First tastes of tea: Chinese and Japanese restaurants

Dining out at a restaurant is one situation where I would guess many people may be first exposed to tea drinking, or at least to new varieties aside from the black tea that is most familiar to American and British folks. Perhaps you’ve had the unlimited pots of tea consumed out of little, white cups that are common when eating Chinese food, or the rich, toasty cup of tea often available at Japanese restaurants (e.g. sushi). But what are these teas? Did you ever want to find them again so you can have them at home?

Both China and Japan are huge producers of tea, particularly green tea varieties, and both countries have a range of distinctive styles that are generally only produced in that country, and often even in a particular region of it. These country-specific tea varieties and styles are generally where the tea served in corresponding restaurants comes from.

China - Jasmine Tea

Speaking as an American living in California, our Chinese restaurants here most often serve a variant of jasmine-scented tea. This is a common style in China, where a “richer” and darker (i.e. more oxidized) green tea is combined with jasmine flower petals, imparting the scent to the tea. Sometimes the petals remain in the tea leaves through to brewing, other times they are removed before being sold. But in either case you get a very interesting cup of tea which, when brewed properly (and not overbrewed), is a sweet, mildly tannic, and highly floral experience. Likely you’ve had this tea at a Chinese restaurant if you live in the US, and fortunately it’s an easy one to find at most supermarkets in bagged form, although I always recommend seeking out loose leaf versions of any tea for the best experience. There are, however, some bagged options that are worthwhile, Rishi and Mighty Leaf among them, in my view.

Japan - Genmaicha

Genmaicha is basically just green tea mixed with toasted rice (sometimes including popped kernels that look like miniature popcorn!). It can be any number of a variety of usually mild, sometimes vegetal or “umami” green teas, which are typically processed by steaming to stop the process of oxidization (hence preserving the green color). The base tea can be very low cost, but higher quality/cost senchas are sometimes used. The practice originated apparently as a cost-saving measure - rice was cheaper than tea leaves, so you could mix in some rice and get more cups of tea for a given amount of tea leaves. These days it’s not thought of as a “budget” option, though it is generally fairly affordable and a good daily sip. It has a very nutty, toasty, smooth, and pleasant flavor. And you’re likely to have had some if you’ve ever been out to sushi or other Japanese food.

Genmaicha was less widely available than jasmine green tea for quite some time, and continues to be so, but it is now easier to find it in the tea section of a good supermarket. Better yet, order some online, and if you really like it, there are great bulk pricing options at places like Upton Tea, Five Mountains, and others.

Why These Two Specifically?

So why are these specific teas so widely served with these respective cuisines? Well, I can’t say for sure, but it is interesting to note that in both these cases the tea is combined with an additional flavoring agent that makes it more unique or notable. There are certainly other, unflavored teas that have that distinction, oolongs for example, but at least in the case of genmaicha there is another reason it was probably selected, which is price. As I mentioned above, genmaicha is actually combined with puffed rice to lower the cost-per-cup, so it’s a smart pick for a restaurant, especially where tea may be provided for free. Jasmine tea is not the cheapest there is, the process of scenting with jasmine is not as simple as the base tea processing, but it is also not super expensive, whereas many oolong teas are due to the more complex processing. So perhaps it’s the combination of its distinctiveness and reasonable price that makes it a good choice for the purpose. I think many people associate that flavor of tea with Chinese food, which is no doubt of benefit to its popularity.