transformed from a humble brew to a quirky ingredient that chefs and amateur cooks routinely experiment with.

Ajay Chopra, executive chef at The Westin, Mumbai, says, “Every single tea leaf lends a different flavour at different temperatures. The idea is to introduce the layered flavour of tea into other foods using popular methods such as smoking, poaching and grilling.” Dhungar, the age-old Indian tradition of adding smokiness to food, is the best alternative to smoking chambers. Here, essentially, spices like cloves and cardamom are added to a bowl of hot coal placed at the centre of a covered dish. But since tea leaves are delicate, they must be mixed with dry ingredients such as salt, rice or woodchips. The tea-smoke gradually infuses the food, lending it a subtle aroma. This is cold smoking, which takes about 8-10 minutes, be it meat, red or white, or veggies. The hot smoking process, where you cook and smoke the product simultaneously on a temperature as low as 30-35ºC, could last 3-4 hours.

Poaching is a tad different, where a concoction using tea is made and the main ingredient is placed in it. One can make a concoction of tea and water, orange juice or berry juice, and the temperature of the liquid shouldn’t exceed 80ºC. Grilling, however, is by far the least popular way to add the goodness of tea to food. “The dust of tea leaves and tea twigs are added to the wood in the grill. The trick lies in monitoring the ratios closely, as the dish might acquire a bitter aftertaste. To avoid this, I usually prepare a potion of pomegranate juice and Assam tea, reduce it to a glossy consistency, and brush it on my duck while it rests in a marinade of salt, tamarind and red chilli powder before it goes under the grill,” says Chopra.

But cooking with tea is not restricted to these techniques. Baking (now more popular than ever before) is also a great way to make the most of the versatility of tea. Devika Narula, one of the 11 finalists in MasterChef India Season 2, took to baking with tea leaves after her visit to the Twinings Tea Boutique and café in Bangkok. “But if it’s not done correctly, the dish may not acquire the full-bodied flavours of tea,” she says.

Baking with tea leaves is a two-step process. At first, strong and loose tea leaves are steeped in the warm, liquid ingredients of the recipe, such as melted butter, milk or water. The liquid is then strained to get the desired flavour and colour. Lavender tea-infused lemon cupcakes or cookies, jasmine tea-infused vanilla scones, orange cupcakes or biscuits combined with a spicy tea blend (cinnamon, nutmeg and clove), Earl Grey macaroons and chai brûlée are just a few inspiring ideas. Even savoury dishes, such as ginger tea-infused pasta or chamomile tea-infused leek pie, can make for interesting combinations.


Green tea smoked duck and beetroot salad by Ajay Chopra


4 duck breasts
100gm or 1 cup green tea
Salt and pepper to taste
2 large beetroots
100ml or ½ cup olive oil
2 sprigs thyme
2 cloves of garlic
2-3tbsp honey
6-7tbsp balsamic vinegar
30gm or ¼ cup Parmesan cheese
4 fresh figs
Beet leaves to garnish

Heat a smoker or a pressure cooker on slow flame. Apply salt and pepper to the duck breasts. Inside, in a container place green tea leaves at the base of smoking device, and above it the duck breasts on a wire rack. Cover the lid and seal it completely. Smoke for about 10 minutes and remove from heat. Let it cool down and bring it to room temperature. Open the lid and take out the breasts (complete remaining cooking in an oven at 110◦C for 25-30 minutes). Keep aside.
In a foil place the beetroot, 50 ml olive oil, salt and pepper with thyme and garlic and cover it. Place inside hot oven at 220◦C and roast for 45 minutes. Check doneness and when cooked, remove. Cool and peel skins discarding rest of ingredients keeping beet aside. Reduce balsamic vinegar to 50 ml. (Add a pinch of sugar at the end to replace lost sweetness and balance flavours).
Cut the beet into long quarters, make a dressing with reduced balsamic and honey. Add salt and pepper. Keep aside.

To assemble: Drizzle the dressing onto a plate. Slice duck breasts into thin, bite-sized slices. Arrange on a plate with beet quarters. Top it with figs cut into quarters, and shavings of parmesan cheese. Drizzle remaining dressing, place beet leaves to garnish.


Lavender tea-infused lemon and poppy seed cupcakes by Devika Narula


225gm or 1 2/3 cups flour
1tsp (heaped) baking powder
175gm or 2/3 cup caster sugar
Zest of 6 lemons
1tbsp poppy seeds, toasted
3 large eggs
100gm or about ½ cup curd
175gm or ½ cup plus 1tbsp butter, melted and cooled slightly
24gm or 2tsp lavender tea

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners. Set aside.
Melt butter and add tea leaves to it. Set aside for 3-4 minutes. Then strain the butter, pressing the leaves down on the sieve for optimum flavour. Discard the tea leaves once done.
Whisk together the flour, sugar, lemon zest and poppy seeds. Beat the eggs into the curd and then tip this mixture into the dry ingredients along with the tea infused melted butter. Mix together with a wooden spoon, until lump free. Fill the cake cases about 2/3 full.
Bake for 20-22 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the centre of one comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to finish cooling completely.



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