Common man’s cup of tea
Savoury Japanese 'genmaicha' tastes like liquid popcorn
My first tea experience in Japan, in a tea salon inside a popular departmental store in Tokyo, was somewhat unexpected. A polite saleswoman bowed deeply and welcomed us in. With the precision of an artisan, she brewed a variety of Japanese green teas for us to try: sencha, a steamed green tea with a grassy flavour; hojicha, a smoky tea that is roasted over charcoal; and genmaicha, a deeply toasty tea that derives its aroma from the roasted brown rice that is added to the leaves.
Having nursed an obsession with genmaicha for over a decade, from the time I was a rookie journalist, I bought a small package to take home. Nearly two years since, I have brewed carefully portioned quantities of the tea now and then as a treat for myself. Although I joyfully share most of the food souvenirs I bring back with friends and loved ones, I haven’t been as generous with my stash of genmaicha. For reasons that I can’t fully explain, a steaming cup of genmaicha is an experience I enjoy most in solitude. It isn’t conducive to banter, like coffee, or snacking, like chai. It is the sort of drink that gently breathes life into you at the end of a harsh day.
Despite its nuanced flavour, however, genmaicha was never really considered a gourmet product in Japan. In fact, the legend goes that the roasted rice grains were added as a filler to make tea, a luxury commodity, more affordable for the common man. While other kinds of Japanese tea, such as matcha, occupy a more venerated place in the culinary culture, genmaicha is the sort of drink that hits the spot with its simplicity.
More recently, I’ve discovered that the surprisingly savoury flavour of genmaicha—I think of it as sipping on popcorn—also lends itself well to food experiments. Infuse a few leaves briefly in warm milk, strain them out and use the milk to make your oatmeal or chia pudding. If you enjoy matcha green tea desserts, you will love this milder yet fragrant alternative. I am also experimenting with the idea of a tea-smoked fish that uses genmaicha instead of the stronger and smokier lapsang souchong. It seems like the perfect way to celebrate a beautiful and time-honoured ingredient from a memorable visit.