Monday, 19 March 2007

Ochazuke - お茶漬け

Ocha zuke

Literally 'soaked in tea', ochazuke is perfect comfort food. Freshly brewed green tea poured over warmed up rice and a few favorite toppings.

From the references to ochazuke I've seen in Japanese manga and popular culture, I have an image of it as the eggs on toast of Japan. Simple, nourishing food prepared by little old men and students in tiny bedsits, when you can't be bothered cooking but you want something hot, or when your stomach is worn out on rich, extravagant meals and you long for something subtle, almost bland.

When my family hosted some Japanese exchange students a few years ago they brought packets of instant ochazuke (freeze dried toppings and powdered seasoning similar to cup-a-soup) in their luggage, insurance against our unfamiliar cuisine.

I like to make mine with flaked salmon and nori, occasionally tossing in some leftover mushrooms or wakame seaweed, but the variations are almost endless. A brief internet search gave this list of possible toppings: tsukemono (pickles), umeboshi, arare (tiny rice crackers), bonito flakes, jako (tiny fish), nori, salted salmon, wasabi, wakame, mitsuba (a type of herb), furikake (rice seasoning packets), sesame seeds, tarako (fish roe), mentaiko (more fish roe), shiokara (pickled seafood), nori no tsukudani (nori seaweed paste or preserve), green onions, omelette, green peas, cubed tofu and various other fresh fish. Not counting more fusion suggestions like 'steak' or 'last night's stir-fry' that's at least 20 recommended toppings, with umeboshi, rice crackers, nori and pickles the most commonly suggested.

For the tea I use genmai-cha, green tea with toasted rice kernels, because I think it has a really deep, savoury flavor that works well in this dish. You can use whatever kind of green tea you fancy (hojicha, sencha, etc) but avoid powdered matcha.

Recipe: Ochazuke - お茶漬け
Serves 1

Rice (I use brown, but white short grain is more traditional)
Mug of hot green tea (any kind but matcha)
Salmon fillet, grilled or sauteed with lots of salt** and flaked into tiny pieces
Shredded nori
Soy sauce
Sesame Oil

  • If using leftover rice, warm it up a little.
  • Arrange the salmon (or toppings of your choice) on top of the rice.
  • Pour the green tea over the rice until it's just covered.
  • Season with a dash of soy and a sprinkling of sesame oil. (optional)
  • Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.
  • Sprinkle with nori and serve.

The most important thing is keep experimenting to find out what you like. Taste the broth with just tea, with different kinds of tea, with soy, salt, and different combinations of toppings. Some people also use hot water or dashi instead of tea.

After reading everybody else's favourites, I'm looking forward to trying some crunchy little arare in my next bowl of ochazuke but it will have to wait until I get back from Taiwan. I'm flying out tonight with my friend Christina for five days of sightseeing, beach lolling and culinary adventures. My Japanese friends who've been can't stop raving about the food and I'm dying to try something new, including perhaps a local delicacy: snake. After that, I'll probably be craving a nice simple bowl of rice and tea again.

** In Japan you can buy fresh salmon that has been soaked in salt (often labeled 甘口(sweet mouth) ) Perhaps, like me, you have already bought some by mistake and ruined another dish. If you're using this, you don't need to add more salt at cooking time.

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