Tea leaves aren’t just for brewing and drinking. Yep, that’s right, you can eat them too, and some cultures around the world have embraced tea leaves as a staple ingredient.
The best known is Japan, where tea in the form of matcha (specially prepared and powdered green tea leaves that have a slew of health benefits) is common in ice cream, cakes, smoothies and other confections.
But regular, old tea leaves, whether loose, powdered or even pickled, can add a distinctive, earthy flavour, rich brown colour and, of course, caffeine and antioxidant infusion, to all sorts of recipes.
So, what’s the secret to cooking with tea leaves? Simply put, just do it. Experiment with green or black and loose or ground extracted from bags, mixed into recipes in the same way as an ordinary herb, and you may be pleasantly surprised.
Here are a few recipes for your tea leaf inspiration:
Burmese tea leaf salad
Perhaps no culture embraces tea leaves in cooking like Myanmar, whose traditional tea leaf salad has become its most famous dish. Unlike other recipes on this list, which are more tea-infused than tea-based, tea leaf salad is literally composed of pickled tea leaves – plus a number of other spices, herbs and nuts. It doesn’t really taste like an ordinary cup of tea either. Rather, it has a spicy, earthy, gingery essence all of its own reminiscent of Kipling’s Road to Mandalay.
Black tea ice cream
Green tea ice cream, i.e. matcha ice cream, has made its way out of Japan and into creameries worldwide. Its muskier cousin, black tea ice cream, is less popular, but no less delicious. This recipe from Snapguide shows how to make it from scratch.
Assam tea brownies
As a combination of flavours, tea and chocolate are too often overlooked. But this brownie recipe from the Schizo Chef that calls for powdered Assam tea blends the sweet cocoa flavour with the sharpness of Assam tea.
Tea smoked duck
Time for a little meat. Duck – dark, fatty and rich – is a favourite to infuse with the flavours of tea leaves. Tea smoked duck, or zhangcha duck, is a Sichuan dish that makes full use of this natural combination. It can be very complicated to make, but this recipe from Food 52 offers and simpler version.
Tea-marinated beef stew
Where Sichuan cuisine infuses meat with tea through smoking, tea leaves also work well as a marinade for red meats, particularly beef – the stronger and sharper the tea flavour, the better. This hearty and heavy beef stew recipe from Restaurant Business calls for a tea-based marinade.
Pan-seared scallops with Earl Grey sauce
This scallops recipe calls for finely ground Earl Grey, a black tea infused with oil of bergamot, rather than whole, loose tea leaves. The fruity, citrusy notes enhance the light, buttery sauce in subtle and interesting ways.
Fried tea leaves
The most straightforward recipe on this list: Simply fry the tea leaves. Soak loose black tea leaves and then toss them into the fryer along with chicken, shrimp or tofu for a unique garnish that infuses its aromas into the main dish.