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Caffeine kick, but without the coffee

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Updated: February 17, 2013 6:06AM

Last year around this time, I visited a tea farm in Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake region. On this farm, they grow Assam, a tea usually cultivated in northeastern India.

Assam gained world-wide distribution after the British colonized the subcontinent, saw a commercial opportunity (they were good at that), and started shipping Assam everywhere.

The humidity around Sun-Moon Lake makes the area very well-suited for tea production. Though Assam can be grown here, Taiwan’s signature tea is oolong, lighter than Assam though darker than most green teas and, like all tea, made of camellia leaves.

Assam is a key component in blends such as English Breakfast and Irish Breakfast teas. It’s favored in these classic teas because it provides a strong, malty backbone and high levels of caffeine, making it a suitable morning drink.

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to drink less coffee, you’ll probably find Assam a good low-caffeine substitute for morning joe.

And if you want the fine flavor of Assam with almost no caffeine, Janet Todd of Todd & Holland Tea Merchants (7311 W. Madison St., Forest Park) told me you can “steep the tea in hot water for 30 seconds and extract over 80 percent of the caffeine.” You then discard that first steep and brew another pot with the largely decaffeinated leaves.

You also can consume tea as seasoning in recipes like smoked tea duck, which involves marinating the bird in tea. You can find this dish up north at Koi (624 Davis St., Evanston) and at many places in Chinatown.

Around Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan, the Thao, an indigenous people, sell tea eggs, which also are available at many convenience stores. These popular snacks are hard-boiled, gently cracked and steeped in highly tannic tea — like Assam — along with Chinese Five Spice (usually a combination of cinnamon, star anise, fennel seed, cloves and pepper). For more umami, I add dried Chinese mushrooms.

The tiny cracks in the egg allow the dark liquor to tint the whites with cool-looking marble-like streaks. The taste is marvelously subtle, and these eggs would be just right alongside afternoon tea.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer and contributor to WBEZ (91.5 FM) and E-mail

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