08 May / Tea-Soaked Refrigerator Pickles
When pickles and tea are put together in the same sentence, one might think of lahpet thoke, the Burmese pickled tea salad I first savored at San Francisco restaurant Burma Superstar. Or perhaps one’s favorite victuals—I for one love pickles and tea, but usually consumed separately.
In our pursuit to come up with a new name for this blog, Smithsonian curator Adriel Luis and I brainstormed many permutations and combinations. Some were too long, others too obvious, and then there were names that were too one-track. We wanted a name that would be relevant to all Asian Pacific American cultures. After a week of back-and-forths, we hit upon “Pickles and Tea”—short and sweet, easy to remember, and who in their right mind would say ‘no’ to pickles and tea?
One of the first things I did was to Google “pickles and tea” to see what would surface. In all the randomness that popped up, I found references to several sites that talked about adding tea to pickles. Who knew right?
It turns out that tannins keep your pickles crisp, and tea contains tannins! While the common tannin-packed ingredients for pickling are fresh grape or horseradish leaves, tea is a lot more accessible declares this blogger and rightly so.
This trick, however, seems to apply to lacto-fermented pickles. Lacto-fermentation requires only salt, vegetables and water. The salt wipes out all the bad bacteria, leaving the good guys—lactobacillus, the same bacteria in yogurt—to produce fermented foods. Kimchi (as well as traditional dill pickles and sauerkraut) falls under this category.
Nevertheless, I started thinking about possibilities. I’m not concerned about keeping my pickles crisp. I find that a sprinkling of salt and/or using crisp, seedless cucumbers like Persian ones do the trick. Instead, I wondered how adding tea might affect the flavor.
I rummaged through my pantry and pulled out a looseleaf Formosa oolong tea called Tung Ting from Red Blossom Tea Company. Oolong tea, with its subtle fragrance and not-too-bitter profile, would be perfect!
My mom’s pickle recipe is my go-to recipe. She often adds bird chilies, garlic or ginger to the mix and uses every vegetable currently in her kitchen–everything from cauliflower to carrots. Sometimes I follow suit. This time, I decided to keep it simple with just cucumbers, vinegar, water, sugar and tea leaves.
After an hour of brining, I could taste just a hint of oolong in a crunchy cuke. The next day, the tea’s flavor and fragrance came through boldly, yet still delicate and not overpowering.
So in honor of the launch of “Pickles and Tea,” the blog, I present pickles and tea, the recipe. Like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, or sea salt and dark chocolate, they do make a “who’d have thunk it?” pair but it works, no?
How do you like your pickles?
Tea-Soaked Refrigerator Pickles
Choose a tea with a lightly-nuanced flavor that you like, preferably looseleaf, but if not, find a bagged tea with almost-whole tea leaves instead of tea “dust” aka Lipton. These teas tend to be of higher quality. That being said, I probably wouldn’t use strongly-scented teas like Earl Grey or Lapsang Souchong, although jasmine might work.
Makes: about 1 quart pickles
Time: 15 minutes active, plus 30 minutes sitting time
2 medium cucumbers, or 4 Persian cucumbers
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup white distilled vinegar
½ cup water
6 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon mildly flavored looseleaf tea such as an oolong
Peel the cucumbers with a vegetable peeler in alternating strips of green. You don’t have to but it’s pretty! Halve them lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon (this step isn’t necessary with Persian cucumbers.) Cut them crosswise into 1/2-inch slices.
Place the cucumber in a colander and sprinkle with the salt. Toss to coat and let sit in the sink for as long as it takes to do a few things around the house—put laundry in the washing machine, unload the dishwasher, flip through a magazine–usually about 30 minutes.
Or make the brine. Combine the vinegar and water in a microwave-safe container and microwave on high for 2 minutes. Stir in the sugar until it dissolves. Add the tea leaves and watch them unfurl.
Rinse the cucumber and pack into jar(s). When the brine has cooled down, pour over the cucumber (tea leaves and all) and pack down again to make sure the cucumber is submerged.
Cover and refrigerate. You can eat the pickles in as little as an hour, or wait one day to let the flavors fully penetrate.