The Right Tea to Drink with a Tuna Fish Sandwich: And More Tea Pairing Tips from Jessie Jacobs of Samovar

Expert Interview

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Who: Jesse Jacobs
Where: Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco, CA
The Question: What kind of tea should I drink with my favorite foods?

Jesse Jacobs is a passionate, wholehearted tea-lover and the owner of Samovar Tea Lounge, a small chain of four tea cafes located in San Francisco. Samovar is noted for its top of the line tea offerings as well as its innovative pairings of tea and food.

As a tea lover, I wanted to know more about serving food and tea, so I sat down with Jesse at his lovely Zen Valley location to discuss the principles of pairing food with tea.

Tea & Food at Samovar

The teas at Samovar are very high quality and the staff is trained to carefully brew them to perfection. The atmosphere encourages patrons to relax and focus on the entire tea experience: the leaves, the color, the aroma and, finally, the taste.

Samovar also pairs tea with the appropriate food and has an extensive menu with items such as a Japanese Tea Service that pairs Ryokucha green tea with smoked salmon, seaweed salad, brown rice, kale, squash, and nori. They also serve a classic English Breakfast with scones and double cream, jam, fresh fruit and quiche.

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Jesse is busy preparing for the launch of his fourth tea lounge in San Francisco's Mission District where he hopes to bring the concepts of third wave coffee to tea drinkers. The Valencia Street location will offer ten handcrafted teas meticulously brewed by the cup as well as masala chai and fresh baked scones.

"I've always been interested in the seasonality of food. I was a locavore long before it was a buzzword. I was interested in the story behind food, what makes it special and unique," says Jesse. "And with that interest came an intentionality, being mindful and aware of what I was eating, and soon I discovered that certain things just go well together naturally."

"I noticed that if I was eating a very spicy dumpling and drinking a very delicate green tea, it really didn't work, that I'd want a strong, smoky, full-bodied rich tea. So I started there and then I began reading a lot of books on wine and food pairing and realized that tea totally makes sense in this way, too. I started doing things like tea and chocolate pairings and it became a growing interest, a fascination."

"People have to eat and drink and they want good stuff. Tea has proven throughout the years — the millennia , actually — to be something people really enjoy. It started out as medicine, as something that cured the ills. It turned out that had more to do with boiling the water, of course, but tea is naturally uplifting and kind of a social lubricant, so its persisted."

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Jesse on Contrasting or Accentuating Flavors with Tea

Always begin with the food then match the tea to its characteristics. I like to think about pairing tea and food in terms of contrast or accentuation. You're either going to contrast the food with the tea using flavors that are distinct, or you're going to accentuate the food by using flavors that are similar.

Accentuating Flavors: The Right Tea for Brunch

As an example of accentuating flavors, say I'm going to make breakfast for friends and it's going to be an over the top brunch. I'm serving chicken-apple sausage, brioche french toast, fruit salad, scrambled eggs, mimosas. Lots of rich, buttery, savory, maple syrup-sweet flavors.

So what tea would go well with that? My instinct would lead me to a pu-erh, which is kind of coffee-like in color and substance. It's a fermented black tea and it has some of those bittersweet chocolate/malty notes that you get with espresso. It's known in traditional Chinese food as being good for cutting through oiliness and is often served with dim sum.

What will the pu-erh do? It will accentuate and complement the food and neither one will be drowned out. You will taste the breakfast and taste the tea and each one will heighten each other.

Maybe another choice would be a Lapsang Souchon, with its pungent smoked pine needle notes and brisk, astringent feel. What you wouldn't want is a really delicate Jasmine Pearl. It would be overpowered and washed out by the food.

Accentuating Flavors: The Right Tea for Asian Food

Or if you're serving Asian food, you might want to go with a complementary tea that would be thinner, lighter, greener, more vegetal. Maybe something like Ryokucha which is a genmaicha blended with matcha, or any tea with a cleaner, lighter frequency.

Contrasting Flavors: The Right Tea for Indian Food

The other way to go would be contrasting the food and tea, to see both of them in their extremes.

If you have Indian flavors, something very earthy and spicy, you can contrast that with a hibiscus tea, like our Hibiscus Bliss: tart, bright, fruity. Or another great bright tart contrast would be an Earl Grey which is bright and lemony with bergamot in the blend.

Indian food also works well with complementary flavors. We have a turmeric based tea that uses turmeric root, blood orange rind, lemongrass, ginger, licorice. Or, of course, masala chai would be great with Indian food: cardamom, black pepper, ginger, cloves, black tea, whole milk and sugar.

The Best Teas to Drink with 5 Favorite Foods

  • Tuna Fish Sandwich - A seafood taste but with mayonnaise, so kind of buttery too. I would say a green tea would go well with it. Green tea and maybe even a jasmine. An iced jasmine would be good.
  • Fried Chicken - Definitely pu-erh. That's obvious. It's earthy, cuts through the richness, holds up well with its rich, thick body. But another one would be like a Tea Quan Yin oolong. It's medium roasted so you have this nutty roast quality which would be the main thing you would notice. The subtleties would get washed away but it would be cool to introduce the toasted almond qualities. It would be strong enough, as it's fairly full-bodied oolong but it would be kind of exotic. You could even do it iced — it would hold up through it.
  • Lemon Cheesecake - A hibiscus tea would be great, Very bright red and tart. A nice contrast to the rich but a little tangy cheesecake. Tart tea would play with tangy cheesecake.
  • Asparagus or Fiddlehead Ferns - Maybe a white tea? That could be interesting. A more full-bodied one, though, like a Bai Mudan. It has depth and a stringent, vegetal quality. It will also hold up if you use butter or olive oil. But they both have this vegetal quality so it would be cool to put them together.
  • Steamed Clams - Steamed clams are often served with lemon juice and garlic, so it might be interesting to do an Earl Grey. Pu-erh would be too heavy. Green tea would be an obvious choice because of the sea like flavors. But the strength and brightened citrus of the Earl Grey would make the most interesting pairing.

Visit Samovar

For more information on Samovar Tea Lounge, visit their website or spend a quiet afternoon any of their beautiful tea lounges the next time you're in San Francisco.

(Image credits: Dana Velden; Samovar Tea Lounge)

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