Have you ever tried the Japanese dish called ochazuke? Ochazuke is not a dish that one typically comes across in Japanese restaurants outside of Japan. It is more of a familial and traditional dish that is enjoyed at home. You may have come across it in a popular Japanese anthology TV series called Midnight Diner which features a lot of simple Japanese comfort foods where it is the go-to snack for three female friends (and for this reason they are called the Ochazuke sisters).
Ocha means “tea” and zuke means “soaked” so as the name implies, ochazuke is basically a dish that involves tea poured over a bowl of rice. In general, the tea that is poured over is a sencha, bancha, hojicha - some type of Japanese tea. In recent years, people have been enjoying ochazuke according to their preference or with whatever is readily available in their homes. With plain hot water, cold mugicha, soup, and soup stock. These all fit under what we call ochazuke. Today, I would like to share with you a bit more about ochazuke, its history, and perhaps inspire you to try making ochazuke at home!
History of Ochazuke
It is said that this way of appreciating tea poured over rice began sometime during the Edo period (1603 - 1868). However, it appears that the foundations of ochazuke (i.e., pouring liquid over rice) can be traced way back to the Jomon Period (14,000 - 300 BCE), when rice first began to be gathered in Japan! This period saw a combination of hunter-gathering and low intensity plant stewardship. Then, a transition to full-fledged agricultural and potentially even paddy rice. During this time it is thought that people ate rice with hot water or water poured on top. Evidence suggests rice has been cultivated for at least 3,000 years in Japan. References to yuzuke and suihan in famous Japanese literary works such as the Genji Monogatari (「原始物語」; The Tale of Genji) and Makura no soushi (「枕草子」; The Pillow Book), suggest ochazuke was consumed in the Heian period (794 - 1185). Yuzuke means hot water over rice and suihan, water over rice. Obviously there were no rice cookers during this time that could magically retain the heat of the rice, so the rice would inevitably cool off and become dry. For these reasons, people naturally started to pour hot water and water over rice to retain the warmth and moisture of the rice.
So, when did the Japanese people start to pour ocha (tea) over rice? If you are up to date with your Japanese tea history, you hopefully guessed “The Edo Period.” Excellent! More specifically, the middle of the Edo period when bancha and sencha became more accessible, and a favorite of the common people. Even though sencha was said to contain more umami, during this time it was more common for the people to pour bancha over rice. It became a very typical meal for servants in the households of nobility because ochazuke was a meal that they could prepare and eat without much preparation time or hassle. Pickled vegetables were basically the only side dishes that the servants could freely consume in their frugal diet. So they would stack the pickles up like a mountain (!) on top of their ochazuke and this is said to have greatly influenced the way ochazuke is consumed today.
And with time, people started to eat ochazuke with different toppings such as dried plum, seaweed, salmon and cod roe. In this way, ochazuke began to be enjoyed more and more. During the Edo period, people generally cooked rice once a day. So, people would eat warm rice in the morning, then at night they would eat the leftovers, but in the form of ochazuke so that it was warm. During the golden period of the Edo period (Genroku era), eating spots called Chazuke-ya opened and ochazuke was enjoyed as a fast food for the common people. It is during this time that ochazuke became popular as an easy and convenient way to eat a meal and a way to consume rice that had become cold. It may be important to also note that ochazuke allowed one to eat every grain of rice that the farmer grew, therefore appreciating and acknowledging the hard work of the rice farmer.
In 1952, the food company Nagatanien started selling the first instant ochazuke. Perhaps, if you have lived in Japan or visited, you have found these readily available in the supermarket/convenience stores or have even tried these famous instant packets.
I actually had one of these at home! Thanks to a close friend from college who sent me this from the US (as you can see, the packets have English writing) as we reconnected during the pandemic. This one is pickled plum flavor.
Basically, all you need is a bowl of rice (having rice left over is very typical in a Japanese household) and hot water. You pour the contents of the instant ochazuke packet on top of your bowl of rice and pour hot water. And voilà! Your ochazuke is ready to eat.
It will look like green tea but it is actually rather salty as it contains a soup stock. Yes! Quite a different taste when you make ochazuke with a quality Japanese tea... but with the instant version, you don’t need to prepare any side dishes to flavor your ochazuke, as it is already flavorful. The ingredients generally include dry seaweed, arare (which in this case, are very tiny rice puffs/crackers), salt, green tea powder, and depending on the flavor, there could be freeze dried salmon, pickled plums, wasabi, etc. Nowadays, companies other than Nagatanien have their own ochazukes and one will probably find different types of ochazuke across different regions in Japan. You can find a wasabi ochazuke at Yunomi, too!
Today, ochazuke continues to be a comforting and easy to prepare meal. Apart from the instant packets, people enjoy ochazuke in a variety of ways. Some people prefer the liquid base to be plain hot water, others tea, some have even experimented with matcha! Sometimes, in a restaurant where ochazuke is served, they may serve it with a homemade soup-base, unique to their restaurant. Regional variations exist, too. Shizuoka prefecture is famous for ochazuke topped with grilled eel called (Unacha), while in Kyoto it is known as bubuzuke. It has long been said that in Kyoto, if your host asks you if you would like some bubuzuke, it can be a subtle cue that it is time for you to leave! However, whether that is true today or was ever true is actually quite ambiguous. The Kyoto area is also famous for its wild assortment of pickled vegetables that serve as a fantastic topping for their bubuzuke. In fact, the type of pickles and way in which it is made were unique to each household and some today still make their pickles according to how their ancestors did from the Edo period. If you have a chance to visit Kyoto, you can even enjoy bubuzuke with a numerous assortment of Japanese pickled vegetables (over 10 types!) of the season at a famous pickle shop.
Well, that’s ochazuke for you! A very old comfort food with regional variations and subtle meaning. If you have any personal ochazuke favorites, do share with us. Before we close, I would like to give you my personal recommendation for ochazuke. At a cozy yakitori (skewered chicken/meat) restaurant in my parents’ neighborhood in Tokyo, they have a yaki-onigiri chazuke, which is a ochazuke with a grilled rice ball and it is quite nice! We actually tried making that on our grill here in France. Basically, instead of pouring tea over a bowl of rice, you first prepare the grilled rice balls which is also an ancient method. Archeologists found charred remnants of a rice ball dated to 2,000 years ago! If you have never made rice balls before, it’s best to use Japanese rice (the same short grain rice used to make sushi), due to its soft and sticky texture.
Rice balls ready to be grilled with a soy-sauce based glaze. I added furikake (which included some shiso, kelp, sesame seeds, etc) to the rice to add a bit of color and flavor.
Inside the rice balls, you can add any ingredients you would typically add to rice balls, such as bits of grilled salmon, pickled plum, and flavored seaweed. Of course, you do not have to grill the rice balls. But my personal recommendation is to take this additional step because it gives the outside of the rice ball a nice crispy texture that quite wonderfully complements the inside of the rice ball and the tea or soup base. When grilling your rice balls, you can glaze the outside with some sort of mixture of soy sauce, cooking sake, mirin (a type of rice wine) or sugar syrup to add flavor.
Rice balls on the grill!
After the rice balls are done, put a rice ball (or two, if you are hungry!) in a bowl and add some garnish of your choice, like dried seaweed and shiso. The very final step is to pour your preferred Japanese tea in and enjoy it while hot. Of course, if you prefer it cold because it’s summer time that is an option, too. We made this in the evening so we chose to pour over the 4th steep of the day’s kamairicha (from Miyazaki Sabou Garden). Even though we perhaps lacked the perfect Japanese ingredients, we were happy with how these yaki-onigiri chazuke came out... Bon appetit!
Featured image: Making Ochazuke with what is readily available at home. Sardines (cooked and improvised kabayaki style with ginger) and purple dry shiso flakes as toppings over leftover brown rice. The chosen tea? A bancha from Takeo Tea Farm. Photo by Jimmy Burridge.