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Pursuit of superior flavor and taste The science behind paring oolong tea with greasy food

The perfect beverage always increases the pleasure we take in a meal. The French, widely recognized as culinary masters, call the pairing of food and wine a marriage, or "marriage", and would never consider a meal complete without fully enjoying this combination. Nearly everyone knows that red meat and red wine pair well together thanks to our personal and collective experience—but what we didn’t know is why such a solid consensus has formed around these combinations. Focusing our attention on the human senses, we examined the changes that occur in the mouth during meals in order to pinpoint why foods and sharp beverages pair so well together. In the process, we discovered that sipping oolong tea during a meal makes food with high fat content taste better.

Explaining food and drink pairings based on the human senses

Building on subjective "marriage" combinations, the scientific community has opened a new field of inquiry known as molecular gastronomy—where flavors are paired not by trial and error, but through an analysis of their molecular structure. However, this still left us with the question of why people find these combinations so delicious in the first place. Our research project set out to find the reason for common food pairings in the human senses, rather than in collective experience or chemistry.

Analysis scene (image)
Analysis scene (image)
Sensory evaluation (image)
Sensory evaluation (image)
Test methods

A total of 21 subjects, including six males and 15 females between the ages of 20 and 69, were asked to take food and drink, repeating the patterns shown on the right, and then evaluate them in terms of three items ("greasiness," "bite," and "bitterness") after drinking a beverage and/or eating salami. Twenty-one levels of sensory intensity in the mouth were used.

Focusing on the changing sensations in the mouth when tasting something delicious

Most people prefer a beverage with a bit of a bite when they eat fatty or greasy foods—red wine with red meat or oolong tea with Chinese food, for example. In this study, we focused on the sensations in the mouth to try to find the reason behind this common pairing. Our experiments involved sensory evaluations using pungent or mouse-puckering beverages and greasy foods.

* An article on our study was published in the October 9, 2012 issue of Current Biology as part of a collaborative research project with the Monell Chemical Senses Center in the US.

(1) Eating 5 g of salami and then drinking 5 ml of bitter solution five times. (2) Eating 5 g of salami and then drinking 5 ml of oolong tea five times. (3) Drinking 5 ml of oolong tea five times. (4) Eating 5 g of salami.

Oolong tea makes greasy food taste better

Experimental result 1: Sensation in the mouth immediately after drinking beverage

When we analyzed sensations in the mouth immediately after drinking beverages in patterns (1), (2), and (3), we found that the sensation of "greasiness" decreased significantly when salami was eaten with oolong tea (2) rather than the bitter solution (1). We also found that "bite" ratings increased with oolong tea (2) (3) as "greasiness" decreased. It was therefore made clear that more "bite" means less "greasiness", and vice-versa.

Experimental result 2: Sensation in the mouth immediately after eating salami

Analysis of mouth sensations immediately after eating salami in patterns (1), (2), and (4) showed that the sense of "greasiness" decreased significantly when salami was eaten with oolong tea (2) as compared with when it was eaten with the bitter solution (1).

These results help us explain what our personal experience already tells us—that oolong tea goes well with greasy food. The stimulating "bite" of the refreshing tea actually reduces the sensation of greasiness in the mouth and supports our preference for pungent or mouse-puckering beverages with most meals. Other research has shown that oolong tea has the ability to emulsify fats, a process that actually helps remove oils from the mouth. In other words, the sense of greasiness can be counteracted by repeatedly sipping a pungent or mouse-puckering beverage during a meal, and the effect is especially potent with oolong tea. Our conclusion was that oolong tea is in fact an effective way of increasing the enjoyment of dishes with higher fat content—in other words, the perfect marriage.

The quest for the perfect pairing

How do people actually experience the interplay between food and drink? In our research on human behavior on liking, we tried to define the principles that determine how deliciousness—one of the most important factors in our enjoyment of a meal—actually comes about. At Suntory, we are not only working to develop beverages that pair well with certain types of food, but also to further clarify the reasons behind these ideal pairings. We intend to use our products to raise awareness about the insights our research has produced so that everybody can take even more pleasure in the dining experience.

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