Many Japanese households have one of these appliances to keep a ready supply of hot water for daily tea. Any serious tea drinker would want one!

No presentation on Japanese food could be considered complete without a few words concerning my two favorite drinks, rice wine and tea, Japan's traditional national drinks of old. But to refer to them merely as drinks is to belittle their lofty statue in Japanese society, for these two are so highly regarded that they have been given the honorific titles of o-cha and o-sake (the "o" being a title of honor).
O-SAKE (rice wine)

It is said that the gods first drank sake and so it is still used in religious rites, and placed on family alters to pay respect to deities and the cherished dead. Marriage ceremonies include ritual sake drinking and at many annual festivals sake is consumed in great amounts because the gods love sake and clearly those who drink the rice wine are closer to the divine.

The word sake is actually a general reference to alcoholic beverages, the word o-sake or the more precise nihonshu (literally meaning Japanese liquor) is used by the sake tsu (connoisseur) when referring to the full bodied rice wine. Nihonshu of course is brewed from rice and there are many grades and styles from which to choose.
tokkuri - sake flask

Junmai-shu is a pure rice wine without any additives and it's the only variety allowed to be imported into the United States. It is said that this style of o-sake is closest to the drink as it was in the Edo period. The Japanese government specifies that the alcoholic content of nihonshu be around 15 to 16.5 percent.

O-sake comes sweet (amakuchi), or dry (karakuchi). The casual drinker or non-connoisseur enjoys the "lighter" sweetish taste of amakuchi, but the tsu much prefers the heavier dry style of o-sake. O-sake can be served both cold or hot, depending upon your mood or the dictates of the season. Hot summer days are made more tolerable by serving chilled o-sake, some say that this is the only way to drink rice wine as it is more flavorful and the alcohol is not so quickly absorbed into your system. Simply keep your bottle of o-sake in the refrigerator with the sake flask (called, tokkuri), and it's cups (sakazuki), and serve when thoroughly chilled.

sakazuki - sake drinking cup
The cold winter season is the time for hot o-sake, but be careful! Warm o-sake is so delicious and smooth that one can easily drink too much of it! To warm your o-sake, pour it into a small ceramic flask and place the flask in a small sauce pan filled with cold water. Bring the water to a slow boil (but don't let it boil! Boiling the o-sake damages it's flavor). When you dip your finger into the rice wine and it's very warm then you're ready to drink.

O-sake is best appreciated when there is something to eat, even if it is only a humble offering of tsukemono (pickles). O-sake goes well with fish dishes as well as the popular stews (nabemono), of winter. Since o-sake is made from rice it is considered redundant to drink o-sake while eating rice, so drinking stops before the rice is served! Etiquette demands that one should always pour o-sake for others but never for oneself, when a guest or friend's cup is empty, fill it! Remember to also lift your cup from the table when o-sake is being poured for you. When drinking with friends or associates a hearty "Kampai!" ("to the bottom of the cup!"), is the toast most often heard. Whether drinking with friends or alone, you are sure to love nihonshu... the drink of the gods.

O-CHA (tea)

Tea has long been associated with Japan but the drink actually came from China and was imported into Japan in the 9th century by returning monks. The Chinese word for tea is cha, and the Japanese added the honorific prefix. Tea drinking didn't became popular until the 12th century when the elites of Japan began to enjoy mat-cha, a high quality powdered green tea.

Tea was closely associated with the clergy, and Zen Buddhism gave birth to cha-do (the "way of tea"... often called the tea ceremony by Westerners). It was thought that ritual preparation and enjoyment of tea could help one to attain enlightenment.

ceramic tea kettle

Drinking o-cha didn't become popular amongst the masses until the 18th century, when tea leaves began to be used to make the drink. Tea drinking soon became a national custom with everyone from the clergy to the commoner drinking steeped green tea. Today o-cha is as popular as ever, with Japan producing well over one hundred thousand tons of tea a year! There are many varieties of tea and they are all graded according to quality.

At the bottom of this grading scale is a tea known as ban-cha, which is typically available in supermarkets and restaurants. Despite the low grade the tea is still very good and it's easy to fall into the pattern of making one or two pots of ban-cha a day! When making tea, never place the leaves into boiling water as this results in a drink that is much too bitter. The proper way to make tea is to first boil the water and then pour it into a teapot. Loose tea leaves are then added and allowed to steep for no more than five minutes before drinking (the tea to water ratio is a matter of personal taste, but 2 1/2 cups of hot water to a tablespoon of tea is about right).

Other inexpensive teas to enjoy would be genmai-cha, which is a combination of green tea and roasted rice kernels. Genmai has a rich, nutty, smoky flavor. Mugi-cha tea is made from roasted barley and is wonderful served hot, but it makes a fine thirst quencher served cold in the summertime. Both of these teas are made in the same way as ban-cha, but with the summer version of mugi-cha, allow it to chill in the refrigerator before serving.

Teas that have higher ratings would be sen-cha and gyokuro. Sen-cha is made from better quality leaves that are picked with greater care, and this particular tea was meant to be savored. Gyokuro is the finest tea available with the leaves being the tender young buds from the finest bushes. The crop of gyokuro is always small and so it is very expensive and highly regarded. Whatever tea is used it must always be appreciated for it's fresh, natural tastes. Japanese tea is never mixed with lemon, sugar, or milk.
This site is owned & operated by The Black Moon All rights reserved. Illustrations and text by Mark Vallen.