As if it weren't enough for Camellia sinensis to be the source of the world's most popular caffeinated beverage, the tea plant and tea processed from it have many other uses as well. Ranging from applications of a culinary nature to those in the textile industry, its diversity is impressive.
Tea has a long tradition of being eaten, both in its raw form and as an essential ingredient in cooking. Such traditions are particularly strong in China but also exist elsewhere throughout Southeast Asia.
Documentation shows that prior to the time tea came into Chinese culture as a beverage its leaves were chewed raw for their stimulating and medicinal properties. Fresh, unprocessed tea leaves are still chewed in Asia to eliminate the lingering odors of both onion and garlic. In their raw form, even the tea plant's small brown fruits can be eaten.
Tea leaves and processed tea have been and continue to be used in a variety of traditional, regional culinary specialties, from snacks and appetizers through main courses and desserts.
Early on, the tea plant was treated as a vegetable or a vegetable relish. It was combined with other ingredients such as ginger, salt, and orange peel to concoct such a dish. Leppet tea (also spelled lepet, laphet, or leptet) is still eaten as a vegetable relish in Myanmar. In this recipe tea leaves are pickled, pressed, then combined with garlic, salt, oil, and other ingredients.
Tea egg is a traditional dish from China in which eggshells are carefully cracked during preparation, then boiled and soaked in a mixture containing Lapsang Souchong loose tea. The result looks like richly veined marble; the taste is distinguished by a gentle smokiness.
Bai-ming is a snack made from fermented tea leaves. This delicacy is still enjoyed in Myanmar and northern Thailand. In some cultures in Asia, the flowers of tea plants are utilized to make tempura.
In terms of main courses, tea-smoked duck has been a gastronomical tradition in China that currently enjoys popularity outside its borders. In this dish, duck is initially simmered in a mixture containing tea leaves, then smoked in the infusion before serving. A traditional Vietnamese favorite combines tuna, pork, and tea. Here, it is thought that the tea balances out the fat from the pork.
A traditional sparkling beverage Kombucha, also called tea cider, is made from an extract of tea leaves.
As more quality teas have become available worldwide, chefs have recognized teas' distinct flavor profiles and have been developing recipes to highlight them in appetizers, main courses, desserts, and non-traditional tea drinks. From exploiting the smokiness of a Lapsang Souchong, the floral notes of a jasmine, or the brightness of Earl Gray, no type of tea is excluded.
And it seems that no culture is excluded either, even those not traditionally associated with tea such as Spain, France, and Norway. New fusion dishes are exciting in their originality and run the gamut of cuisines.
Stop by your local library or bookstore to find cookbooks with recipes for culinary temptations that include tea as a main ingredient. Or check out local restaurants to see if chefs in your town are joining in this tasty trend.
Apart from using it as a dominant ingredient in traditional recipes, tea (either as an extract distilled from its leaves or in processed form) is commonly used as a flavoring in alcoholic beverages, frozen dairy treats, and baked goods. In Japan, green tea powder from matcha tea even flavors some pastas.
The seeds of the tea plant can be crushed to produce a high-quality oil used in various processed foods, soap, and cosmetics. When the oil is refined it has a very low freezing point; this characteristic makes it ideal in the textile and other industries. Even the residue left over from crushing the seeds has value. After its oil is extracted tea seeds can act as a pesticide or as a component in fertilizer.
Tea leaves in their raw form don't provide the same delightful sensory experience we enjoy in a brewed cup because they taste bitter and astringent prior to processing. While neither of these qualities appeals to our tastebuds, they become a positive attribute in their ability to act as an animal repellant. If only I could grow a hedge of Camellia sinensis to keep rabbits and chipmunks out of my garden! (See Tea Plants—Where They Grow to learn if you can.)
Tea extract produced from the leaves of Camellia sinensis is known for its fragrance and has a presence in the perfume industry. Most commonly it's added to floral perfumes where it imparts a sweet, herbaceous dimension. Tea extract also has the ability to augment the scent of other fragrances such as clary sage.
Processed tea of all types and colors is utilized as a food coloring. Typically, low grade, inexpensive teas serve this purpose.
Teabags and processed, loose tea provide the foundation for a number of folk remedies ranging from relief for sunburn, arthritis, burns, bruises, tired or baggy eyes, and headache. It can also be employed as an astringent.
Although tea has been touted in the treatment of much more serious maladies, research is not yet available to support these applications. See Health Benefits for a discussion of some of tea's known health benefits.
There's a reason this question is at the end of the page. Tea tree oil comes from the leaves of a completely different plant, Melaleuca alternifolia. This plant is native to Australia and is distinguished by its camphor-like smell.
So don't be fooled by the similarities in their names. Tea, the caffeinated beverage we know and love comes from the plant Camellia sinensis. Tea tree oil, also a wonderful substance, comes from Melaleuca alternifolia.