There are two kinds of tea-drinkers in this world, albeit with many subcategories. They are, those that take it with milk, and those that take it straight. I am most decidedly in the second category, and now that the cold has arrived, my kettle is going pretty much all day long. But since I find that lovers of the second category are a little rarer (let’s face it, it’s an English Breakfast world), I thought I’d take a moment to celebrate my favorite teas. I can’t tell you how excited I am when I have dinner at someone’s house and they whip out one of these afterward—I am simultaneously excited to have a cup of something delicious, but I also feel as if I’ve found a kindred spirit.
Lapsang souchong is a smoked Chinese tea, that has that slightly astringent tannic quality that I love in Chinese teas, but with an additional, um, smoky quality. You might be surprised at how strong, and how pleasant, the smoke flavor is. When I worked at San Domenico in New York City, then-Chef-de-Cuisine Benny Bartolotta actually ground the leaves and applied the powder to black sea bass before pan-searing, and the effect was startling and delicious.
I remember when I first discovered Genmaicha, the Japanese green tea mixed with grains of brown rice. A lifelong starch lover, who could happily eat bread, pasta, and rice all day long, I thought, “What genius came up with this?” But a cup is less like downing a bowl of rice, and more a symphony for your nose: You taste green tea, but the nutty aroma that wafts from your cup is one you’ll want to breathe in for hours.
Speaking of nose symphonies, let’s not forget Jasmine tea, a dim sum classic, which radiates about as much floral as you’d want in a tea*, while still being a potent tea.
Kukicha, a Japanese tea, is made from roasting the tea branches (it’s often called “twig tea”), and has that toasty flavor that reminds you of coffee or roasted barley tea, but a lot less caffeine, which is nice for when you want to trick yourself into feeling like you’ve had a caffeinated beverage but don’t actually want to be buzzing at 4 in the morning.
And finally, my dark horse entry: Rooibos. This one isn’t Asian, but African; it isn’t even a tea, but a tisane, and lots of people drink it with milk and/or sugar. I first had it at Lucia in Minnesota, and it was lightly sweetened and tasted slightly of licorice and tree bark but not quite; and it was just as much a revelation as all the delicious things that came before (Lucia Watson is a genius). I do, occasionally, still swirl some honey in it, but most nights, I just drink it straight, a last bit of comfort before I go to bed.
*My Chinese-American college roommate used to brew pots of chrysanthemum tea, which were delicious and gorgeous—you’d lift the lid to find rainbow-colored blooms inside. But I’m a real teabag kind of girl. I know, it’s totally anti-purist, but I don’t like to commit to more than one cup at a time.