Yum of the Week: All About the Perfect Japanese Green Tea

teapot2.jpgI’d like to nominate a a cup of perfect Japanese green tea I enjoyed (over) a week ago as the yum of the week. I’ve been drinking green tea for years, but the most I generally could say about it was that it was green, it contained caffeine, and I liked it. I couldn’t distinguish much difference between varieties beyond that. This all changed when we lived in Japan. In the small, local tea shops in our neighborhood, I discovered the fine variations of flavor in tea, and the pleasure of a truly perfect cup of green tea made from high quality leaves grown in regions renowned for their tradition of tea. On a less gourmet level, I also discovered Japanese bottled green tea during that first hot, unspeakably humid summer. The green tea sold packaged like coca cola in plastic bottles in Japan is never sweetened, and is naturally preserved with vitamin C, making it the ideal summer beverage. It’s cool, refreshing, and has about a fourth the amount of caffeine of a cup of coffee with no calories. It’s also rumored to contain beneficial elements that help control cholesterol and cancer. Next to chilled herbal tea, chilled green tea is one of my favorite calorie free beverages. It’s a million times better than some nasty, artificially sweetened soda. Unfortunately, most of the bottled green tea now available in the States is sweetened, which just seems like sacrilege to me. Properly prepared tea should never be bitter, and green tea is best enjoyed on its own unique terms, sans sugar. I think millions of grandmothers would turn over in their graves in Japan if they knew about the American tendency to add sugar to green tea. By the way, although the Trader Joe’s prepared green tea doesn’t contain sugar, it seems to me to be lacking in the light fresh flavor found in Japanese brands, so I prefer to buy my packaged tea from a Japanese market. But what IS green tea anyway? Quite simply, it’s one of the least processed products made from the leaves of the tea bush, Camellia sinensis. (The varieties of tea in order from most to least processed are black tea, oolong tea, green tea, and white tea.)

If you’re interested in Green Tea, you can check out Wikipedia’s extensive entry. For now, here’s a list of Japanese varieties of green tea:

*if you have Japanese characters installed in your browser, there will be characters to the left of the romanji (English letters spelling out a Japanese name).
“玉露 Gyokuro (Jade Dew)
Selected from a grade of green tea known as Ten-cha (碾茶), Gyokuro’s name refers to the pale green color of the infusion. The leaves are grown in the shade before harvest, which alters their flavor.
抹茶 Matcha (rubbed tea)
A high-quality powdered green tea used primarily in the tea ceremony. Matcha is also a popular flavor of ice cream and other sweets in Japan.
煎茶 Sencha (broiled tea)
A common green tea in Japan made from leaves that are exposed directly to sunlight.
玄米茶 Genmaicha (Brown-Rice tea)
maicha and roasted genmai (brown rice) blend.
冠茶 Kabusecha (covered tea)
kabusecha is sencha tea, the leaves of which have grown in the shade prior to harvest, although not for as long as Gyokuro. It has a more delicate flavor than Sencha.
番茶 Bancha (common tea)
Sencha harvested as a second-flush tea between summer and autumn. The leaves are larger than Sencha and the flavor is less full.
焙じ茶 Hōjicha (pan fried tea)
A roasted green tea.” (source: Wikipedia)

Note: I have never been sure if genmai cha or Hojicha are gluten-free or not. Because it is possible that barley malt COULD be added (although it may not be) I try to avoid these teas. Be very careful to avoid MUGI-cha, which is a popular chilled summer tea made from BARLEY. (mugi=barley) It does not contain tea leaves, caffeine, or calories. But of course, it does contain GLUTEN. This drink may be served in Japanese restaurants, especially in the summer, so be careful if you are on a gluten-free diet.

But you may wonder what inspired this sudden post on tea. Some time ago VegJ of Vegetable Japan and I decided to do a little international exchange and send each other care packages. I sent her the widest assortment of brown rice, gluten-free pasta that I could find here in California, and she sent me traditional Japanese products likedried shitake mushrooms and nori strips for making onigiri. It was all lovely, but one of my favorite things that she sent was a package of high quality tea locally produced in Kagawa, Japan. Her package arrived in the nick of time to rescue me from a rather ugly four -shots-of-espresso-a-day habit that I’d fallen into due to the aforementioned graduate student deadlines. Best of all, when I poured that first cup of green tea from those tender green strips of tea, of course using one of my favorite Japanese teapots, I felt just a little bit like I was back in my old apartment in Chiba City, Japan. I sat on the balcony, sipping my green tea slowly, looking out at the trees and birds, and felt relaxed for the first time in quite a while. As a religious studies graduate student, I don’t use sect denominations to describe my mood- but it was… if not a “Zen” moment, a very tranquil and peaceful moment.

So why not see if you can steal a little peace of Japanese tranquility in a perfectly brewed cup of green tea? VegJ has a very nice post on tea that you should check out, but let me leave you with these two rules. 1) Water quality is VERY Important. If you don’t use bottled water, at least use filtered water to create your tea. Any flavor in your water will mar the taste of the tea. 2) No sugar in your green tea! Please! You can put as much sugar, milk/honey/stevia etc. in your black tea, but give green tea a chance to seduce you on its own merits. If you put sugar in your green tea in front of teashop owners in Japan there will be tears shed and possibly bloodshed as well, so keep this in mind. On the other hand, if you do get a chance, try a green tea latte. It’s cheating, but it’s lovely. Ok. Lecture over. That being said, however you enjoy your tea… ENJOY SOME TEA! And, if caffeine doesn’t work for you, try decaffeinated tea OR some nice herbal tea. It’s not quite the same, but it might even be better for you.

Here’s some fun videos to help you enjoy your tea:
Try these instructions on how to prepare a proper cup of green tea. (Japanese, but easy to understand through observation):


Note the difference in the VOLUME of the tea he uses. For green tea, water should not quite have reached the boiling point or the tea will become bitter. He recommends for Sencha that you let the tea steep for two minutes, but for a high quality tea, about 30 seconds is better. Also, he says the flavor is very concentrated in the last drops of tea, so you should try to get those last drops into your teacups. If you oversteep the tea, the tea will also be bitter, so try for a short steeping and see how you like it. High quality tea can be used several times before the flavor fades. You may want to steep it longer with each successive steeping.

This explanation of the Japanese tradition of tea is all wrong. (Japanese) That’s what makes it so funny:


They suggest at the end that once you finish all the elaborate preparations for tea, you can relax with a cup of coffee. ;)

Now, relax with a cute CM (commercial) for packaged tea. Japanese, with English subtitles. This commercial is actually for a Thai brand of tea, but it’s in Japanese. Weird, huh?

On the road?
One of my favorite tea shops is the Tao of Tea in Portland, Oregon. They opened their doors in my third year of college at Reed and I spent many a happy hour there trying their high quality teas in traditional teapots and serving dishes. I even belonged to their tea of the month club for a while!

A second favorite tea shop is the Dushanbe Tea House in Boulder, Colorado. The teahouse was a gift from Dushanbe, one of Boulder’s sister cities, and was constructed in Dushanbe and shipped over to Boulder to be reassembled. The building itself is gorgeous, and the tea is lovely. You can also enjoy a (pricey) light meal.

Would you believe I don’t have a favorite teahouse in Mountain View? Me either! I’m open to suggestions. In fact, won’t you tell me all about your favorite tea shop in the comments? I’d love to hear about other great tea shops across the US or Overseas


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4 Responses to “Yum of the Week: All About the Perfect Japanese Green Tea”

  1. [...] Baked Goods of the week: Yummy Four Flour Bean Bread, Cherry Cake and Cranberry Tarts OR Cranberry Scones (decisions, decisions) Posts on the Drawing Board: Virtual Memorial Booklet in honor of Bette Hagman Yum of the Week: Perfect Green Tea Gluten Free English Tea: Cranberry scones with Devonshire cream Gluten-Free Travel in Europe: Making Gluten-Free Plans in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and Austria Gluten-Free Recipe Box: September-October Gluten-Free Chinese Food: Vegetarian Happy Ma Bo Dofu Tofu Recipe Eat your Veggies: New Roasted Broccoli Recipe and Delicious Chickpea salad Recipe [...]

  2. Hi SS:

    Thanks for the link to my tea post and so glad to hear you had a nice moment with tea. Also glad you liked the Kagawa tea.:)As I say in my latest post, eating or drinking something can often carry us away to another place. A nice way to travel when you can’t.:)

    The videos are interesting. The first one smacks of that fake “science-y” culture that is so prevalent here nowadays, with people making up senseless rules for doing things, which don’t work and just look pretentious. The amount of tea she put in the cup was ridiculous, with it spilling all around, the direct antithesis of the gracefulness aimed at in tea. With a full pot of tea, there would be no room for water at all. Ridiculous!

    The second video was quite a bit better. I found it useful to see him pour a little in each cup, alternatively and immediately realized that his was so that the strength of the two cups of tea would be equalized, since the tea is weaker at the top of the pot(poured first) and stronger at the bottom. I’ll try that from now on when I’m serving others. For one, it’s sometimes nice to experience the tea changing in strength as you drink it.

    The small amount of tea he used is directly proportional to the small amount of water and the size of the small pot he was using. I have to say though that I think he was wrong to take the water form one of those standing water kettles.I find the water in them none too fresh. I think the water should be freshly boiled in a kettle for the best flavour.

    Thanks for the description of the different teas with the kanji; a very useful and interesting post about tea!

    :)

  3. Heya Veg-J,
    You’re welcome. I quite enjoyed my little tea-break!
    The first video is a joke – not for informational purposes at all, just entertainment. They have videos on many aspects of Japanese culture- all completely (purposefully) ridiculous. My Japanese instructor showed us a few of them as a “see how many erroneous statements you can find” exercise. They often have english subtitles but in this case didn’t… too bad. I think I’ll switch them around so people see the “real” video first. Oh yes, and not only would there be no room for water, but the tea swells up. Can you imagine?
    Hope you’re still enjoying your package! what was your favorite pasta?

    -Brenda

  4. Many thanks for this terrific post on tea. I adore tea and love sampling all kinds of new ones….so thanks for the info. Here in D.C. there is a fantastic place called Teaism, which I will be reviewing in the next coming weeks, (my blog is really about jewelry, but oh well!) but they have the BEST variety and selection of teas anywhere, along with a great location. Cheers!
    Janice
    Goddess Findings

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