Find Your Perfect Match: Japanese Tea and Food Pairings
Tea (茶 or cha) is deeply intertwined with Japanese culture and is enjoyed at almost every occasion, from daily life to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony also known as the “way of tea”.
Like wine, Japanese teas are often paired alongside meals, snacks and sweets to enhance and complement flavors while providing a full taste experience. We recommend balancing the strength of a tea as well as its sweetness, bitterness, or astringency, with the flavors of the food. For example, rich tasting sweets combine well with a stronger tasting tea, while more delicate sweets pair better with a refreshing, mild tea. Sometimes similar tastes are paired together, like umami-rich foods with a vegetal green tea. At other times it's preferred to pair opposite flavors for a more balanced experience (think sweet rich chocolate with bitter earthy matcha).
You can also let the seasons guide you by pairing seasonal foods with the harvest times of tea, matching temperatures such as cold food with refreshing cold teas in the summer, and warm food with a hot cup tea in the winter.
Out of the myriads of pairings available, here are some tea and food combinations we recommend:
Genmaicha (Brown Rice Tea) and Osenbei (Japanese Rice Crackers)
Japanese tea and Japanese rice crackers (called osenbei) is one of the most traditional and common pairing. With so many varieties of Japanese tea and osenbei to choose from, brown rice tea, known as genmaicha, stands out as they both include the Japanese staple food of rice.
Genmaicha is a type of green tea that includes green tea leaves blended with roasted brown rice. It is said that genmaicha originated from the Horaido Tea Shop in Kyoto about a century ago (during the Taisho Period). It was inspired by the roasted grain fragrance of scorched rice soup served during a traditional Japanese multi-course meal called Kaiseki. The crisp roasted scent of genmaicha comes from gradually heating the brown rice in three steps, leaving no burnt smell behind. Through meticulous efforts, the brown rice pops like mini popcorn and has a similar scent!
Osenbei is a crunchy, savory snack made of rice flour. It comes in all shapes and sizes but is usually shaped round like a cookie. It is sun-dried for three to five days after making the dough and then repeatedly flipped on a grill ensuring it rises evenly. Sauces, such as soy sauce, are then brushed on the surface to add flavor. Osenbei varies from sweet, sour, salty, and spicy flavors.
When brewing genmaicha, pour the hot boiling water onto the leaves to boost the scent. Genmaicha has soft, sweet, and gentle tastes from the green tea leaves mixed with roasted brown rice's nutty flavor. It makes a perfect refreshing pairing in between bites of the crunchy, savory rice crackers.
Hojicha (Roasted Green Tea) and Yokan (Sweet Bean Jelly)
Hojicha is roasted green tea leaves that are carefully heated at a high temperature until they are golden brown. This process removes the green pigments making the flavor of the tea similar to black tea. The roasted leaves have a distinctively earthy aftertaste which provides a remarkable statement when paired with a meal and sweets.
Yokan is one of the famous Japanese sweets known as wagashi. It's made from azuki (red bean) paste, powdered kanten (agar, as in red algae) and sugar. Yokan is remarkably sweeter than any other Japanese confectioneries, making it a perfect pairing for a bold tasting tea like hojicha. The roasted woody flavor of hojicha sharpens the palette after a bite of sweet firm yokan, offering a similar effect as having dark chocolate with its bitter, sweet and pleasant taste.
As with genmaicha, it's recommended to brew hojicha with boiling water to enhance the leaves' stored scents. Cut the yokan into bite-sized pieces to gradually taste the sweet confectionery while and sipping on some warm hojicha. Notice the taste of sugar, the touch of smooth red beans, and the scent of earthy-smoky Hojicha, all vividly touching your palette.
In recent years, hojicha has become popular with hojicha related drinks and desserts. Although matcha lattes remain popular globally, it is much easier to find hojicha lattes in Japan, including in vending machines!
Matcha (Powdered Green Tea) and Nama-Choco (Japanese Ganache Chocolate)
Matcha is arguably Japan's most well-known, classic teas. Matcha is a refined green tea powder often served on special occasions, including during the traditional green tea ceremony and typically with a beautiful handmade Japanese sweet known as wagashi. Matcha's delicate taste comes from a dynamic process of steaming, drying, and refining the leaves. Unlike hojicha, the stems and leaf veins are meticulously removed from the green tea leaves before being ground with stone mills into a smooth, polished powder. Traditional matcha is often served in only a small amount of water, similar to an espresso. A creamy foam is created on top of the rich vegetal thick liquid from the repeated strenuous whisking, typically using a bamboo whisk. It has a bitter, slightly sweet taste, but with a surprisingly pleasant and soothing flavor.
Royce' Nama Chocolate
Chocolate is an excellent pairing with matcha given they both have rich characteristics. From the many chocolates to choose from, ganache-textured Japanese chocolate, called nama-choco ("raw chocolate"), adds a beautiful pairing with the thick, rich matcha. Nama-choco is made from heavy cream, chocolate, and a coating of cacao powder. Now a widely-popular chocolate in Japan, SilsMaria from Kanagawa prefecture first introduced it thirty years ago. Today, there are a variety of brands, including Royce' Chocolate from Hokkaido prefecture, now famous worldwide. Nama-choco's soft and delicate texture is a suitable pairing for the delicately made matcha.
Sencha (Sun-Exposed Green Tea) and Cheesecake
Sencha, another type of green tea, has a transparent light green color due to the sun exposure during its growing process. The lack of vivid green color creates a mellower flavor compared to other dark-colored green teas. It is known to be a "well-balanced tea" with an equal balance of sweetness, bitterness, and sourness. Not as deep as hojicha or black tea, sencha's subtle flavor acts as a supporting role when accompanying food.
Sencha pairs well with a distinctive tasting or smelling food, such as cheese. As it turns out, rich and creamy cheesecake is agreeably suitable with sencha. The distinct flavor of cheesecake is emphasized by the well-balanced touch of sencha, which projects a spotlight on the dessert.
Sencha tea leaves are much more delicate than roasted teas such as hojicha and genmaicha. Instead of brewing with hot boiling water, use optimal hot beverage temperature (about 80℃/176℉) when brewing the tea to maintain a balanced taste.
Sobacha (Buckwheat Tea) and Fruits
Sobacha (lit. buckwheat tea) is made entirely of buckwheat (soba) grains, giving it an extraordinary nutty flavor. Being a caffeine-free tea means any generation can enjoy it. It is usually served at soba noodle shops, but it is also a good companion for snacks. Like soba (buckwheat) noodles, sobacha has an abundance of polyphenols and vitamins, making it a healthy snack time choice. The grains have a mellow buttery and nutty taste, unlike the bitter aftertaste of green tea. The hot steam of the diffused buckwheat tea produces a smoky scent with a grainy, malty flavor. It's almost like the scent of hot toast!
Sobacha is often paired with seasonal fruits, such as clementines (mikan). Our recommendation would be with persimmons (kaki) served with warm sobacha. Kaki is a silky yet firm fruit with rich sweet flavors and a hint of cinnamon. A sip of sobacha after a bite of kaki highlights the nutty flavor of the infused soba grains.
Kaki can also be enjoyed as a dried fruit. You'll often see people in Japan hanging kaki to dry in the sun during winter. The juicy kaki turns into a densely sweet chewy dried fruit, adding a new texture to accompany the tea.
Kuromamecha (Black Bean Tea) and Tsukemono (Pickles)
Kuromamecha (lit. black bean tea) is made from dried black soybeans which give it a black indigo color when steeped in hot water. It has a creamier, nuttier taste compared to sobacha. Although the sole ingredient is soybeans, it doesn't taste as creamy as soy milk. Instead, leans more towards almond milk with is light nutty aftertaste. Kuromamecha is known for its health benefits, such as its anti-aging properties, and it is often found in Japanese drugstores.
Tsukemono is a general term for "pickled things" in Japanese. Every region has its specialty pickles with recipes that are unique to individual families and prefectures. The most common or traditionally made Japanese pickles. nukazuke, are vegetables fermented in rice bran. These pickles are often served as a side dish during meals; however, some regions in Japan serve pickles as a snack paired with Japanese tea.
Some may say that tsukemono are better paired with sencha because of its light and fresh scent. We like to pair them with kuromamecha as the soft, gentle, sweet aftertaste of the black beans comforts one's palette from the salty, sharp, sour pickles. Almost like prosciutto and melon, combining the salty taste of pickles with the naturally sweet touch of kuromamecha create a whole new flavor.
Konacha (Powdered Tea Remains) and Kaitenzushi (Conveyor Belt Sushi)
Konacha is made of the remains of cut tea buds and small leaves from sencha, which are milled into a powder. The process is similar to matcha yet the flavor and quality is quite different. Konacha uses the left-over parts of the tea leaves, unlike matcha, which uses leaves that are refined and carefully selected. Using various parts of the leaves gives konacha a fresher and lighter taste compared to matcha, and is also substantially cheaper. Konacha is suitable to pair with a meal and is often served in conveyor belt sushi restaurants, known as kaitenzushi.
Kaitenzushi is like a buffet-style sushi where the sushi plates rotate around the guests' tables on a conveyor belt and guests can pick up the plates with the sushi they want to eat. When finished, the plates are counted according to the price associated with the plate design. Konacha powder is often found on the table at kaitenzushi along with a hot water spout. Konacha is known for its antibacterial and deodorizing effects, which help cleanse the palate after consuming raw fish. As tasty as sushi can be, it can be overwhelmingly fishy after having many plates of raw fish. Wasabi and pickled ginger refresh the mouth between bites, but so does konacha. And only konacha can provide the warmth and comfort of a sip of tea after a cold meal.
Although there are many ways to pair teas with food, the perfect pairing is the one you enjoy the most!
Ready to discover your next favorite tea and food pairing? Try one of the teas from our authentic Japanese Green and Specialty Teas: "Ryu" Care Package with our traditional Japanese Snacks and Sweets: "Raku" Care Package or one of our Subscription Care Packages to help you explore the endless possibilities of tea-pairing!
Born and raised in Japan, Mary Hirata McJilton is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. While earning her degree in Global Studies and a minor in Political Science, she worked at a Japanese restaurant, was actively involved in a Japanese student group that hosted Japanese food events, and interned at Slow Food Minnesota. These experiences nurtured her curiosity around food culture and sustainability. With characteristic serendipity, she spontaneously meets new people wherever life takes her, expanding her repertoire of original Mary-stories that she loves to share over meals. In her downtime, she enjoys cooking with herbs and vegetables that she grows herself on her cozy balcony, and refreshing the Italian she learned from a stint studying abroad.