Tea (茶 orcha) is deeply intertwined with Japanese culture and is enjoyed at almost every occasion, from daily life to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, known as the “way of tea”. Although most commonly enjoyed as a drink, whole tea leaves find their way into many aspects of Japanese cuisine, known as shokucha (lit. "eating tea).
History of Shokucha (Eating Tea)
Tea was introduced to Japan in the Heian and Kamakura periods initially as a drink but began to find it's way into Japanese foods such as ochazuke (bowl of rice steeped in tea with savory toppings) and powdered and kneaded into soba noodles which garnered a high price during the Edo period.
Nowadays you can now find tea leaves in foods such as ohitashi (blanched spinach salad), tsukudani (simmered side dishes), tempura, onigiri (rice balls), as a seasoning such as in furikake, in pastes and marinades, infused into soy and other sauces, and in traditional Japaneses sweets known as wagashi.
Tea Leaves as an Ingredient
In a country where little goes to waste, it's not surprising that Japanese cuisine would incorporate as much of the whole tea leaf as possible. In addition, given the presence of numerous antioxidants and vitamins, ingesting the whole tea leaf is said to be more beneficial to one's health compared to simply steeping the leaves.
Tea leaves for eating are usually found in two forms: the whole leaf either fresh or frozen used in cooking and for confectionery, or ground into a powder and used in drinks, cooking and confectionery.
How to Select Tea Leaves for Eating
Japan is home to countless tea cultivars including saemidori (early-maturity harvest), tsuyuhikari (slightly early-maturity harvest), yabukita (mid-season harvest) and okumidori (late season harvest).
The first tea shoots tend to be the least bitter, while Yabukita, mid-season tea leaves, have a slightly bitter and vegetal taste with a stronger aroma compared to later season tea leaves.
When selecting raw tea leaves for cooking, the leaves should be lively, bright green and soft with careful attention being paid to such things as the quality of the soil (ie use of organic fertilizer, no pesticides, etc), how the leaves are picked, and how they have been processed and stored. They should be stored at room temperature away from light and used within the first day of harvesting as oxidation begins immediately after the leaves are picked. The leaves can also be stored in the fridge in a plastic bag for 2-3 days or in the freezer for longer.
Tips for Cooking with Tea Leaves
Whether using the whole leaf or powder form, tea should never be used as a decoration or garnish, but in the appropriate quantity to complement the other ingredients present in the dish without being overpowering. It should also never be over-heated as this will ruin the taste and aroma.
Ochazuke (bowl of rice steeped in tea with savory toppings)
Japanese Potato Salad with Sobacha (Buckwheat tea)
Houjicha Chashu (Roasted Green Tea Japanese Braised Pork)
Vegan Yaki Udon with Sencha Green Tea Leaves
Where to Buy
You can find a wide array of teas including sencha, houjicha, matcha powder and more for single item purchase at our Market: Michi no Eki or in our Japanese Green & Specialty Teas: "Ryu" Care Package.