How to make Japanese green tea

Green tea is one of the basic elements of life in Japan. I think it is safe to say that most Japanese people drink green tea every day, in one form or another. One of the most famous kinds of Japanese green tea is sencha. It is a fairly good quality of tea leaves, served to guests that visit one’s home. For everyday use, many people drink bancha. Similar to sencha, these are green tea leaves, but of a lesser quality. Other common types of Japanese tea are hōjicha, roasted green tea leaves, and genmaicha, green tea leaves with roasted brown rice. For a more complete overview of the most common types of tea in Japan, I refer you to japan-guide.com and japanesegreenteashops.com.

Japanese green tea sencha

Sencha, good quality Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea bancha

Bancha, lower quality Japanese green tea, a bit coarser and with a less delicate taste than sencha

Japanese green tea hojicha

Hōjicha, roasted Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea genmaicha

Genmaicha, Japanese green tea with roasted brown rice

Today I would like to share with you how to prepare Japanese green tea. More specifically, I will explain how to prepare sencha when receiving a guest at your home. It is possible that there is more than one correct way to do this, but this particular way was taught to me by a Japanese friend from Nagoya.

Start by arranging everything you will need on a tray:

  • A teapot. Most teapots that I have seen at people’s homes were rather small, plain red earthenware teapots. But of course teapots come in all shapes and sizes.
red Japanese teapot kyusu

This type of teapot is called kyusu. Though the Japanese word kyusu itself simply means teapot, it often refers to side-handled clay pots like those made in the Tokoname region of Japan.

Japanese teapot kyusu inside

Japanese teapots include an integrated strainer, allowing the tea to steep freely and thus improving the taste.

  • The tea leaves, in a decorative tea holder.
japanese decorative tea tin

Japanese decorative tea tin

  • Cups for all the guest. Sencha cups are smaller than mugs or even Western teacups.
  • Saucers for the cups. The use of a saucer adds formality. To serve the cup without a saucer could be perceived as a bit rude. Wooden saucers can be used in all seasons. Openwork woven saucers are only for summer. If you serve cold tea, it is also best to use an openwork saucer. Instead of a saucer, you could also use some kind of coaster.
japanese tea saucers

Japanese saucers for sencha tea cups, wooden saucers on the left, openwork woven saucers on the right

  • A small plate with some kind of sweet for each guest, with a small fork or spoon if need be.

The total setup should be something like the image below:

serving sencha final setup

This setup, although not exactly as I described, gives you a general idea of what I mean. Image from everyonestea.blogspot.com.

japanese tea

This is one instance where I was served tea when visiting a friend’s home, on an afternoon in July. What a lovely and welcoming image!

Now on to the actual instructions for making the tea. It is best to make sencha green tea with less than boiling water. Boiling water burns the leaves, ruining the delicate taste of sencha green tea. To reach the desired water temperature, water is first brought to the boil and then passed into several different vessels (like the tea-pot and the cups) to drop the water temperature. Every time water is transferred into a different vessel, the temperature drops by 10° C. There is also the added advantage of preheating the cups with the hot water. Proceed as follows:

  • In the kitchen, pour the boiling water from the kettle into the tea-pot. At this point, there are no tea leaves in the tea-pot yet. The reason you are doing this in the kitchen, is to hide the kettle from your guests. Since it is very hot, your guests might burn themselves. By hiding the kettle, you show concern for your guests safety. Showing great concern for your guest’s comfort at all times is very important in Japan.
  • Then take the tray, with the teapot and everything else on it, to your guests. In front of your guests, pour the water from the teapot into the cups. This way, the water cools further and the cups are preheated.
  • Put the tea leaves into the teapot, about one tablespoon for each guest.
  • Pour the water from the cups back into the tea-pot.
  • Steep the leaves for a few minutes.
  • Pour the tea from the tea-pot into the cups. Start by pouring a little into each cup, then go back to the first cup and pour some more into each cup. The reason you are doing this, is because the first tea out of the pot is the weakest. The tea at the bottom of the pot is stronger. It is believed that the last drop from the teapot is the best one, so make sure that the last few drops are divided over all the cups and that the tea-pot is completely emptied.
  • Give each guest a cup and saucer, as well as a small plate with a sweet.
japanese tea

Tea served by my calligraphy teacher when I visited her home in April.

It is possible to use the same tea leaves for a second brew. For the second brew, the water should be slightly hotter. Since you can no longer use the tea-pot or the cups to transfer and cool the water, the boiling water is transferred into an extra tea-pot or water container in the kitchen and then brought to the guests, where it is poured into the tea-pot. Steep the leaves a bit longer than on the first brew, then serve the tea in the same way.

If you want to know how to brew bancha, hōjicha and genmaicha as well, this Japanese video explains it:

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Homecooking: miso soup

If asked what the most typical Japanese food is, I would probably say miso soup. I already imagine some of you raising your eyebrows at this point, thinking to yourselves “what about sushi?” Contrary to popular belief in the West, sushi is not a part of daily meals in Japan. Sushi is more of a restaurant food, enjoyed on special occasions or on a fun night out with the family.

Miso soup, however, is very much part of Japanese home cooking. I think it is safe to say that most Japanese people still eat miso soup (almost) every day. Rice and miso soup make up the basics of most Japanese meals. When I found myself missing Japanese food after having moved back to Belgium, the taste of miso soup was what I missed most. It is just so typical of Japan.

The recipe for miso soup is very simple. The first thing you need is of course miso paste. Miso is made by fermenting soy and/ or rice and barley. The result is a thick, salty paste. It comes in many varieties. Most common are white miso (shiromiso 白味噌), which has a mild taste and the more spicy red miso (akamiso 赤味噌), which is typical of the Nagoya region.

Japanese miso

Japanese miso

The other basic ingredient for miso soup is fish and seaweed stock (dashi, 出汁). These days most people use dashi powder that can be added to water, rather than making their own stock from scratch. Other than miso and dashi, you can add anything you like to miso soup. Typical things to add are wakame seaweed and tofu, or daikon and fried tofu.

miso soup ingredients

Ingredients for miso soup: on the left instant dashi to be solved in water and on the right miso paste

When I had just arrived in Japan, the task of making miso soup at home seemed daunting. There were so many overly complicated recipes on the internet, while in fact it is very simple to make miso soup. I will therefore describe my own, easy way of making miso soup. Of course you are more than welcome to leave suggestions or remarks in the comments section. I’m always open to learn more!

Japanese miso soup with wakame and daikon

1. Soak the dried wakame in water for about five minutes or until it has stopped swelling. Drain the water and rinse the wakame. Don’t take too much; perhaps start with a teaspoon. The quantity of dried wakame can be deceiving since it swells so much in water.

daikon and dried wakame

daikon and dried wakame

2. Cut off 1/3 of the daikon. Peel it, cut in half lengthwise, cut in half again and then slice it.

peel the daikon

peel the daikon

slice the daikon

cut lengthwise and then slice the daikon

2. Heat water and add the instant dashi according to the instructions on the package.

3. Add the swelled wakame and the daikon to the dashi and boil for a few minutes. At this stage you can replace the wakame and daikon with other ingredients of your choosing.

miso soup recipe

4. Remove the soup from the fire. Take a spoonful of miso paste and dissolve it in the soup. You can add as much as you like. It depends on everyone’s individual taste. Start with a large teaspoon and add more if you like. Never bring the soup to the boil after having added the miso.

miso paste

miso paste

miso soup

It is possible to dissolve the miso paste directly into the soup but I prefer to use a small strainer. It makes dissolving the miso easier and you avoid finding chunks of undissolved miso in your soup afterwards.

miso soup finished

Miso soup finished. I used a lot of miso since I like the taste to be quite strong. If you use less miso, the soup will be a little less opaque.

Et voila! You have the basis for a simple Japanese home cooked meal. Enjoy!

basic japanese homecooked meal

Simple Japanese meal with salad, brown rice (genmai), miso soup (miso shiru) and pickles (tsukemono). The solid ingredients in the miso soup are eaten with chopsticks. The liquid is drunk directly from the bowl. The miso drops to the bottom of the bowl after sitting for a while. This is normal. You can stir it with your chopsticks before drinking.

So much sauce!

A trip to a Japanese supermarket is quite the adventure. The aisles are filled with unknown products. I feel especially overwhelmed when standing in front of the sauce stand. Any Japanese supermarket will have up to three aisles that are filled with nothing but sauce.

Sauce stand in a Japanese supermarket

Sauce stand in a Japanese supermarket

There are so many different kinds: a wide variety of soy sauce (dark, light, low salt, …), salad sauce, sauce with orange aroma, sesame sauce, sake derivates like mirin, … The list is endless. Liquids and sauces are the main condiments in Japan (as opposed to the West where we mostly use herbs). And of course I have no idea how to use most of these sauces. Even if you have come prepared and looked up a recipe beforehand, finding the sauce that the recipe requires can be quite a challenge, as most of the labels are written in kanji (chinese characters). To sum things up, facing this wall of sauce is both awe-inspiring and daunting at the same time.

tsuyu sauce in a Japanese supermarket

Most of these sauces are different brands of ‘tsuyu’ (つゆ), a dipping sauce for noodles

Ponzu sauce in Japanese supermarket

Another sauce stand, mostly ponzu (citrus sauce) and sushi vinegar

After returning to Belgium last month and seeing the selection of cheese in Belgian supermarkets, I imagine Japanese people living in Belgium must experience a similar sensation when being confronted with this vast array of cheese for the first time. How would they know the difference between young and aged gouda, or that camembert is actually supposed to smell like that. Some cheese is for cooking, other cheese is to put on bread. There is Italian cheese, French cheese, Dutch cheese, … There are so  many options, while most Japanese supermarkets only offer one kind of cheese: a very soft, synthetic cheese, with every slice in its individual plastic wrapper.

If you see a confused looking foreigner in the supermarket, desperately staring at the cheese stand (in Belgium) or at the sauce stand (in Japan), please rescue them! They need your help!

white cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

A selection of white and blue cheese

dutch cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

Different kinds of Dutch cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

New Year’s Eve dinner

For New Years Eve dinner we decided to make ‘yosenabe’, a simmered dish containing many different ingredients. It was a first so I was a little worried how it would turn out. But overall I’m very happy with the result. Real wholesome winter food!

ingredients for yosenabe

ingredients for yosenabe

yosenabe

home cooked yosenabe

My Japanese cooking bible

Recently I’ve accepted the challenge of cooking Japanese meals at home.

I had been putting it off for quite some time but there was no escaping it anymore. While ‘just having moved to Japan’ is an excellent excuse to eat out a lot (read: every night), after two months it really was time to do some home cooking. And Western style home cooking is difficult because the ingredients are hard to find and when you do find them, they are quite expensive. So Japanese style cooking it is.

The first obstacle for home cooking in Japan is the supermarket. It’s an entire store filled with mostly unknown products. As if this assault on the senses isn’t enough, most of the product names and descriptions are in kanji (japanese characters). Try distinguishing sugar from salt while both are labeled with signs you can’t read. It makes me wish I had been a better kanji student before.

Fortunately I found a cooking book that’s been a lifesaver. It’s called ‘Recipes of Japanese Cooking’ and is written by Yuko Fujita. The special thing about this book is that it’s both in English and Japanese.

Cook book: Recipes of Japanese cooking by Yuko Fujita

Recipes of Japanese cooking by Yuko Fujita

Recipes for Japanese cooking katsu

The top half is in Japanese, the bottom half is in English

So if the recipe says to buy ‘cotton tofu’, I would normally be impossible for me to distinguish it from all the other kinds of tofu they have. Even if I knew how to say ‘cotton tofu’ in Japanese (momen-dofu), I would still not know how it’s written (木綿豆腐).

But with this book I just look on the top half of the page, see how it’s written in Japanese and compare the kanji with the product in the supermarket without even knowing how to pronounce it. It’s so convenient! I it weren’t for this book I would have to ask for help to find every single product. Or spend an hour every day looking up the translations and the subsequent kanji for the ingredients.

In addition to this great bilingual feature, the recipes in this book offer step by step detailed instructions and a lot of pictures. The book also covers basic information like the different kinds of miso, how to store rice and how to cook it (very basic knowledge that is often presumed to be innate), cooking techniques and information on seasonal ingredients.

You could probably find most of this information online. But I love having it all together in one convenient book. I recommend this book to anyone living an Japan and planning to do some home cooking.

The results so far:

homecooked oyakodon and miso soup

Oyakodon, marinated cucumber and miso soup with wakame and tofu

homecooked gyudon and pumpkin

Gyudon, simmered pumpkin and miso soup with wakame and tofu

I started with donburi (rice bowl dishes) because they seemed easier. For my third dish I tried something else:

homecooked niku dofu and eggplant

Niku dofu (meat and tofu), grilled eggplant, genmai (brown rice) and miso soup with turnip and fried tofu