How has the year 2021 started off for you? I was listening to a podcast touching on the concept of "wintering" the other day and also given the time of year, I have been thinking about the need for periods of dormancy, contemplation, and slow replenishment. What winter activities have you been enjoying? Perhaps if you live somewhere chilly, you may be treating yourself to your special wintery tisane in front of a fire…
When I am in Japan, a winter activity I very much look forward to is being tucked in a kotatsu (Japanese: 炬燵, a low table covered by a futon or a heavy blanket with a heat source inside which generates warmth) and eating as many tasty clementines as I can. To make it extra cozy, I sometimes treat myself to what is called a kuzu-cha, a drink that is made from arrowroot (pueraria montana var.lobata). The starch from the root thickens the water and it is often sweetened, so it's enjoyed like a dessert in Japan. Kuzu seems to be becoming more common even outside East Asia these days, as a health product for alleviating migraines or for addressing digestive issues.
Repurposing Japanese Tea Leaves
Today, I’d like to share a wintering art project that we’ve been working on with chagara (in Japanese: 茶殻 ); what we refer to as used tea leaves. Perhaps an upside of the pandemic has been that there has been more time and space to enjoy Japanese tea, which has been fantastic but it also gives rise to quite a lot of chagara! Of course, having them join the compost dance is an option but what alternative routes are there?
One simple and popularized way to repurpose chagara these days is simply to eat them! This applies especially to shincha (first flush tea) as the leaves tend to be soft, without much bitterness and good quality for eating. Moreover, for those of you who are not a huge fan of bitter tastes, eating the chagara of gyokuro may be a nice option because gyokuro contains less catechins in comparison to a sencha.
In general, tea leaves contain both water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins and minerals. By drinking tea, one obtains about 30% of the nutrients. But the chagara in your teapot are full of the remaining 70% of vitamins and minerals. You can season them with soy sauce, a little bit of ponzu, sesame oil, salt, whatever suits your fancy. Tea connoisseurs seem to be into this sort of thing these days. People also add them to miso soups, salads, use them as a topping for tofu, pasta, pizza… Yes, anything goes!
After enjoying 4 steeps of gyokuro from Yame, I enjoyed exploring eating the chagara (steeped Japanese tea leaves). My favorite was flavoring it with a little bit of sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, and a pinch of rock salt. Using a little bit of ponzu can be nice and citricy as well!
While I could definitely explore more in terms of eating and cooking with the nutrient abundant chagara, personally, I haven't felt too attracted to eating tea. But, making art with tea leaves? That’s a whole different story! We decided to try a view of tea fields with Mt.Fuji in the background, close to a scenic view one may come across in Imamiya, Shizuoka prefecture. After you enjoy your tea you’ll have to dry out the tea leaves. We put ours on a plate on top of the radiator in the house for a day or two.
Below, you can see the selection of dried tea leaves. If you’re pretty familiar with the different types of Japanese teas, you can even identify which one is the genmaicha (Japanese green tea with toasted rice) , the hojicha, and the green teas (of course, visually, it’s difficult to tell the gyokuro apart from the sencha, etc…). There is also a kamairicha /lemongrass blend which stands out in the middle!
Once we felt like we had enough tea leaves to make art, we let the fun begin. Just a pre-warning, this is not going to be perfect or extravagant art. Think of it more like improvisation!
We basically squeezed glue onto the background, shook out some tea leaves, then gently patted the tea leaves into the glue. Next, we refined the edges with our fingers or toothpicks. This process was repeated with different teas for different parts of the design.
After painting the sky blue and using lightweight paper for the clouds, we filled in the hills and topped Mt.Fuji with some acrylic paint to look like snow. It may have been nice to use something small like soba-cha (buckwheat tea) for Mt.Fuji, but hey, this is just our first attempt at chagara tea art.
We like how the batabatacha leaves turned out, which you can see in the middle with a lighter color and a twig-like appearance. Then we applied a coat of spray on glue over the whole thing to help prevent tea leaves from falling off and voilà, c'est fini!
While this was an amateur art project, for me, the act of putting things together was a comforting and cathartic process. That is, in a time when we are experiencing social distancing; perhaps being isolated and disconnected from our families, friends, and communities… to glue, to connect, to bring things together felt rewarding.
Any first impressions on this chagara (used tea leaves) art project? If you have discovered any other ways to make tea leaf art or repurpose your used Japanese tea leaves, we would love to hear. I have near future plans to experiment with making furikake (dried Japanese ingredients to sprinkle on top of rice or to use for making rice balls) from chagara. I hope to keep you posted on how that process goes.
Happy tea drinking and creating! Oh, and we send good thoughts for a happy groundhog's day tomorrow, which corresponds to setsubun（節分）in Japan.
Feature image and photos from this blog post by Moé Kishida.