Ingredient focus: Tea
Amanda Elisha brews an investigation into all things tea trending
1 Culture Club
It is no secret that tea is very much a part of day-to-day life in the Middle East. This popular hot drink can be found in what seems like an endless number of varieties across the region. This includes some regional variations, with each specific culture putting its own special twist into the way it is brewed.
One of the favourites include the ever-present Moroccan green tea, which can be found in most Arabic restaurants. It is made using gunpowder green tea, sugar and mint served in traditional tall glasses.
Iraqi chai is known for its distinctively strong brew, and always includes cardamom pods and plenty of sugar for a distinctive flavour. To find a traditional cuppa, try the Samad Al Iraqi Restaurant in Jumeirah, Dubai.
Another regional favourite is masala chai, an Indian classic which has been integrated into local Emirati culture, known locally as ‘karak chai’. This aromatic tea is instantly recognisable by its sweet smell made with black tea, Indian spices and condensed milk.
One only needs to stop at any traditional Indian restaurant in Al Karama in Dubai to pick up this classic.
2 Healthy Teas
Everywhere you look, people are praising different kinds of tea for their health benefits, and it is no different in the Middle East. Muscat-based Chado Tea Lounge owner Afshin Mohammadi explains: “All teas, to be honest, boast such benefits, as all teas come from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis. It is just the way the leaves are processed that determines the different type of tea.
“White teas have anti-oxidant levels even higher than the other teas, green included. Some research has recently shown that white teas may offer benefits to people with diabetes as well as reduce blood cholesterol, colds and flu.”
Fairmont The Palm tea sommelier Enice Mutisya adds: “Research has shown that EGCG [antioxidant found in green tea] can actually slow the growth of and/or kill cancer cells and can prevent a range of heart related issues from high blood pressure to congestive heart failure.”
Many teas are also looked to as the perfect complement to an existing weight loss routine. These include green and white teas, as well as a new trendy variety, cinnamon tea, known for its blood sugar stabilising abilities, which has been linked to weight loss especially in diabetic drinkers.
Mohammadi concludes by praising something usually ignored: “All teas in general are also good for the hygiene of our teeth, thanks to the polyphenols that reduce the formation of plaque and bacteria and the fluoride content, which fight the development of cavities and strengthen the enamel.”
3 The Perfect Brew
With the proliferation of teas and their increasing popularity, particular attention is beginning to be paid to the technique with which each cup is brewed.
Dalia El Bahr of Geralt ME, Newby Teas exclusive distributor in the region, shares her method for the perfect cup of tea. “Always boil the kettle with fresh water. Fresh water provides maximum oxygen dissolved therein, which helps to bring out the fresh flavour and brightness of the tea leaves.”
She continues: “Pour the boiling water into a glass, stainless steel or china teapot and add one teaspoon of tea per person. Brew the tea for 3-5 minutes depending on the desired strength.”
However, one should be wary when adding milk to teas, as El Bahr explains: “Delicate teas, such as Darjeeling, green, aromatic and tangy infusions are ideally served without milk, as it can change the intended taste of the tea. Traditionally, milk can be added to Assam, English Breakfast and Indian Breakfast teas to offset their earthy and malty tastes.”
4 Oolong - The super tea
While green and white teas have long been hailed for their health benefits, oolong teas have recently emerged as a staple in the ‘healthy tea’ market.
“Oolong and black teas contain more complex flavonoids [than green tea], which cleanse the body from cell-damaging free radicals, the cause of heart diseases, cancer and age-related problems. Oolong is claimed to reduce cholesterol as well, in addition to the ability of dissolving the triglycerides, the fat stored in fat cells,” says Chado Tea Lounge’s Mohammadi.
Geralt ME’s El Bahr also promotes a certain type of oolong tea which combines the added benefits of ginseng.
“Health benefits you can receive from drinking ginseng oolong tea include lowering of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, stopping the growth of certain cancerous tumors, boosting the immune system, preventing heart disease, enhancing physical and mental endurance, and strengthening the body against fatigue and stress,” she states.
5 Perfect pairing
Tea sommeliers have become permanent fixtures in many of the region’s hotels and tea rooms, helping customers find the perfect tea pairing for each meal.
“A tea sommelier is a very specialised role, and knowledgeable sommeliers can assist and educate guests on various flavours, nuances and pairings according to their needs and requests,” explains Fairmont’s Mutisya.
La Marquise International marketing manager Darya Yurkina highlights the surge in popularity of sommeliers: “Tea culture is rapidly growing in the region. We have witnessed the significant growth in tea consumption in the GCC for the past few years with more and more franchises of tea bars and cafés taking the market by storm, forcing hotels to step up their game and turn to professional tea sommeliers for assistance in order to remain competitive.”
Top tips on pairing tea with food according to Geralt’s El Bahr: light teas (Darjeeling and Ceylon) are best with light meals such as fruit and mild cheese, while stronger teas such as Assam or English Breakfast should be served with more robustly flavoured dishes such as meat and fish.
6 Tea drama
Those looking for a little more excitement might be interested in attending a Chinese Gongfu tea ceremony during which a Kung Fu tea master presides over service.
The literal translation of gongfu cha is making tea with effort. Special care is taken to ensure that the right tea is made and served in the most efficient and optimal way. The temperature and serving method vary depending on the type of tea used.
“The guests of Umai at The Oberoi, Dubai can expect to be dazzled by Crystal’s ceremonial tea performance. She is a Kung Fu tea master doing her performances every time she serves tea at individual tables. It does not involve exact martial arts performance. The focus is on serving tea in an extraordinary way,” comments beverage manager Rohan Ogale.
Yuan at Atlantis The Palm, Dubai, and Zheng He’s at Madinat Jumeirah also feature this dramatic performance.
7 Ceremonies of Tea
High tea has been a fixture on the regional tea scene for the past few years and hotels and tea rooms are now looking for new ways to stand out from the crowd in this popular market.
La Marquise’s Yurkina says: “Hotels in the region boasted for some time now lavish high tea ceremonies though taking into consideration that GCC customers are generally known for being demanding and trend driven we believe the next thing which would affect afternoon tea ceremonies is the theatre of serving: it has to be entertaining, discovering new ways of brewing tea and equipment for it making it a unique experience.”
Mutisya explains how she ensures a unique afternoon tea at the Fairmont The Palm adding: “The Afternoon Tea program at Mashrabiya lounge is inspired by the English, Scottish and Welsh tea traditions, with accompaniments prepared and presented in a unique way by the use of the finest fresh ingredients.
“Our very own selection of over 33 Fairmont teas from all over the world, are highlighted by signature blends such as “Golden Palm” and “Royal Palm”, which incorporate the energising health properties of black and green tea varieties, complemented by various herbal ingredients. Guests also have the opportunity to enjoy this tea experience against the backdrop of the Arabian Sea and the Marina skyline, which ties the entire experience together.”
In a market as jam packed as that of tea, it is not an easy feat to stand out from the crowd. However, the Middle East has recently experienced a surge in quality teas looking to do so.
Yurkina expects this upward trend to continue. “It does not look like the tea market will slow down, and growing customers demand will not only be in terms of product selection and choice but also its higher quality.”
Mutisya says it is important to note that quality tea is definitely different than generic ones people find at supermarkets.
She explains: “Fine quality teas can be compared to good wines — they have distinctive flavours, colours, aromas, appearance and infusion. The colour of an infused tea is very important in order to recognise a good quality tea. It should have a vibrant, glowing colour.
Poor quality teas tend to have a dead or flat colour. Good quality teas also usually have a fresh aroma, and are not stale or odourless.”
The final factor is appearance, according to Mutisya. She explains: “Consistent size and colour of the leaf. Take a handful of tea leaves and check for variations in colour and sizes. Good quality tea leaves have a consistent colour and are generally the same size.
Poor quality teas usually have a combination of colours and sizes, as driven by the fact that quality tea is blended with low-quality leaves in order to market a cheaper product.”
9 Tisanes and others
As we all know, tea comes in all shapes, sizes and colours, but it has also inspired a range of alternatives, including the in-demand tisane.
“Herbal teas are referred as tea but are really not true teas. Herbal tisanes are tea-like beverages and are prepared and consumed in a similar way to tea; however, they do not contain the Camellia Sinensis plant. A common example of this would be a peppermint or chamomile herbal tisane,” explains Fairmont’s Mutisya.
Tisanes are the perfect choice for a late-night drink, she adds. “Tisanes and flavoured teas offer a caffeine-free beverage alternative. Herbal teas are usually a great choice before going to bed, as it doesn’t keep one awake as coffee or soft drinks would. Some herbal teas help to de-stress, such as chrysanthemum and rosebud.”
10 Alternative ingredient
While tea is a drink, it has also emerged as a star ingredient in food as well. More familiar uses might include matcha green tea ice cream, served up at many Japanese restaurants.
However, there is a wide array of dishes that can include tea as a taste enhancer.
Dubai-based Taiwanese brand Sino Chai is known for using tea in its dim sum selection — the Ten Li Tea beef dumplings and Jasmine Tea Siu Mai are two examples.
Easy ways to incorporate tea into cooking include using it as an enhancer to water when steaming or boiling. Meats can be marinated in brewed tea as a substitute to traditional marinades. Tea is a particularly effective tenderiser, giving it a dual purpose in this case.
Another emerging trend, which is already popular in Asia, is tea-infused chocolates. One of Japan’s most popular snacks is green tea flavoured Kit-Kats.