There is nothing quite as satisfying as a full-bodied cup of rich Assam tea, especially as the days get chillier. The flavor complements a wide variety of foods, from hamburgers to lasagna, from morel mushrooms to Mexican foods, from pecan pie to Crème Brûlée, and much more. For me, it’s especially good with a tasty lamb vindaloo (a spicy Indian stew) and pepper Naan (an Indian flatbread with coarse ground pepper baked in).
My affinity for palate-scorching cuisine, especially from India, began in the university days. We had an active exchange student program which gave me an opportunity to know people from several corners of the globe: South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and India (of course), to name a few. My tastebuds soon became accustomed to the blistering heat of kimchi, curries, and a variety of chili recipes (thanks to the exchange students from Texas!). However, learning more about which teas went best with these dishes didn’t come until much later.
One of the first I learned about was Assam tea, which comes from the Assam district of India. It is made from a tea plant variety called Camellia Sinensis assamica, a version that was better acclimated to the Assam region. The tea “liquor” has more bitterness that Darjeeling but takes milk and sweetener all the better for it. Milk is great for helping your tongue recover from a dose of spices, especially chiles and cayenne pepper. So, a nice cup of Assam with an ounce or two of milk and a spoonful of sweetener really puts out the fire.
The Assam tea I like best comes in “nuggets” that are perfect for spooning loosely into a teapot. The brewing time is about five minutes in water that has been brought to a full boil. I like my tea brewed strong, so you might want to play with the length of time to get the “liquor” to the strength that’s right for you. Remember that, as a general rule, if you put milk in the tea, you will want to brew it stronger. For those of you who think adding milk to tea is an abomination, I got the habit from an Indian friend, since that is often how it is prepared in his country. Of course, my time in Britain showed that this was their favorite method, too.
Some information has come out saying that milk in tea negates some of its health benefits. Since I drink tea primarily for enjoyment, this isn’t an issue for me. However, the milk does help me handle the acid in tea (far less than in coffee but still an issue for my “delicate constitution”). White and green teas aren’t a problem, but Assam, Ceylon, and Keemun definitely are. However, the main benefit of milk in my tea is to cool those tastebud fires.
Of course, I picked up a curry recipe or two while at university. The one I make most often is chicken curry. Cooking time takes awhile but gives me a chance, as the curry is bubbling in a covered pot over medium heat, to sample a cup or two of that tasty Assam tea (have to make sure it’s just right for my dinner guests, don’t I?). I never learned to make Naan, so I either serve store bought or make a whole wheat chapatti (another flatbread — this one is fried and resembles a tortilla).
Time to check the curry and see if it’s ready to enjoy with my pot of tea. Ah, Assam!
You can learn more about what A.C. calls the “tea life” on her blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill.