Traditional teas are almost always tea and nothing but tea, so the exceptions to the rule are always interesting. Other plants are also usually less demanding than tea, which is seriously delicious when you make it right, but will turn bitter and astringent on the unwary like an otherwise friendly cat clawing you up for petting its fuzzy, fuzzy belly. Genmaicha, which is Japanese tea with roasted brown rice in it that really softens that astringent edge, is interesting and gentle, something you can drink every day and not have to worry about.

The (Somewhat Murky) History of Genmaicha

Genmaicha literally means “dark rice tea,” dark in this case being applied to rice that hasn’t been milled and polished–brown rice. It was invented when tea was gaining broad popularity in Japan, but the price hadn’t come down enough for poor farmers to cheerfully toss a tablespoon of leaf in a cup whenever they were thirsty. They cut the tea to stretch out their supplies. This turned out to be really delicious, so now everyone drinks it. An alternate story says it was invented because of general shortages during World War II, but that story’s less common and I can’t find solid sources for it, so I’m sticking with the first story for now. It’s a distinctly Japanese drink; while Koreans drank it occasionally, it was otherwise quite unique to Japan until the modern era. Now, of course, it’s exported all over the world, so those of us who don’t live in Japan can have it, too.

What Exactly Genmaicha Is Made of

It’s made of half Japanese green tea and half roasted brown rice. Sometimes it’s made with bancha, low grade tea picked in summer and fall rather than the high quality spring leaves, perhaps because the gentling effects of the rice can cover up for flaws in the tea, but good genmaicha is made with the springtime leaves, sencha. Sometimes a bit of matcha is mixed in as well, which is called matcha-iri genmaicha (which basically means “genmaicha with added matcha” in Japanese). This makes the flavor a little stronger, and the resulting drink is a pretty green color. The rice is roasted, which gives it a nutty, toasty scent and a bit of those in the flavor as well. It also makes some of the rice grains pop, and since they look just like popcorn, you’ll sometimes hear genmaicha called “popcorn tea.” Sometimes actual popcorn is mixed in with it! Usually it just looks like it, though. Popcorn is, of course, not a traditional ingredient, since corn is native to the Americas, and doesn’t have the ubiquity in Japan that tea and rice do.¬† At the shop this afternoon we had to pick a few bits out of our genmaicha and taste them to assure ourselves that those really were popped rice grains and not bits of popcorn, but I can now personally attest that our genmaicha is definitely tea and rice.

Genmaicha is a great choice for people who want a low-caffeine tea, since replacing half the tea with rice (a plant that does not produce caffeine) cuts the caffeine content in, well, half. It’s often served in restaurants, both in Japan and in American places serving Japanese food, because it’s good for the digestion, which I’ve seen people notice without being told, so it’s a noticable effect! I’ve always suspected that restaurants also serve it because it’s very easy to brew, not turning sharply astringent like other Japanese teas will if you overbrew them. It’s just a really friendly tea. Even if you pet its metaphorical fuzzy belly.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff