There are two types of Kaiseki Ryori (懐石料理・会席料理). Both are course meals and have the same reading, but they are expressed in different Chinese characters and the contents are quite different.
In this case, Kiseki (懐石) means a poor meal enough to survive hunger from the anecdote that a Zen priest held a warm stone in his robe to forget the cold and hunger during his training. It consists of soup, rice and three dishes to prepare your stomach before enjoying the strong tea served at the tea ceremony.
As explained earlier, the basis of Kaiseki Ryori at a tea ceremony is one soup and three dishes, but Japanese restaurants, where you are likely to go to eat in person, often have their own arrangements, such as increasing the number of items or changing the order. In a typical menu, oshiki (折敷), wanmono (椀盛), grilled dishes (焼き物), simmered dishes or vinegared dishes (強肴), suimono (吸い物), hasun (八寸), yuto・kouomono(湯桶・香の物), and omokashi・koicha (主菓子・濃茶) are served.
Originally, Kaiseki Ryori was not a sumptuous meal to be eaten with sake, but rather a dish to fill a small stomach before enjoying a more delicious cup of tea.
The definition of “Matcha” according to the Japan Tea Central Public Interest Incorporated Association is, “Fine powder made by grinding up Tencha with a handmill made from un-rolled, dried raw leaves that were cultivated under cover and shaded from sunlight.”
To put it simply, Matcha is made by grinding up Tencha with a tea grinding handmill, into fine particles 1 to 20 μm in size. Tencha is grown in mostly the same way as Gyokuro but covered for 5 days longer than Gyokuro. The initial steaming method is also the same as Gyokuro and Sencha, but the difference is that after steaming, it is just dried, without any kneading.
After steaming, a device called a tea leaf spreader is used to spread them over 5 to 6 m in warm air, the moisture from the steaming is removed, and then they are cooled. This process is repeated 4 to 5 times and then it is normally dried in a Tencha oven. The finished Tencha is then left to rest in a cool place until November.
Matcha produced at the beginning of November is ground using a handmill as “newly picked tea,” but since it had been resting, it emits the refreshing scent of new tea, giving it a mellowness. Meanwhile, lately, newly picked tea is ground with a handmill immediately to make Matcha that retains the refreshing scent, creating a flavor that differs from that of the tea ceremony world.
Consuming the actual Matcha leaves allows you to take in all the non-water-soluble components, so it’s gained attention as part of a health boom lately. In order to keep up with that demand, Matcha that strays from the original definition is mass-produced using mills.
Matcha is a drink used at places like tea ceremonies to enjoy with Japanese-style sweets. It goes without saying that this is not to be drunk with Nigiri sushi. When enjoying Nigiri sushi, you will be served Konacha, Mecha or Roasted green tea.
This practice’s origins can be found in the street stands leftover from before WWII. It was a natural remedy for the outdoor sushi vendors who set up street booths and needed a way to maintain heat in their drinks in order to make it through the cold. In addition to lack of convenient access to water, these stands were one-man operations and the time that serving tea takes away from his time making sushi were also contributing factors. In other words, the reason the teacups are large is natural wisdom of sushi shops from long ago.
Also, hot tea has the effect of dissolving the fat that remains on the tongue after eating a fatty sushi topping, cleansing and preparing the palette for the next piece of sushi. This is a task that cannot be performed by beer or Japanese sake.
Then, large teacups became one of the special features at sushi restaurants and a favorite feature among customers, so it wouldn’t make sense to go back to small teacups now. However, times change. There are now sushi restaurants that use relatively small teacups that they change with each refill in an attempt at a sort of stage effect. There are even places that have the teacups imprinted with the restaurant name, phone number, etc. and hand them out to favorite customers. This has tremendous advertising effects.
There are various production sites, but most that are mass-producing are located around the Toki area of Gifu prefecture and the more expensive but also relatively more durable tend to be Arita ware from Saga prefecture. There are wide varieties in shape and pattern, but despite the preference for large teacups at sushi restaurants, there is such a thing as cups that are too big and they are also harder to drink from. Also, thicker cups may be more durable, but they are also harder to drink from. Even when made thick, the rim should be thinner. The cylinder shape is hard to clean and the bottom of the cup tends to be stained by the tea. My personal opinion is that it is hard to find what I would call a refined teacup with a nice color and shape. But the worst is when a thin teacup or tea bowl gets too hot to hold.
When it comes to green tea, I’m sure you’ve heard of Gyokuro (玉露) and Matcha (抹茶), but you are likely not familiar with Konacha (粉茶) and Mecha (芽茶). Let’s remedy that by explaining both Konacha and Mecha here.
First and foremost, the three broad tea categories based on the processing method of the young leaves include green tea, oolong tea and black tea, but these are all made of leaves picked from the same trees, and then end up as completely different teas just by changing the processing method. Oolong tea and black tea are made by artificially fermenting the tea leaves as part of the processing. On the other hand, green tea is made without fermentation. The raw material of green tea that is eventually made into Sencha, Gyokuro and Tencha (碾茶), which is the raw material for Matcha among others. Then Konacha, Mecha, etc. are byproducts of the process for making Sencha and Gyokuro.
First of all, Sencha is the foundation of Japanese tea.
Sencha is known for its gentle flavor with a lingering, but subtle sweetness amidst the inherent fresh scent and bitterness. Generally, the color of Sencha is a transparent yellowish gold. Freshly picked tea leaves are immediately steamed, stopping the fermentation process. The steaming process gives each completed, individual tea leaf a deep green color. Tea was originally introduced to the world from China, but Sencha is the only tea with a unique, deep flavor created by Japan. About 80% of the tea produced in Japan is said to be Sencha. The most delicious Sencha comes around from the end of April to May, which is the beginning of the tea season. The appropriate volume of tea when steeping for one person is 2 to 3 grams of tea leaves to 70 milliliters of hot water and the appropriate water temperature is around 70℃ in order to bring out the sweetness and umami.
Next, we’ll describe Gyokuro.
By blocking sunlight and growing in the shade during the sprout timing, the leaves for Gyokuro grow full of theanine, which is an umami component, ending up with tea leaves that have a unique sweetness. It is common to focus only on taste, but the fragrance, described as “enveloping” is also wonderful and should not be discounted. This fragrance is often described by people from outside of Japan as a having a seawater-like scent or being salty. Yame in Fukuoka, Uji in Kyoto and Okabe in Shizuoka prefecture are the three famous production spots for Gyokuro. The appropriate volume of tea when steeping for one person is 2 to 3 grams of tea leaves to 20 to 30 milliliters of hot water and the appropriate water temperature is around 50 to 60℃ in order to bring out the sweetness and umami. This will give you the ultimate cuppa that is the epitome of luxury.
Most of the Agari (cup of tea to finish the meal) served at sushi restaurants is Konacha.
By avoiding the use of a teapot and only preparing the number of teacups needed, directly in the cup, strong tea can be made just by adding the hot water later. Conventionally, steaming is a very important step in making tea, but it isn’t necessary with Konacha. Konacha raw ingredients are mainly made up of the broken tea leaves from the Gyokuro and Sencha manufacturing process.
Brewing konacha results in a dark, deep green color. As the name suggests, it has a lot of powder in it, so the tea leaves in powder form settle in the bottom of the teacup. There for it also carries the benefit of being richer in nutrients than other teas. The sense of transparency is moderate and has a bit of a more somber color. The appropriate amount of water when brewing konacha is one gram of tea leaves to 40 to 60 milliliters of hot water. Konacha is strong, so making it with water that is about 80℃ gives it a mellow flavor. Tea that is made quickly with hotter water gets a moderate bitterness typical of Japanese tea and cleanses the palate.
Also, Japanese people have treasured food since long ago. For example, the leaves of vegetables like daikon radish are sauteed and consumed rather than discarded. As a society they have spent many centuries making efforts to figure out how each part can be made delicious. Mecha is made by collecting the cut-off tips of sprouts and leaves in the process of manufacturing Gyokuro and Sencha. There are many people who think Mecha is tea made just from picking the small buds from tea trees, so don’t make that mistake.
Mecha is a strong green tea that gets a strong scent when brewed. The longer the extraction time is, the stronger the tea, so if the color is too dark it changes the impression it gives and also affects the flavor. That’s why it’s important to pay close attention to extraction time. In general, the volume should be 2 grams for 70 milliliters of hot water–the same as Sencha. When preparing for more people, fewer tea leaves should be used. When brewing, wait patiently for the rounded Mecha leaves to open up. Around 80℃ is the appropriate temperature, but if less bitterness is preferred then it can be made with hot water at 90℃.
In summary, Konacha and Mecha, which are teas used at sushi restaurants, are made from the broken-off parts of the tea leaves carefully selected for Sencha and Gyokuro. They don’t require the steaming step of the tea-making process, so they can be prepared quickly and include the appropriate amount of bitterness for cleansing the palette, making them perfect pairings for nigiri sushi.
Even if you order beer or sake at sushi restaurants, your meal will always end with a cup of tea. But if you’re going to go out for sushi, you should really start drinking that tea earlier instead of saving it until the end. The tea at sushi shops is far more significant than a simple beverage. Especially when eating fatty tuna or bonito, tea plays a role that beer and sake simply cannot fulfill.
The key is in its hot temperature.
Hot tea works to dissolve the fat left on the tongue. Traces of fat is left on your tongue when you eat fatty sushi. It covers the taste buds like a film, subtly inhibiting your sense of taste. It would be a shame to miss your chance to experience the full range of flavors on your visit to a delicious sushi restaurant. No matter how much you drink, beer and sake can’t do anything about this thin film.
But drinking hot tea dissolves the fat and washes it away. Tea can also be considered a type of preparation for enjoying the next piece of sushi.
Another fun fact, sushi teacups are bigger than traditional tea cups because sushi chefs used to man their food stands alone. They just didn’t have enough hands to be constantly refilling tea while also pressing the sushi. The stands used large teacups so they wouldn’t need to be refilled as often.