We’ve blogged about Japanese teas before, including culture, cultivars, sencha, and gyokuro. We’ve even blogged about the use of a Kyusu for preparing Japanese green teas. This week we wanted to focus on another great Japanese tea, genmaicha. Also known as genmai cha, brown rice tea, or even popcorn tea, genmaicha is very popular in Japan and around the world even if its history isn’t that clear.
Unique flavor aside, the stories surrounding genmaicha are lots of fun though there seems to be plenty of fiction surrounding it. Paraphrasing the most colorful story, it is claimed that the tea was created during the 15th century by a Samurai and his servant. The story suggests that the servant was preparing tea for his master, and at the time tea was very expensive. As he poured the tea a few grains of rice fell from his sleeve as he poured the tea. So enraged was the Samurai that his tea would be ruined, that he drew his sword and cut the head off his servant then an there. Yet, instead of pouring out the tea, he sat back down to drink it and discovered that he actually very much enjoyed it. In honor of his servant, named Genmai, he named this tea Genmai Cha.
Another story suggests that long ago, housewives, eager to serve green tea in their households, yet finding it to be extremely expensive, began mixing cheap brown rice to a smaller amount of green tea, thus enabling common folk to enjoy tea the same as the noble classes.
The most likely story of genmaicha seems to be that sometime in the early 1900’s, an inspired tea merchant in Japan sought to stretch expensive green tea a bit further and added brown rice to it. The wonderful nutty flavor of genmaicha has been with us ever since, remaining popular and growing in popularity outside of Japan as well.
Colorful as these stories are, and variations on all three stories abound, there seems to be little historical support for them. They may or may not have grains of truth surrounding the origin of Genmai Cha. Regardless, Genmai means ‘brown rice’ and so Genmai Cha is literally translated to ‘brown rice tea’.
Genmaicha has historically been made of bancha and brown rice. Being a green tea made from later harvests, bancha was and still is much less expensive than higher grade sencha and gyokuro varieties. The use of bancha contributed to a reputation as a cheap tea in the past. Today, however, genmaicha is made with a variety of Japanese green teas including sencha and gyokuro as well. Additionally, genmaicha can be found infused with matcha to provide both a slightly different flavor and mouth feel.
Finally, although genmaicha is sometimes called popcorn tea, it typically does not actually have popcorn. Brown rice, as its heated and toasted, will sometimes pop resulting in something that looks like popcorn yet is really popped rice.
The next time you are looking to have guests and want to serve them something interesting, you might consider telling a colorful story or two about the supposed history of genmaicha while serving them this delightful nutty tea.