Ocha: Japanese Teas

As Samuel Goldwyn once observed “Coffee is not my cup of tea”. Actually, I like coffee, but I am allergic to it. Add to that the fact that I don't drink, I don't like soda, and I find water boring, I am quite literally a tea totaler. Every morning I start with either a cup of peppermint or green tea, then during the day I drink cucumber water with a little matcha powder sprinkled in it. 

That's my routine, but I also like to add in the odd cup of something special, like jasmine or Iron Goddess of Mercy (an oolong tea that is delicious, but sort of expensive, therefor rare in my house). I have more tea in my cabinets than any other food, and some of my favorites, no surprise here, are the Japanese varieties.

Tea is made from the Camellia sinensis plant, a type of evergreen that is native to East Asia. Depending on when and how it is harvested, and how it is treated afterwards, you get green, white, black, or oolong. Herbal teas are not actually tea at all, but we call it that for lack of a better word. Tea culture has been huge in Asia for thousands of years and world wide tea is the most consumed beverage, aside from water. Americans might prefer coffee, but the world over doesn't agree. 

In Japan, tea came over from china sometime in the ninth century. A priest called Saicho is credited with bringing the first seeds to Japan, I'm not sure how he managed it, since China used to be notoriously tight fisted with the secrets of tea growing. When Great Britain wanted to break China's monopoly and grow tea in India, they had to send a man disguised as a native to travel all over China for years, spying on the techniques. (The whole story is weirdly hilarious and can been found in At Home by Bill Bryson). However they managed it, tea came to Japan and Emperor Saga encouraged the cultivation as it was a popular royal drink. It was also much admired by the religious orders. 

"Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one's life more full and complete." So wrote Eisai, a zen monk who traveled to China to learn about cultivation and medical uses for the drink. He returned with seeds and began to grow the highest quality tea in Japan. His book, Kissa Yōjōki ("How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea") was written in two volumes in 1211. Eisai gave a copy to Shogun Minamoto-no-Sanetomo, who was well known as a big nightcap drinker. Apparently, the shogun liked what he read, because from then on the warrior class, which was taking up a more important role in the country, became devoted tea drinkers too. Once its reputation as a drink for the cultured people was established, cultivation increased. 

Eisai was also responsible for bringing powdered tea to Japan. Matcha was put in a bowl, had hot water poured over it and was whipped into a frothy drink. This became a ceremonial process in buddhist monasteries, where it was used for meditative purposes. In the more vapid homes of nobles it was drunk with fervor and tasting games were popular, prizes given for guessing the best quality teas. A zen monk called Murata Jukō is credited with the early development of Tea Ceremony (or the "Way of Tea") in the fifteenth century. Soon a whole culture grew around the practice, which is highly ritualized and takes years of education to perfect. 

By the 1600s, tea had spread to every class of people and became the drink of choice. It has remained so to this day. In the west we think of matcha as the Japanese tea, but on its home turf it is usually only used in Tea Ceremony or as an ingredient for cooking (green tea ice cream for example). But there are many other types of tea in Japan, and I am going to tell you about the five that I like to drink. 

In the above image, going clockwise from the top, we have genmaicha (green tea with roasted brown rice), matcha (powdered green tea), hojicha (roasted twig tea), kukicha (twig tea), and sencha (unfermented green tea). 

Genmaicha smells like burned rice but has a wonderful nutty flavor. It is also sometimes called popcorn tea, which is adorable. Matcha is a strong brew that has a lightly sweet, grassy flavor to it. You may be familiar if you have had a green tea latte, personally I don't like them because they're too sweet, but I love matcha the way it's intended to be, no sugar or milk. When it is made right, matcha has a frothy top, achieved with the bamboo whisk you see there. 

Kukicha and hojicha are made from the stems and twigs of the tea plant and are less astringent and bitter than a standard green tea. My mother drinks them a lot, so I grew up with the smell and the taste all through my childhood. Sencha is the most popular tea in Japan, and I can see why. It is mild and has an enchanting almost sea-like flavor that I am having a hard time thinking of the right way to describe. 

I actually love The Republic of Tea's matcha with green tea leaves. It's like a mix of matcha and sencha that is (gasp) in a bag. I know that many avid tea drinkers hate bagged tea, for good reason. I one hundred percent agree that it is way better to use loose leaf, however, that isn't always convenient. I drink tea on the go, so I like the ease of throwing a bag in hot water. Plus, since part of the bag is matcha, the powder makes the brew strong enough. I also like to take a quart mason jar, add a cup of water and a teaspoon of matcha powder, shake it up good like a cocktail then fill with more water. Just add a tad of ice and ta-da, instant iced tea.

Try some Japanese teas and even if you aren't usually a tea drinker, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Just remember to take the bag out or strain after three minutes. A lot of people don't realize that they're drinking over stepped tea and that's why it tastes so bitter. Once you get the hang of it, it's easy and so delicious. Plus, science tells us that green tea is like a super health food, and you can't go wrong with that.

Until next time, sit back and relax with a hot cup of tea.

P.S. You might notice that I didn't make a video. That is because I couldn't think of how to do one for this subject. I'll catch you next time. 

Also, if you're wondering what's on the plate in the middle of the teas, they're German Melt-in-Mouth Cookies (not exactly Japanese). I flavored them chocolate, matcha and melon.