On the Health Benefits of Tea

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Building on last week’s post about how I’ve decided to take steps to learn the medicinal use of plants in a more formal way, I thought I’d talk a little about how I view the supposed health benefits of tea (that is, C. sinensis). Now, much has been said, particularly in the Western press about tea as some sort of miracle elixir that is supposed to promote weight loss, improve your skin, fight cancer, and reduce inflammation in the body. And recently, my mother (who was the first tea-lover in my life, but who largely drinks black tea) came to me with a request: can I suggest some white and oolong teas that she might like because they are supposed to be good for her.

So I invited my mother over to introduce her to some teas, both those that I thought she would enjoy, and those that were just a relatively good representation of what can be easily found in each style. We chatted a bit about tea, how to brew it, what kind of things made different teas different, and a bit about the reason she decided to try to drink teas (other than black tea, which for some reason is largely exempt from the health sensationalism). Of course, the darling of the popular press is green tea, but my mother categorically does not like green tea. I’m sure I could find one that she enjoys, but I didn’t want to push her, so I respected the request for oolong and white teas only. I sent her home with a few packets of oolong teas that she enjoyed (include my newly-beloved yancha), and hopefully a new motivation to expand her tea horizons.

The one thing I will say is that I am not here to talk about the validity of health claims about tea. If you read my contact information, you’ll find that I am not willing to work with companies that make overblown health claims or that promote weight loss or detox teas. That’s just not what I’m about with tea. But I think it is important to keep concepts of healthfulness in mind as context when exploring teas because tea was originally used (as were most plant-based beverages) as a medicine. The apocryphal story of the discovery of tea has the (likely mythical) emperor Shennong fortuitously tasting leaves that fell into his boiled water and finding out that it was an antidote to poisons he was testing. So acting like tea is purely a pleasure beverage, with no reason to consider any medicinal use, is also not quite right.

When I was pregnant, I had a really hard time determining if it was safe for me to drink tea. I’ve written about my research at length in a previous post, but suffice to say, I found a disconnect between research that lumped tea in with other caffeinated vices, like coffee, and research that treated tea like an everyday, innocuous-or-healthy beverage. The research that reduced it to “tea is for caffeine and caffeine is bad” tended to come from Western researchers, while researchers from Japan and China tended to focus more on the specific constituents of tea. In fact, if I hadn’t specifically looked up tea research from Japan, I wouldn’t have found information suggesting that the real worry about tea is not the caffeine, but the fact that other constituents can impede vitamin absorption! It was important to look at these drinks in a cultural context, particularly because in the case of pregnancy, there is a strong drive to demonize things and instruct pregnant women to avoid, well, everything.

So where does that leave me in the “is tea healthy?” debate? Honestly, tea, for me, is likely healthier than coffee because I’ve found that coffee causes me, personally, to have issues. But in that same vein, I’ve found that certain teas are more likely to affect me adversely than others. I think it’s important for each tea lover to do their own research, but that ultimately, the important thing is that you enjoy your tea, and don’t simply suffer through it for some particular health benefit that may or may not have been properly tested. I think tea is wonderful, and I understand the impulse to tout all the positive press I can find about my favorite beverage, but I think drinking tea solely for health benefits is rather missing the point. So when I set out to introduce my mother to oolongs teas, my goal was to find a tea within that style that she enjoyed, not to introduce her to the healthiest version of that tea. And I hope you, dear readers, will also choose your teas based not only on their purported health benefits, but also for the joy it gives you, because joy is a healthy thing, too.

NB: I am not a health professional and none of this should be considered medical advice. Please do your own research and come to your own conclusions (which can include consulting your own doctor).

My Favorite Souvenir from Barcelona

Anyone who watched my Instagram Stories while I was on vacation in Barcelona might have noticed the meal at Bodega 1900, where I waxed rhapsodic about pretty much all of the food. But I think my favorite part of that meal was the part that I could actually kind of take home with me: their tomato salad. Now, their tomato salad were special, locally-grown tomatoes that were served with their house-made feta cheese. But the most striking thing about them was their simplicity. The tomatoes were simply peeled, cut into chunks, and served with a pinch of salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.

Upon returning home, I decided I needed to keep this marvelous salad in my life. So for the past few weeks, we’ve been eating tomato salad at least once a week. I’m fortunate to have access to a plethora of farmers markets that still have abundant tomatoes, as well as a local grocery store that sells local heirloom tomatoes. So I thought I’d share my “recipe.”

The thing about this recipe is that it’s not really a recipe. It’s all about the individual ingredients. It’s pretty common culinary wisdom that the fewer ingredients a recipe has, the more important it is to get the best of those ingredients. Now, I only use freshly-ground peppercorns and mineral-rich sea salt in my kitchen, so those are pantry staples for me. But if you don’t, this is where you’re going to want to break out that fancy box of flaky sea salt your mom gave you for Christmas when fancy sea salts were the in gift (just me? okay). And get the best olive oil you can find. Again, I have a great local grocery store that recently put in a bulk olive oil bar, so I can get very fresh olive oil every couple of weeks for a very reasonable price, so that’s what I use. It’s a Napa Valley olive oil with a fresh, buttery flavor and none of the acidic bite that can indicate the olive is starting to turn.

And then there is the tomato. I have made this salad with Roma tomatoes, standard slicing tomatoes, and a few heirloom varieties, and I have to say, I vastly prefer the heirloom varieties. I will say that, despite the giant honking tomato in the picture above, it does best with a medium-sized tomato. Basically, you want to be able to cut the tomato into pointed chunks. If I use an heirloom tomato, I will usually skip peeling it, as the skins are so thin, but a regular slicing or Roma tomato will get a little X cut in the non-stem end, a quick dip in boiling water, and a quick peel. It’s not as fussy as it sounds, I promise. Then, you dress it simply, right before serving, and marvel at the masterpiece.

Simple Tomato Salad

Ingredients:

1-2 medium-sized heirloom tomatoes
good sea salt
freshly-ground pepper
extra virgin olive oil

Wash your tomatoes (and peel, if desired). Remove the stem and white core around the stem, and cut into 6-8 wedges. Cut each wedge into 2-4 chunks. Arrange, skin side down, on a large flat plate or bowl, in a single layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Consume immediately. Serves 2-3 people.

A Simple, Healthy Meal

This is not perhaps a summery post. This is perhaps a recipe I will revisit when the weather chills a bit and a drizzle of rain greys the sky, rather than the sudden, violent storms of late spring and summer. But for now, it served well as a light supper on a day with a late, hearty lunch. I based it on a cleansing recipe from the blog Deliciously Ella, but made it my own with some simple tweaks.
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Rather than focusing on detox or cleansing, I focused on the vibrant flavors in the fresh veggies. I added a leek to enrich the flavor, as I love the taste of leeks, and I augmented the water with some rich beef broth, despite the fact that this would no longer be considered vegetarian. But you are certainly welcome to keep this soup vegetarian. I imagine it would be delicious if you used the rich leftover liquid from soaking dried wild mushrooms.
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Green Leek Soup
(adapted from here)

1 bunch of broccoli, washed and broken into florets
1 leek, sliced and washed
1/2 bunch of kale, washed and torn
1 can of canellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 handful of parsley, washed
2-1/2 cups of liquid (water, broth, etc.)
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for sauteing
2-3 tsp. lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste

Heat some olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the leek and saute until it starts to soften, add the broccoli and a splash of water. Cover and steam for a few minutes, until the broccoli turns bright green and begins to become tender. Add the kale and wilt. Turn off the heat. In a blender, puree the beans, parsley, and 1/3 of the broth. Pour out into a large pot. Then, puree, half the vegetables with 1/3 of the liquid and add to the pot. Finally, puree the remaining vegetables with the remaining liquid, plus the garlic, 1/4 cup olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Add to the pot. Bring to a simmer, taste and adjust seasoning. Turn off the heat and add lemon juice to brighten the flavor. Serves three, with crackers or bread for dipping.