Tea and Food Pairing

Micro Salad

Micro Salad (Source)

Last summer, I was lucky enough to meet one of the scientists behind molecular gastronomy, Hervé This. I also attended his session at the Euroscience Open Forum entitled “Science and the future of cuisine” where he (along with Mark Post and Bill Yosses) discussed molecular cuisine and the new trend in scientific cooking called note-by-note cuisine. The session was full of fascinating examples of this new cuisine but also covered the practicalities of sustaining the human race by “creating” vegetables and meat in the lab. It was an unforgettable session and tasting the chocolate mousse that was produced without cream or eggs sealed the deal!

In particular though, it drew my attention to the application of science for understanding taste and flavour so when I attended the World Tea Expo a few weeks ago, I was excited to hear Virginia Utermohlen (Cornell University) and Renée Senne talking about their scientific approach to pairing food with tea. Virginia started with the basics of taste and flavour and discussed how the chemicals in tea bind to receptors in our mouths and nose. The session then focussed on the effect that food has on the taste of tea – how some foods will mute the taste of tea while others will enhance it. I was expecting the session to be based around a molecular matching approach but Virginia’s approach was mostly based on trigeminal receptors (for heat and coolness). Cinnamon and mint were used to illustrate the power of these receptors. We were each given a cinnamon sweet which is considered to be “heat” on a taste/temperature scale so it gives a sense of warmth after binding to its receptors. After the taste had developed we took the sweet out of our mouth and replaced it with a mint. The “coolness” of the mint turns off the heat receptors and gives a sense of cold when it binds to its own receptors so the cinnamon taste was completely replaced with mint. After the mint was removed the heat receptors become active again and the heat of the cinnamon came back as residual cinnamon in the mouth was picked up.

Trigeminal Receptors

Thermal Nociceptors (Source)

From there, we went on to apply the model to Black (hot), Oolong (warm) and Green (cold) tea. The general premise was to use food of similar heat or coolness together to avoid unpleasant tastes and to allow the tea and the food to complement each other and enhance each others flavours. So Oolong (warm) could not be mixed with Cardamom (hot) because the hot spice would mute the taste of the warm drink. Crème fraiche going well with Mexican food is an example where flipping hot and cold can result in a positive effect. It makes sense to some extent but still didn’t clear up some of the well-known anomalies of molecular matching (e.g. strawberries clashing with black tea and sugar clashing with green tea). It is an interesting model to consider alongside other food pairing methods and certainly goes a long way to explaining why I like my chilli-chocolate with black tea.