#6: The Grace of Green Tea

Let’s be honest here – I am a coffee drinker.  Nay, I am not only a mere coffee drinker, but also a worshiper of the stuff.  My day is incomplete without an IV-esque drip of black gold steadily pouring into my system (that sounds healthy).  So why the green tea post, Erica? I felt like making a blog logo that was green.  Beyond that, I had a desire to tackle a food deeply rooted in scientific processes and cultural history.  But mostly the green logo part… see below.

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The. Grace. of. Green. Tea.

Breaking news: Green tea drinking started in Ancient China. I KNOW. SHOCKING.  But why are certain areas die-hard tea cultures while others barely touch the stuff?  Part of the answer starts with a historical look at water safety.

I have been an upper-middle class resident of a country with a highly developed infrastructure for quite some time now (My PC way of saying “a kind of well off first-world college kid”).  As such, water quality and safety hasn’t been a conscious priority.  I take it for granted that with the twist of a wrist out flows a stream of crystal clear, heavily treated life liquid.  My easy access to this most basic drink puts me in the minority of the world’s population.  Even well developed countries like the U.S. and Western Europe were at the mercy of water communicated diseases less than 200 years ago.  But as luck (and high death rates weeding out the less ingenious) would have it, some smart interventions helped to treat tainted water.  History is rich with cultures stumbling upon mastermind methods of food processing for the greater good.  One such method of reducing the damage of untreated water is fermentation.  More specifically, fermenting sugary liquid into alcohol, thus limiting the potential for microbial growth.  Areas such as Europe, Northern Africa, and eventually North America became the brewing grounds for wine, beer, and spirits.  This alcohol was often safer to consume than their stream and well water.  So, people drank up.  Where fermented beverages did not run rampant, locals boiled their water with tannic herbs and grasses.  Boiling acts as a kill step for many pathogens.  Europeans had not figured out this boiling-bit, so they kept to their bubbly barley and grape juice.  Besides, regions capable of growing tea plants are in sunnier, more humid climates. Tea doesn’t grow very well in Britain and Germany.  Thus, Asia and Southern Africa fostered in tea-drinking cultures.  By adding tea leaves to boiled water locals could mask unappealing tastes as well as extract valuable caffeine.  The health benefits of the tea were readily noticed, even without electron microscopes and controlled mice interventions.  I also find it interesting that areas of high tea drinking per capita also foster peaceful, meditative teachings like Buddhism and Hinduism.  Maybe Americans SHOULD switch to tea…

world-map-coloring-3
I MADE THIS! Now its probably only ~33% accurate because who am I kidding I’m no cartographer, but yeah. Tea.

Now here is a science-geek “chicken and the egg” riddle for y’all:  In the case of alcohol dehydrogenase production and tea/beer brewing, which came first?  (I see some of you squinting at the screen in irritation/confusion… let me try again)  The amount of enzyme produced by any given person determines their sensitivity to alcohol.  Alcohol dehydrogenase is key in processing alcohol – and surprise, surprise, the Germans and Irish HAVE IT. A lot of it.  Descendants from areas that were primarily alcohol producing can physiologically hold their liquor better than those whose heritage links them to tea brewing cultures.  So, back to my riddle:  Did populations in Asia/Southern Africa steer clear of beer because it was more sickening than giggle-fying, or did they not develop alcohol dehydrogenase because they had less widespread access to the bubbly?  Some things we may never know.

green-tea-latte
Irrelevant picture of a green tea latte because it’s cute and I do what I want

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It. Isn’t. Easy. Being. Green.

It may surprise some to learn that green tea and black tea are leaves of the same plant, Camellia sinensis.  The root of their difference lies in the post harvest processing steps.   Leaves destined to become black tea are allowed to naturally oxidize.  This causes the characteristic color and flavor changes seen in black tea varieties.  The chlorophyll is broken down into melanin, causing a color change.  Catechins in the tea are broken down to tannins, which give the tea its characteristic tannic/bitter taste.  This process also lowers the antioxidant content, but we will get to that later on.  The enzymes responsible for oxidation are bound within sub-cellular membranes of the plant.  A grinding step is applied to black-tea-bound leaves to rupture these membranes and allow air exposure.  It is only after full oxidation that the tea is fired and fully dried.  Because the enzymes for oxidation are heat sensitive they can be inactivated by a heating step shortly after harvest.  To keep green tea green, processors steam the leaves to inactivate oxidases.  The tea is then dried and stays green and antioxidant rich.

tea
Hey, thanks Jane Higdon, Ph.D. and LPI Research Associate from Oregon State for the great pic. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/f-w02/tea.html

As for these mysterious “anti-oxidants” and their health properties, you will have tune in another time for that explanation.  This post is already due to be long, and I can incorporate them another time.  Sorry, but I make the rules.  Besides, who doesn’t love a good tease?

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Serious. Field. Research.

My flights to the Chinese highlands and forest of coastal India were canceled because of the government shutdown/slim down/still not sure what is going down (this is obviously a government funded blog, as evident by my extravagant budget and markedly political overtones).  Instead of Asia I had to settle for foray into grocery store tea sections.  I am astounded by the varieties of tea available, as well as their delivery systems.  Loose whole leaf, bagged, sachet-ed, flavored, decaffeinated, green/black/oolong/white, iced.  No wonder a recommendation for what tea to purchase topped the request list for this blog.  Being ever obedient, I marched into the depths of green tea hell to return a la Orpheus singing songs of death and loss (#dramaticreferencetogreekmythologytoprovehowculturediam).  While looking through bulk tins of green tea at Wegman’s I realized just how much this stuff resembles grass.  Like, grass clippings from the yard grass.  Green tea is glorified lawn clippings. And it is GOOD for your health? People put this into hot water and it has POSITIVE health consequences?  Warm lawnmower juice? Stop. Stop it.  Shut the front door.

2e6gftf
“Now, Pooouur the tea”

(Upon finding this gif I questioned the historical accuracy of Mulan pouring brown tea at the matchmaker’s house.  It turns out that Mulan most likely took place in the Sui Dynasty, about 600 A.D., based on the invasion of the Huns.  The technology to produce black tea did not popularize until the 16th century. So that tea should be green. #BAM)

I grew up sipping on the occasional cup of highly sweetened, milked down, flavored, Celestial Seasonings black tea.  It wasn’t until culinary school and my first of many healthy kicks that I bought myself green tea.  I once again went for the familiar flavored baggies, this time opting for honey but no milk and honey.  #soadult.  When I switched to French press methods for coffee it only seemed fair to give loose-leaf tea a try.  I have to say, the complexity of blends like Celestial Seasoning did not prepare me for the simplicity of real, straight, loose-leaf green tea.  It tastes like, well, TEA.  Shocking.  One major mistake I made early on was steeping for too long in water that was just below boiling.  Tea is delicate, needing to be gently coaxed out of the leaves into a tepid haven of safety.  So I learned to court tea much like the ladies (#hiladies #iwriteablognow #sexyisntit? #callme).  Each variety should be paired with instructions for steeping time and temperature.  If you buy bulk at places like Whole Foods, Wegman’s, or The Cheese Shop in downtown State College, look for instructions ON the bin and write them down. By write them down I obvi mean put a note in your smart phone.

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(Ye Olde) Cheese Shoppe. Photo credit to James Gherardi of wpsu.org

Speaking of The Cheese Shop, how many of my SC peeps visited this wonderland?  It is located on 234 E. Calder Way underneath Looks hair salon just a block down the alley from Rotelli’s.  They dole out first class international cheeses (with unlimited free samples), bulk coffee beans roasted on site, and loose-leaf tea galore.  It’s a non-pretentious small business that the hipsters have yet to ruin (#notahipster).  I highly recommend swinging in for a cup of coffee and a look at their loot.

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Shameless. Podcast. Plug.

While commuting in city traffic this summer I became tangled in the wonderful wide world of podcasts and radio shows.  Somehow I have yet to mention a certain podcast on this blog, the “Let’s Get Real” radio show broadcasted on Heritage Radio Network.  This program stole my heart due to its irreverent sense of humor and good sense of reality.  The host, Chef Erica Wides, is one of the funniest people I have ever met/listened to and pretended to be friends with (really though, I refer to her as my friend Chef Erica Wides in conversations).  It is a show about cooking, preparing, and eating FOOD.  All of the episodes are available for free online, including one that speaks to the infantilization of tea in mainstream America.  Ladies and gentlemen and the rest, I present to you, “Snapple is to tea what BP is to the Gulf.”  Listen, learn, laugh, and be amazed at how ridiculous food products can be.  Did someone say ridiculous food products? Cue tea themed stolen google images montage!

ed08_star_wars_death_star_tea_infuser
The force is strong in this one. Come to the dark side. Of tea. Its a tea infuser. (someone buy me this ASAP thanks)

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kit kat green tea
These are a thing in Japan. Yes, yes my friends. That is a green tea kit-kat.

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Rihanna-VS-Arizona-Green-Tea_large
Ri V. Tea. That’s a tough one.

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Life. Changing. Recipe.

So I will admit it, I got lazy this week.  While you only get one recipe, I made it a pretty great one.  My dad couldn’t get enough of these.  If a meat and potatoes man has green tea flavored cupcakes for breakfast two days in a row then you must be doing something right.

cupcakes
Green Tea Cupcakes with Honey Buttercream Icing. Click photo for link.

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A big shout out to my dedicated fans and readers – I couldn’t get the ego boost from post views without you.  Keep spreading the word and sharing with your peeps.  Surprisingly enough Food Network hasn’t called yet, but it shouldn’t be long now.  I mean, I’ve been posting for about six weeks now.  Come on.  How much longer could it be?  Anyway – thanks to S for editing my shots (#sherocks) and Momma M for use of her kitchen (#herovenrocks).  Be sure to tune in next week when I tackle an autumnal spice that everyone is probably already sick of… CINNAMON!

Bon App Y’all.

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Sources de la Info

The all mighty Wiki

some history

beer vs. tea

more history

biology of tea

some tea chem

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