"Irasshaimase! Welcome to our restaurant". It's a familiar cry to anyone who visits Japan. The formal greeting at most food establishments here is commonly followed by a welcoming beverage, sometimes water, but most often a cup of tea. Green tea is a very common beverage in the East where green tea benefits have been recognized for longevity and health for centuries, but for us in the West it is sometimes still an acquired taste.
The tea served at dining venues here usually isn’t the type of Green tea that you are already acquainted with. If during your visit to Japan you have visited different restaurants, you may have come to experience that not all places offer the same tea. Sometimes you are presented with a parched hojicha, other times you receive a mugicha barley infusion. Yet at other locations bancha is served, or yet elsewhere they’ve offered you a highly fragrant genmaicha with the distinct fragrance of roasted rice.
Genmaicha is a blend of green tea with roasted rice. When the rice is heated too strongly, it may pop like popcorn. These white flower-shaped popcorn-like rice pops are one of the tea’s most distinguishable features, lending it its alternative title, ‘popcorn tea,’ as it is often known as in the West. Genmaicha is most commonly produced with low-grade green tea leaves or even the coarser type of bancha. Nevertheless, due to its growing popularity in Japan, and in the West, higher quality variations with better quality sencha or gyokuro, or even mixtures with added matcha powder are now also obtainable at local tea vendors in Japan.
Originally, genmaicha is said to have originated as a means to making low-grade tea – which otherwise wouldn’t sell – appealing again by adding the fragrance of roasted rice to it. The literal meaning of genmaicha is "brown rice tea". However, in fact, it is not brown rice but steamed, dried, and then again roasted white rice that is employed.
The roasting process gives the rice its brown color, making it appear as brown rice. White rice on the other hand exerts a better aroma, making it more suitable for this kind of tea. The rice used in this process too, was often of an inferior, unmarketable quality. The size of the rice grain was either too small, or it was broken, rendering it unsuitable for regular sales purposes.
Although this explanation of genmaicha’s origin may seem highly plausible, Hōraido, a tea vendor located on Teramachi street in central Kyoto, claims instead to be at the source of genmaicha’s origin. According to the current owner of the store, the blend was inspired by the final stage of the traditional kaiseki meal during a full tea ceremony occasion.
During this stage, hot water is served by means of washing out the rice bowls. The guests pour hot water into their bowls to wash the remaining rice grains. Drinking the water allows them to consume the remaining scraps of rice so to not let anything go to waste. The fragrant combination of hot water and rice is what inspired the inventor to create a rice and tea blend that would then – now almost 100 years ago, in the late Taisho (1920’s) era – result in the birth of genmaicha.
The shopkeeper (pictured here, right) adds: “In order to enjoy tea fully, three elements have to be satisfied. 1. Flavor 2. Fragrance 3. Appearance. The added element of rice in the tea, did not only improve the fragrance of the tea, it also enhanced the aesthetic appeal of the dry leaf as well as the brew by increasing color, variation and contrast to the whole.”
Unfortunately, the blend wasn't warmly welcomed at first. Rice at the time was considered,and still is, the staple food of the Japanese people. At the same time, since its production depends on the differing weather conditions each year, scarcity was a fear that could turn into reality anytime. Therefore, employing it for purposes other than its application in food was considered "wasteful" and was not at all welcomed.
The late Taisho period however was a period when rice became increasingly available and thus it became possible to use it for alternative purposes. Rice snacks such as senbei rice crackers for example, are also an invention of this period. This opened doors for genmaicha to find it's way onto the market.
During WWⅡ, rice stocks dropped to an all-time low, and its application in alternative products was prohibited. It wasn't until after the war that genmaicha was able to revive and gain its position on the market as the affordable, easily enjoyable, fragrant tea it is recognized as today. Initially the tea was marketed as ‘Hōrai-cha’, which the Hōraido tea stall registered as their trademark. Only later, when other tea vendors took example in producing this tea as well, the name genmaicha came into use.
Genmaicha is a tea that is easily appreciated by non-Japanese drinkers, and by people who aren't as accustomed to the slightly bitter and uncommon taste of other green tea variations. Its sweet aromatic scent and fresh flavor is an easy entryway to a wider variation of Japanese teas. Give it a try during your next trip to Japan, especially if you visit Kyoto.