The taste of 21st Century Tea

How Sri Lankan tea giant Dilmah wants to expands the possibilities of the humble herb to gastronomic glee.
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Assortment of dry tea in vintage spoons

Imagine a Chai Masala Iced Macchiato. Or a smoked tea salmon bagel. These are the mouth-watering possibilities that can be crafted with tea, thanks to Tea Inspiration for the 21st Century, also known as Ti21.

With this unique competition that was recently held by Sri Lankan tea giant Dilmah, chefs and mixologists from all across Thailand were pushed onto new innovative grounds as they rushed to concoct the most delicious tea experiences spanning morning, afternoon and evening. Judging the competition were Dilhan C. Fernando, the son of Dilmah’s founder; Peter Kuruvita, the brand’s ambassador and acclaimed Australian chef; and Tomek Malek, the fourth winner of World Champion Flair Bartender. 18 leading hotels nationwide competed for the grand prize, with The Ritz Carlton Koh Samui coming in first place, followed by other reputable names such as Zazen Boutique Hotel Resort & Spa, Sofitel Bangkok Sukhumvit and Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort winning notable awards such as Best Sustainability, Best Iced Tea, etc. (Here’s where to note that these hotel’s chefs and bartenders definitely know how to mix tea into their menus!). 

From left: Tomek Malek, Peter Kuruvita and Dilhan C. Fernando

Granted, people have been drinking tea for thousands of years, but to use tea as an ingredient in food is relatively new grounds. “We started in 1998 and people were quite amused when we first started off,” Dilhan says of his past endeavors to push tea as an ingredient in both food and beverages. “It was not accepted by chefs. Recently, people have started to realize though, that what we are doing is not just a trend, as tea really does offer strong, natural purity and different health elements.” 

The second generation tea connoisseur notes that traditions in Tibet find butter tea, while ancient civilizations may have used tea in their cooking. “However, it was about using tea for medicinal purposes,” he explains.

“If you look at a typical Chinese medication-connected dish, you have a chicken roasted with certain herbs and teas so it was never for pleasureable purposes, besides delivering natural goodness. Our objective here is about taste adventure, among other things.” 

The competition itself is a platform aimed at grooming hospitality personnel to reimagine new creative ways to incorporate tea into food and drinks—in ways that also encompass cultural, personal, sustainability and harmony dimensions. “We try to tell people that traditional is good, but today everything has changed so tea must evolve too. It’s an herb with incredible potential whether iced or hot—there is just so much you can do,” Dilhan emphasizes. 

When it comes to tea-inspired dishes, think beyond the basics of a tea-smoked duck dish—which Dilhan reveals is among the worst techniques to use the tea. “With smoking, you end up losing everything,” he notes. Think grills, tempura or teas that have been extracted into olive oils. Among some of the most stunning creations the tea mogul witness at Thailand’s competition included how a hotel from Phuket soaked a barrel of rum in tea, which gave the rum a greater intensity, body and top note, all in a natural way. “Another example is how the Elixir of Ceylon tea was combined with a tamarind reduction and different vegetables from the Royal Project that have been immersed in tea for a week,” he says. “It really was spectacular. In gastronomy, the more natural it is, the better it is. Today was one of those examples and it was extraordinary.” 

Asked what tea brings to the table as opposed to other herbs, there is no denying its relationship that can span both the food and beverage grounds. “On a functional level, tea has high levels of anti-oxidants, which helps protect the body from diabetes, stress and cholesterol,” Dilhan says. “Tea has the ability to emulsify the fats so if you’ve had a rich dish like a fatty duck, you can wash the oily residue from your palate with tea. That’s a very strong role and a great ally for chefs who pair it correctly with degustation meals. If you start with a smoked salmon, you’ll have the taste lingering in your mouth but tea can be a great palate cleanser. It works in the same way to synthesize sugar too, as it helps cleanse your body of sweetness. The second dimension, however is the sensory level. When you have great food and tea together, they create some special magic. When you taste the tea, you taste another dimension of the dish because it enhances the micro-herbs or olives in the salad. There’s a possibility to showcase different flavours because tea pushes and pulls out flavours.”  

Coupled with that is also the astounding varieties of tea that can be found—and used to flavour different dishes and drinks. Ranging from golden, light picks from mountain peaks to darker types found at low elevations across 2,000 terroirs sees the the Dilmah company tasting some 10,000 different teas every week. That said, the slight affect of rain in one day is all it takes to change the taste of a certain tea plant, grown in a specific soil, elevation and climate. “We are seeing a new generation of tea drinkers from Gen Z who are looking for experiences based in nature,” the tea businessman reveals. “This is definitely not a manufactured experience because if you take a tea elsewhere, nature will put its certain characteristics on there and there is nothing we can do to change it. It’s a beautiful natural DNA that encourages people to appreciate nature and of course, the richness of health benefits that tea has. It is truly a fingerprint of nature.” 

A Dilmah t-lounge is currently in the works and will open soon in Bangkok.

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