Pronounced with a hard ‘G’ like game or gold, genmaicha (玄米茶 — ‘brown rice tea’) is a traditional Japanese tea blend made of green tea and roasted brown rice.
It’s mild and sweet, toasty flavour makes it one of the most drinkable and accessible green teas out there. Perfect for a burgeoning tea fan. The sugar and starch from the rice makes you feel warm and full. It’s also great if you’re sick and is easy on the stomach. It’s nickname is ‘popcorn tea’, because of the rice that sometimes pops during the roasting process.
When I left for the Philippines I knew it wasn’t a big tea-drinking country. It wasn’t even a small tea-drinking country. Whenever I asked for tea at restaurants the most common response was the splat of a Lipton’s Hot or Iced teabag in my cup and a sad look from the waiter. Expressions of, “Poor girl, asking for tea. She must not know we have coffee,” Or “Oh, she must be sick,” appeared on their faces.
The truth is, the best teas to drink in the archipelago are not made of camellia sinensis. They’re herbal infusions, often with a base of ginger, turmeric or lemongrass.
Kakuzo Okakura’s classic 1906 long essay about the east, west, tea and everything in between is less about tea itself and more about the history and philosophy of the east, west and cultural differences as explored through the lens of tea.
His essay links the role of tea, or teaism, in Japanese aesthetic life. It was written by Okakura in English to be read by a western audience. He learned english as a boy and was known throughout his life for writing and explanation Japanese culture to early 20th C westerners. You can feel the cultural tension in his writing.
“Those who cannot feel the littleness of grea things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others. The average Westerner, in his sleek complacency, will se in the tea-ceremony but another instance of the thousand and one oddities which constitute the quaintness and childishness of the East to him. He was wont to regard Japan as barbarous while she indulged in the gentle arts of peace: he calls her civilised since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on Manchurian battlefields.”
Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea, p.10-11
Sometimes his writing is pretty tongue-in-cheek. This is a guy who was known for his eccentric habits. His prolific writing and visibility in the pop culture of the time gave him a high statue in Japan. This stature was marred by the fact that he had an affair with his patron’s wife.
His patron was a man nammed Ruichi Kuki and the woman was named Hatsu. She was a former geisha whom Kuki asked Okakura to accompany from the US back to Japan when she was sickly. When the affair became public, Okakura had to resign from his position as Principal of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. Just some background for you.
Back to tea. Okakura gives a nice historical account of the bringing of tea to Japan for cultivation (near Kyoto) as well as a good nod to Sen no Rikyū who almost 500 years before had brought the way of tea to Japan, and made it a cultural necessity. His poetic description of Rikyū’s final tea ceremony and death and breathtaking. It sent chills down my back.
Okakura speaks at length about the art of tea and the ideals of tea masters. How to appreciate tea. How they select good tea. How the cultivation of a good tea practice becomes really a microcosm to examine the art of living.
I loved reading Okakaura’s explanations of how we fail to appreciate what is in front of us. He talks about people who refuse to live in the present because of nostalgia. This and other societal habits he addresses make me smile in a way because it reminds me that people have been dealing with the same shit since the 1900s. How many Facebook memes do you see today that say something akin to, “Live in the now.” That’s what Okakura was saying. A hundred years ago.
This is why reading is so important. The cure for whatever you’re dealing with now is out there now, written by some philosopher, ages ago. We’ve been fighting the same age-old battles since the dawn of humanity. We only fool ourselves into thinking they’re new.
I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the history of tea, the art of tea or the history of Japan. It was entertaining and educating. The essay itself is broken up into several chapters. You could read them out of order and still take away the same message. They do relate to each other but don’t require chronological progression to be understood. Sometimes he goes on rants, albeit, very nicely-phrased ones.
Occasionally while reading I pretended I was scrolling through the Tumblr of a well-read 1900s philosophy student obsessed with tea. I think that’s the best way to describe it.
Happy Hot Tea Month! In the speculiar (spectacular and peculiar) vein of niche holidays, I’ve discovered that January is hot tea month in Canada and the U.S. (maybe other places as well – the niche holiday Google queries were unclear).
According to legend, Emperor Shen Nong first discovered tea in China in 2,737 B.C. It’s said he was traveling when some leaves from a nearby bush blew into water he was boiling. When he drank the liquor, he was infused with energy. Thus, tea became a thing.
That bush was the camellia sinensis plant. In Mandarin the camellia sinensis plant is called cháhuā (茶花) which literally means tea flower.
All tea comes from one of the two varietals the camellia sinensis plant. It’s only the difference in processing that creates the six different types of tea.
This tea is really easy to spot because of its unique white hairs. White tea is covered in a fine fuzz. The leaves are plucked before they can open and as a result the tea flavours are milder with a sometimes light sweetness. You won’t find any vegetal or chlorophyll tastes here. You see white tea often given a lot of artifical flavour (ex: white blueberry), but try a Bai Mu Dan (white peony), Bai Hao Yin Zhen (white hair silver needle) or Shou Mei (longevity eyebrow) for some hallmark pure white tea.
How to brew: 70˚-80˚C water, steep anywhere from 2-5 minutes.
Very rare, this tea I’ve only had once. Chances are you won’t find it on the grocery aisle shelves. These teas are created in a process similar to green tea, except during the creation process the wet leaves are left to dry for longer and steamed under a damp cloth. Because of that they turn yellow and lose a lot of the grassy flavours that green teas have. Jun Shan Yin Zhen (silver needle yellow tea) is a famous Chinese yellow tea. China is also the only country that makes yellow tea.
How to brew: 80˚-85˚C water, quick 1-2 minute steep.
One of my favourites! Green tea is unoxidized tea. The leaves are picked and then either roasted in a pan or steam-heated to stop oxidization. Pan-firing is more common in Chinese practice and steaming is more common in Japanese. That’s why Chinese green teas like Dragonwell or Gunpowder have more of a smokey, nutty, toasty finish as opposed to Japanese greens like Sencha or Gyokuro. Steamed Japanese greens have more of a chlorophyll flavour that can sometimes almost taste like seaweed.
Matcha is also considered a green tea. It’s made of ground tencha. Tencha is actually made using the same process as Japanese gyokuro (jade dew) green tea, except instead of being rolled before drying, the leaves are laid out flat to dry. They then become crumbly, are de-veined and ground into bright green matcha powder.
How to brew: 80˚–85˚C water and don’t steep too long; 2 minutes will do. Here’s how to brew matcha.
This is the tea master’s tea. Oolong is semi-oxidized tea, in between green tea and black tea. The edges of the leaves are ‘bruised’ (often by tossing them in baskets) so that the border of the leaves oxidize faster than the middle. Oolong is anywhere from 10-80% oxidized. The more red/darker your leaves are, the more oxidized. It’s hard to tell when they’re dry and brittle, but after you steep your leaves it’s easy to uncurl them to see what they look like.
So, why the tea master’s tea? Good oolong takes a lot of artistry to produce. Chinese tea connoisseurs value a good oolong. The Chinese Gongfu tea ceremony was also largely created around oolong tea.
Fun Fact: I’m a big fan of Taiwanese oolong. It has a unique taste and history. Oolong in Taiwan was started by labourers brought over from Fujian province (the home of oolong in China) to work for the Dutch when they were colonizing the island. About fifty years later the Fujianese immigrants kicked the Dutch out and oolong production continued to flourish on the island. Later oolong production was influenced by the arrival of Japanese technology, so today’s Taiwanese oolong production is a mix of Chinese and Japanese techniques.
How to brew: Depending on how oxidized your tea is, anywhere from 85˚-95˚C and I recommend multiple steepings. Your first steeping can be 2 minutes and then increase the length of steep by 10-20 seconds each time. Unlike most teas, oolong can be re-steeped many times and often improves with each steeping.
As you might have noticed, out teas have been getting dark/more oxidized as we go along. Black tea is fully oxidized tea leaves. It’s the most common kind of tea in the western hemisphere (although green is rapidly gaining popularity). Black tea is grown largely in India, China, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania.
You can get quite a difference in flavour between the different regions, although generally a rich amber liquor is what we’re looking for. Often times black tea will be scented (ex: black tea with bergamot is a.k.a. Earl Grey). Most of the breakfast tea blends we’re familiar with in the western world is a combination of teas from India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania. Famously, Scottish tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton started his tea empire in Sri Lanka.
How to brew: 95˚-99˚C. If you’re from the Maritimes people here dump about ten tea bags into a craft and leave it all day on the stove. If your palate can’t take strong astringency and tea that can strip the paint off the wall, try instead brewing for 6-7 minutes with one tea bag.
Fermented or aged tea, stored in square or flat circle cakes. Pu’erh started in the Yunnan province of China. Originally the cakes would be buried after they oxidize. It has a distinct, strong, earthy taste and (I’ve been told) goes well with liver. Food for thought.
How to brew: Water at a rolling boil. This is the only tea that really likes water this hot. Pu’erh is nice to drink in the same style as oolong. The first steep is 15-20 seconds long, then go to 20 seconds, 40 seconds, etc. For an easier western brew, steep for 2 minutes.
A Note on Infusions
There are a lot of infusions made of hot water and mint, ginseng, chamomile, rooibos, etc. often called tea. But unless there’s some camellia sinensis leaf in there, it’s not tea. It’s an infusion or tisane.
Sometimes people say herbal tea, but that’s always struck me as confusing because it mixes the meaning of tea with infusion.
So now that you know all what’s out there, over the month of January what about giving a new type of tea a try? English Breakfast is great, but have you ever tried Nepalese Black Tea? Or Frozen Summit Taiwanese Oolong?
There’s a whole world of teas out there! What about trying teas from different countries? Do you usually just drink Darjeeling from India, or Sencha from Japan? Try shaking it up with a Ruhuna from Sri Lanka or Bai Mu Dan from China.
I’m looking forward to writing more about tea for January. Speaking of, is there anything you’re interested in? Anything you’d like to know?
If you were looking for an excuse to fill that extra cup of tea, this month is it. Enjoy it, hot tea lovers.
Matcha (抹茶): It’s fun to prepare, has a cool history, tastes awesome and is also pretty healthy.
First off, what’s it made of? Matcha is made from finely ground, high-quality green tea leaves. The same stuff used to make gyokuro green tea. A few weeks before harvesting the leaves, the bushes are covered to prevent direct sunlight. This causes an increase in chlorophyll levels and amino acids (where the green tea gets its taste from).
The finest buds are selected to become matcha, and are painstakingly ground up (a very slow process) until they’re a fine powder which resembles green flour.
Fun fact: even after grinding, matcha remains incredibly photosensitive as well as vulnerable to oxidation. It should be stored in a dark, airtight container.
The technique for making matcha was originally brought over to Japan from Chinese monks in the late 12th Century, but over time its use in China has diminished, while its importance and popular use for Japanese Tea Ceremony (sado/chado – 茶道 lit. ‘the way of the tea’) has made it flourish in Japan.
Luckily for photographers (and pop culture), Its beautiful green hue makes it a ridiculously photogenic beverage.
Here is a small confession: I actually made this matcha ‘wrong’ in these two photos above, with too much water so that I could photograph the pretty transparent gradient colour that it makes. Actually, this way, it almost resembles koicha (thick) matcha.
Next history lesson: there are two kinds of matcha.
The first is usucha (薄茶 lit. ‘thin tea’). This matcha is made from younger tea bushes. It’s what you see at most tea ceremonies, and is probably what you’ve had if you’ve ever tried matcha. It is by far the more popular and more consumed kind. It forms a nice, light green froth at the top when you whisk it. This is the kind of matcha I’ll be talking about making today.
The second, koicha (濃茶 lit. ‘thick tea’), is made form older tea bushes, and thus has a milder flavour. You mix it with much less water, and it kind of resembles a green face mask goo sludge (Google ‘koicha matcha’; you’ll see what I mean). Pretty much the only place you will find this is at longer, traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.
Now, to make up for my incorrectly made (but fun to photograph) matcha above, here is a picture of properly made matcha (drink it when it looks like this!) in the same cup:
See the nice light green froth with tiny bubbles on the top? Mmmm.
Why Would You Drink This?
Other than being freaking delicious (the Japanese have EVERYTHING matcha flavoured), matcha is also just really good for you. Similar to regular green tea, it boosts your metabolism, contains antioxidants (I’ve been told), and it just makes you feel good. It contains all the same organic compounds as regular green tea, just a bit more intense. As with regular green tea, the concentration of the amino acid theanine counterbalances the caffeine, so you don’t get the same jittery feeling as with coffee. It’s also widely known and used as a mood-booster.
If you Google ‘green tea health benefits’, you get all kinds of crazy buzzword-filled diet and healthy lifestyle website. I’d take it all with a grain of salt. I’m not a biochemist, but I do love the way tea makes me feel, which is pretty happy on the inside.
Partaking in tea ceremonies in Japan (as well as China and Korea) is also an important social event, and a community-builder. You share a bond with the people you share tea with.
Do you remember Plato’s Symposium, circa 370 B.C.?A bunch of dudes sitting around drinking wine and philosophizing? Japan was all over that same thing, just a bit later. Tea houses were originally places where men would go to talk of war, or philosophize on nature, life, and the like. Sen no Rikyū is the most famous tea guy in Japanese history. He was a huge political and cultural influencer in the late 16th century, and his tea houses were like war chambers- secret retreats for the elite to plot their next moves. He’s also really cool, and I recommend you read up on him a bit, if you’re into that sort of thing.
A little bit of water with the matcha powder in the mug so you can see the colour difference between the wet and dry powder.
traditional Japanese tea drinking bowl. If you’re fresh out of chawans, a latte mug will do.
No. 3: A Bamboo whisk (茶筅 – chasen)
This is actually pretty important. Regular whisks don’t do a very good job of blending up the superfine matcha powder. These bamboo ones cost $10-$20, and are well worth the investment. You can find them at David’s Tea, on Amazon, or just around. I’ve seen these at Winners.
No. 4: A Measuring Utensil (optional)
I like my matcha pretty specific, but there’s no logical reason you can’t eyeball it. Traditionally, bamboo scoops are used in Japan.
How To Make Matcha Tea (A Step-by-Step Guide):
No. 1: Boil your water.
We don’t want to use super-hot water here. We’re aiming more for like 70˚- 80˚C. The reason being is that the amino acids in green tea dissolve at 60˚C, and tannins dissolve at 80˚C. The tannins are the compounds that make tea taste bitter. Good tasting green tea should always taste slightly sweet, green, and be made using water between 50˚– 80˚C (depending on which kind of green tea you’re making). Without going on too much of a scientific tangent, basically we aim for water in this range so that we don’t have too many tannins sneaking out and ruining the taste of our tea. It is also one of the many reasons why green tea made from instant-cup-type machines always tastes horrible.
No. 2: Once your water boils, pour some of it into your mug.
Fill it half way. We’re preheating our mug for the tea the same way you do when you’re making proper espresso. I also sit my bamboo whisk in the warm water so it’s the same temperature as well.
No. 3: Wait for your water cool down a bit. Listen to a song.
If you’re really fancy, you can stick a thermometer in your water to make sure you get the temperature exactly right. I usually wait about 4-5 minutes after my water boils, and that seems to be just right.
If you’re looking for song recommendations, Spotify has this Indie Brunch playlist that I’m pretty into right now.
No. 4: Dump the heating water out of your mug – dry it – SIFT in .5 TBSP of matcha.
Similar to icing sugar, matcha clumps together due to static electricity. Sift that powder to break it up and deliver a smoother cup of matcha. Also, you get to feel like a wizard while you’re sifting green powder and little green poofs of smoke are drifting up over your mug. I measure my matcha and dump it into the sieve, then jiggle it back and forth until all the matcha falls through.
No. 5: Add the hot water.
I’ve found that about 1/2 a cup of water per half tablespoon is the right ratio for me, but fool around until you find something that works for you.
No. 6: Whisk!
Whisk in a “W” shape, up and down from left to right, quickly and lightly, using your wrist and not your whole arm. You’ll know you’re done when a light green froth with tiny bubbles forms.
No. 7: Drink and enjoy <3
You did it! Drink up. Traditional Japanese wagashi (sweets) make a great compliment, but so do kit kat bars, gingerbread cookies, or bananas and peanut butter.
Matcha Troubleshooting Guide:
No froth formed? Or not enough?
Try adding less water. Or if you’re already invested, try adding more matcha.
The water might have been too hot;
You might have used too much powder (if it’s kind of chalky tasting);
The matcha powder might be past its best before date, or lost its prime due to environmental factors. You can tell when matcha has gone ‘bad’ because it’ll have a dull greenish/brown colour. Good, fresh matcha is bright, bright green.
Chunks of powder in your drink?
Try sifting it more beforehand, and making sure you whisk it thoroughly for an even blend.
So there you have it! I hope you found this useful and I hope you make lots of matcha! I spent some time gathering everything I thought was useful, but if you have something extra to share, or more questions, please do so in the comments!
If you have trouble finding any of the tools or matcha powder itself, shoot me a line in the comments and I’ll try to help you out. I want this to be the best matcha guide ever, so if I think of things to add I’ll update them into post.
Last Thursday, Yasuno sensei took our Cultural Anthropology class to visit a Japanese confectionary shop around the corner from Yamaguchi Prefectural University. There we learned all about wagashi. These amaimono (sweet things) are a traditional go-along with green tea in Japan.
These starchy, delicious confections dissolve on your tongue. They’re made with different combinations of azuki beans, mochi and sometimes fruit. Then, they’re crafted into delicate shapes, usually to show seasonal trends.
The one I tried was ‘botan’ (peony), which are currently blooming in Japan. Summer treats are often semi-transparent. The effort to make the wagashi transparent is so that they have a ‘cooling’ effect, to combat the hot summer weather.
The wagashi maker explains his process. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
Yasuno sensei! (Right) and classmate Kei-chan (left) eating their wagashi. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
Yoko from Brazil listens to the wagashi maker’s story. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
What a happy guy! (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
Edith and Lou, classmates from Canada! (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
How to eat wagashi
Using the little wooden spear you’re given to eat the wagashi, you’re meant to quarter the mochi, and then eat each piece slowly, savouring your green tea in between.
The maker who served us our sweets and tea was very knowledgeable. He studied for 20 years in Kyoto before opening up his little off-the-main-road confectionary here.
For those of you who don’t know Japan, streets are often a little more convoluted than I’m used to in North America. Off-the-road literally means sort of hidden among a bunch of regular houses with a small bike-path-type trail leading to it.
We asked him how he got any business being so far off the main road, and he said mostly word-of-mouth. People tend to value each others’ opinions very highly in Japan, so it’s no surprise he’s able to keep a fully stocked shop so hidden away.
Wagashi store address
The name of the place is 涼の郷, which I think translates to ‘Ryō no Go’.
2 Chome-7-25 Sakurabatake, Yamaguchi-shi, Yamaguchi-ken 753-0021, Japan