A Word about Tea and Other Beverages

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The Japanese are forever drinking tea—to quench the slightest thirst, to formalize a business or social occasion, to provide an excuse for gossip—in fact, nearly every interpersonal relationship in Japan seems to indicate tea drinking. For most such occasions, roasted green tea leaves (ocha) are placed in small ceramic pots and allowed to steep for 2–3 minutes in very hot water—boiling water would be too much of a shock to the delicate tea leaves—before being poured into individual cups.

There are many grades of ocha, but price is usually a good indication of quality. Unless you are particularly attuned to the finer nuances of flavor and aroma, a middle price range should suit you. Figure on about 1 heaping tablespoon of ocha tea leaves for every 2–2 ½ cups of scalding hot water. These same leaves can be used again within 10–15 minutes, if you like. Most Japanese teapots do not have very fine filters so that leaves do come through. They usually settle to the bottom of individual cups, but stems which remain standing vertically are considered a lucky sign. By the way, Japanese etiquette indicates that tea cups should be filled only two-thirds full.

Occasionally tea leaves are mixed with roasted rice kernels, and this combination is called génmai cha. It has a distinctive smoky flavor, and since it is cheaper than regular tea, it is considered less elegant. It is prepared in the same manner as ocha.

Mugi cha is made from roasted barley and is served chilled. It is wonderfully refreshing during the hot, humid summer months, though it may take a few glassfuls to win you over. Fill a large kettle with 1½–2 quarts of cold water. Add ¾-1 cup mugi cha and bring it to a rapid boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 3–4 minutes. Strain the tea through a cloth-lined colander into a large bowl filled with 20–30 ice cubes. Chill the dark amber tea and serve it plain or over ice.

Another summertime drink is Calpis. Made from a sweet, chalky, fermented milk-based syrup of the same name, it is diluted to taste with cold water (three times as much water as syrup) and served over ice. Occasionally Calpis will come in orange and grape flavors, too.

Plum wine is an adult hot-weather refresher. Many families make their own in June during the rainy season. The green fruit is at its peak then; it is sweetened with rock sugar and fermented with rice wine. The ingredients necessary for home brews are not to be found in the West, but the bottled finished product is. Serve it chilled and on the rocks.

Beer is drunk year round in Japan with meals and on social occasions though it is particularly favored in the hot weather. Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi and Suntory are the best-known brands and are increasingly available in American liquor stores.

Nihon shu (literally “Japanese wine”) is the official name for drinking saké (rice wine). Distilled from.rice, it is a clear, colorless liquid that is consumed in large quantities at parties and other special gatherings. It is usually served warm and brought to the table in small serving containers with matching small cups. Proper etiquette requires your host or another guest to fill your cup, then you return the courtesy.