Wednesday, May 31, 2017

An elegant American tea ceremony (with no thought to pairing)! - Part 1

In the process of cleaning out my house, found my aunt's copy of Etiquette by Emily Post, published in 1928. Originally published in 1922, this book was the guide for women of the middle class, or moving into it, with aspirations for upper class status in the flapper era.

Was curious to see what Mrs. Post had to say about tea. 

Afternoon tea was a decidedly ceremonial event in those days, even if quite different in both style and substance from, say, a Japanese tea ceremony. Mrs. Post details the table setting, and speaks specifically to the "curate," the correct name for the "stand made of three small shelves, each just big enough for one good-sized plate" with "always two, usually three, varieties of cake and hot breads."

She goes on to say that "the top dish on the "curate," therefore, should be a covered one, and hold hot bread of some sort*; the two lower dishes may be covered or not, according to whether additional food is hot or cold; the second dish usually holds sandwiches and the third cake."

She further notes that "selection of afternoon tea food is entirely a matter of whim, and new food-fads sweep through communities...A fad of a certain group in New York is bacon and hot biscuit sandwiches and fresh hot gingerbread. Let it be hoped for the sake of the small household that it will die out rather than become epidemic, since gingerbread and biscuits must both be made every afternoon, and the bacon is another item that comes from a range."**

I'll be quoting some more from this fascinating book in future posts — among other things about the order of speech in such a tea (= who says what to whom when!)- but if I have whetted your appetite for more on the American Tea Ceremony, go to

Meanwhile, here's a modern Thai-American interpretation of a curate by Bambu Thai in Richardson Texas, sent to me by Friend of Pairteas Marzi Pecen (

* Note that this is usually the only tier on which a dome can fit!

** The history of ranges is another fascinating subject...suffice it to say here that in Mrs. Post's day the labor of tending to a coal range was significant, further augmented if you wanted to make several dishes at a time. If you were lucky enough to have either a gas range or an electric range, both of which were just then starting to come into general use, these appliances usually had only a single oven, so making a whole array of different baked goods and hot dishes required careful planning. However, many people still had both the old coal range and the new-fangled electric or gas range, so perhaps making all these dishes fresh could be accomplished—by the hard-working servant, of course!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Does our sense of smell favor processed foods?

Was fascinated to read an article based on a review paper published in the journal Science about the human sense of smell:

The Science paper's author, John P. McGann contends, I think successfully, that the human sense of smell is demonstrably better than we have believed.*

What struck me, though, was not that we have a good sense of smell—think of all the perfumes that have been created, each subtly different from the next, and you realize how important smell is to humans and how exquisitely sensitive we can be. 

Rather I was intrigued to learn that we are superior to other animals in smelling components of food, but not just any food: human food that requires processing like cheese and coffee and roasted meats and beer and wine (no data on tea as yet, though).

Here is a picture of a dog following the scent trail of a pheasant and one of a human following the scent trail of chocolate oil, from the article. Clearly the human goes less astray! Of course you could always argue motivation: the human may have been more motivated and the dog occasionally distracted. The fact remains, nevertheless, that the human does a pretty good job!

So what components of food are humans able to smell at lower concentrations than can other mammals? This question has NOT been studied extensively, but the Science article cites three compounds: 

  • n-pentanoic acid, also called valeric acid, which has a dairy, slightly fruity quality, and is found in milk, cheese, yogurt, coffee, as well as some fruits, including bergamot (Earl Grey, anyone?);**
  • n-octanoic acid, aka caprylic acid, that has a waxy, fatty, rancid, oily, vegetable, cheesy quality, and is found in a host of foods, notably (for my thesis) beer and wine;** 
  • 3-mercapto-3-methylbutyl formate, which has a sulfurous (that's the mercapto-) aroma, mixed with a caramellic, onion, coffee, roasted meat quality, and is found in beer and coffee.***

Laska and his colleagues suggest that perhaps each species' smell capacity is adapted to their dietary niche. 

It is interesting to contemplate that humans have developed a repertoire of olfactory receptors that are particularly attuned to the uniquely human foods that require processing for their development, like dairy products, and beverages, and possibly tea. Awaiting further studies!

* John P. McGann. Poor human olfaction is a 19th-century myth. Science 12 May 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6338, eaam7263. DOI: 10.1126/science.aam7263

** Selçuk Can Güven and Matthias Laska. Olfactory Sensitivity and Odor Structure-Activity Relationships for Aliphatic Carboxylic Acids in CD-1 Mice. PLoS One. 2012; 7(3): e34301.
Published online 2012 Mar 30. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0034301.

*** Sarrafchi A, Odhammer AM, Hernandez Salazar LT, Laska M. Olfactory sensitivity for six predator odorants in CD-1 mice, human subjects, and spider monkeys. PLoS One. 2013 Nov 20;8(11):e80621. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0080621. eCollection 2013.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Memorial Day Barbecue? Here's the sauce!

It's barbecue time again, so I'm proposing my Carolina-style sauce with Lapsang Souchong — it's my take on a super delicious way to have pork or chicken...or tofu!

Why choose a mustard-and-vinegar-based barbecue sauce to make with the Lapsang Souchong? Because the chemicals in LS hit the cool to cold receptors in the mouth, as do those in mustard, onions, garlic, and thyme. So rather than getting the kick from something like a chili pepper, this sauce gives you a kick from hitting the cold receptors, along with the tang of the vinegar.

Of course you can add a pinch of chili pepper if you like (and my daughter likes...) — just that it tastes can  I put Lapsang Souchong and more like something you would expect, with slightly muddled flavors due to the activation of TRPV1, the capsaicin receptor.

Here are the ingredients:
1 cup prepared mustard (a grainy kind)
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup of Lapsang Souchong tea
2 tbsp. butter
1/2 Vidalia onion, chopped
1 tbsp chopped garlic
A couple of sprigs of thyme
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup brown sugar

Here's how I made it:

Boil a cup of water, add 2 tablespoons of Lapsang Souchong tea, and let brew for 6 to 7 minutes, to get all the smoky pine flavors out of the leaves. 

In a small saucepan, sautée chopped onion and garlic in butter until onion is translucent. Add mustard, vinegar, sugar, lemon, and thyme to the onion garlic mix. Add a quarter of the tea. Bring to a simmer, stirring, for 5 minutes. Taste. If not smoky enough, add a little more tea, stir and taste again. 

At this point you may want to add a little more sugar to balance the acidity that is highlighted by the tea. If you add too much sugar, then add a little more tea to get back the smoky tangy flavor. In fact, you should play with the proportions of this sauce to make it just right for you. 

Note that I didn't add any salt — the mustard I used had enough, but you may want to. No pepper either, but you may want to "kick it up a notch" as Emeril used to say, by adding some fresh ground pepper. My thought is that the meat or tofu should already have enough pepper.

Simmer some more, say 5 to 10 minutes, with stirring, then use or refrigerate. I expect that the sauce will get better after a night or two in the refrigerator, but I wouldn't keep it longer than 5 days. With luck you shouldn't have any left by that time! Note that you probably will have made more LS tea than needed for the sauce — enjoy it!

Here's the sauce in my saucepan — was stirring it with my rice paddle…

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Making your tea less bitter

In the Wednesday post, I mentioned that as the ratio of amino acids to polyphenols in oolongs increases, the value of the tea increases, and suggested that the reason is that polyphenols are bitter, so potentially aversive, while most of the amino acids in tea are sweet and savory (umami), giving the tea a delicious flavor.

The question is then, how can you make a lower grade oolong taste more delicious?

One way, as I will explain in my talk about cold versus hot brewed tea at World Tea Expo 2017* is to brew the tea cold, because much less polyphenol gets into the cup.

The other way is to inhibit the bitter message, which can be done with a tiny amount of salt. We will try this experiment in my other session at World Tea Expo, a focussed tasting called "Pairing with Tea: the Science of Flavors and How to Enjoy Them!" Wednesday  June 14th. Here is a diagram of taste bud cells you may have seen on this blog before:

The X from the salt-sensing cell to the bitter-sensing cell indicates inhibition. There is an X from the sweet-sensing cell to the bitter sensing cell as well, but you need relatively more sweet than salt to sense the effect.

Hope we will be to carry out this and other experiments together at WTE!

* What's in the Cup & Why You Like It: Hot Brewed vs Cold Brewed - CS49
Tuesday, 06/13/2017: 8:30 am - 10:00 am
Room: N237
Session Number:  CS49

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Oolong quality and amino acid/polyphenol ratio

One of my two talks at World Tea Expo 2017 will be on cold- versus hot-brewed teas.* (The other will be about pairing with teas, about which more in my next post.)

One of the most important conclusions we will reach is that the quality of a tea depends on the ratio of amino acids to polyphenols. Here is a result from a paper on oolongs: the more prized the oolongs — and the more costly — the higher the ratio.**

Looking forward to seeing you at WTE 2017! 

* What's in the Cup & Why You Like It: Hot Brewed vs Cold Brewed - CS49
Tuesday, 06/13/2017: 8:30 am - 10:00 am
Room: N237
Session Number:  CS49

** Yueh-Tzu Hung, Po-Chung Chen, Richie L.C. Chen, Tzong-Jih Cheng. Sequential determination of tannin and total amino acid contents in tea for taste assessment by a fluorescent flow-injection analytical system. Food Chemistry 118 (2010) 876–881.