ON A recent trip to northern Thailand, I was served a cup of oolong tea made with leaves picked from a nearby evergreen and dried in the sun. The roasted flavor was so much more robust than what passed for tea back home, it made me feel like I’d never actually tasted real tea before. It also got me thinking, “This is as sophisticated as any spice—could I actually cook with it?”
Back in my kitchen, with the help of Tea Cookbook, by Tonia George (Ryland Peters & Small, 2008) and Tea Cuisine, by Joanna Pruess (The Lyons Press, 2006), I began experimenting with black, white, green, and even red tea—and discovered that teas can add a light, floral note to soups and salads, a deep, almost peppery flavor to fish and meat dishes, and a rich, nutty taste to desserts.
I also learned that, just like spices, teas offer high levels of antioxidants and amino acids that have been linked to cancer prevention, heart health, and even the treatment of anxiety and sleep apnea. Tea is so good for you, researchers suggest drinking up to five cups a day to take full advantage of its benefits. If you’d rather eat your tea, here are our suggestions for putting some of the healthiest leaves—and the highest-quality brands—right into sweet and savory dishes.
The name “white” refers to the silvery down that covers the immature buds of the tea tree Camellia sinensis at daybreak in early spring. When picked and dried in the shade, the leaves give white tea its golden hue and subtle floral flavor.
Cooking tip: Add to salad dressings and desserts like orange or lemon granitas or to light soup stocks like in our Chicken & Edamame Noodle Soup.
Health benefits: White tea may protect against heart disease and cancer thanks to high levels of the antioxidants catechins, says Mario Ferruzzi, Ph.D., an associate professor in food sciences and nutrition at Purdue University.
The slightly astringent flavor of green tea comes from young leaves of the same tree as white, black, and oolong teas. In Japan, the distinctive vegetal flavor of green matcha tea comes from steaming the leaves, which are then dried and ground into a delicate powder.
Cooking tip: Pair green tea’s grassy overtones—in rubs or stuffing—with salmon, chicken, tempeh, or lean pork, or in our Matcha Tea Cookies (see naturalhealthmag.com/matchacookies).
Health benefits: With its extremely high levels of the catechin epigallocatechin-3-gallate, green tea may help prevent practically everything from sleep apnea and psoriasis to breast cancer, recent studies suggest. Researchers in Japan recently concluded that drinking five or more cups of green tea per day could lower your mortality rate by up to 16 percent.
The sun-dried mature leaves of Camellia sinensis produce teas that range from lightly floral to brisk and heavy, depending on how long the leaves are allowed to oxidize in the sun.
Cooking tip: Add oolong to meat and veggie marinades for a peppery kick.
Health benefits: Theanine, the amino acid common in green tea and oolong, may influence memory and focus, and have a calming effect, says Ferruzzi. Japanese researchers have found that it may even limit the absorption of fat during a meal.
Tea leaves are dried, crushed, and oxidized to create black tea’s coppery-red color and bold flavor, the foundation of popular Earl Grey (which is infused with bergamot oil) and Darjeeling.
Cooking tip: Use in barbecue marinades, or in rubs for white fish like our Tilapia with Black Tea Rub.
Health benefits: Black tea has been linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, says Ferruzzi, because of its high levels of flavonoids, which may help keep blood sugar in check. Harvard researchers recently found that drinking black tea every day can stimulate immune cells that protect against the common cold.
Pronounced ROY-boss, and also known as “red tea,” this smooth, sweet caffeine-free beverage comes from the needlelike leaves of the South African Aspalathus linearis plant.
Cooking tip: Add to barbecue marinades for a nutty flavor, or brew it and use as a sweet substitute for water in baking recipes.
Health benefits: Teeming with free-radical fighting antioxidants, rooibos contains antispasmodic properties that can help treat diarrhea and nausea.
The leaves of the South American holly shrub (Ilex paraguariensis) are blanched, dried, and aged to produce the stout flavor of yerba mate (pronounced erb-a MAH-tay) that reminds some drinkers of green tea.
Cooking tip: Like green tea, it’s best paired with strong flavors like salmon, chicken, or lean pork.
Health benefits: Traditionally used as a digestive aid, mate is also high in saponins-the heart-healthy compound found in asparagus that researchers believe fight LDL (or "bad") cholesterol and inflammation.