This is going to be a long one.
I have finally had my cup of Ryokucha. It was one of the first tea tasting notes I saw passingly (before I even knew what a takgoti WAS ;) ) that interested me, and for the longest time they were out of stock, so my curiosity had to remain unassuaged.
I will admit that the instructions on the tin (which is pretty slick-looking, actually; it’s not fancy but it is black and fully labeled and why I expected it to be anything else I don’t know, exactly, but there you have it) made me quirk an eyebrow. A tablespoon? A whole one? The leaves were such tiny little slips of greenery, there seemed to be so much matcha…that was going to be one dense tablespoon. A whole lot different from a tablespoon of wiry, fat-leafed black or white tea. It occurs to me as I write this that my skepticism is probably symptomatic of the real problem here, which is that at this point I may need a scale instead of a tablespoon.
The brine scent was silvery and at the forefront of the smell of the dry mixture, shining high and not quite sharp on top of a foundation of toasted carbohydrates. It made for a strange mix. I admit that the smell of the brewing wet leaves was cause for some more quirking, as the ‘toasted’ scent became very heavy…less like popcorn and more like popcorn on the ‘uh oh’ side of done. Some part of me felt like a little kid again, and it was saying, ‘this smells like Honey Smacks!’ while the adult bit of me stood off to the side going…but…I didn’t like Honey Smacks. Or Corn Pops, either (and then I remember that I ate both of them by the boxfull when I went away to school). I began to worry.
And then, sitting and sniffing and anxiously waiting, it made a connection for me that merely reading the words ‘toasted rice’ had not.
I have had this flavor before, and it isn’t Honey Smacks or Corn Pops or even popcorn to me, either.
Suddenly I am in Japan again.
At the time of this triggered memory I’ve been there for almost two weeks, which is not even a fraction of the time that someone needs to experience Japan, but has already felt like a lifetime…because only the girl whose family I’m staying with, my roommate from school, speaks any English. No one else does. (In hindsight, this was probably a good thing. It was better for me to be more quiet, do more listening, than I would have been or done otherwise.) It isn’t conversation that’s most difficult, strangely; her mother and I, one afternoon, managed to fold origami together — she taught me some patterns — despite the fact that we understood not a single word the other was saying. The difficult thing was ordering food off of menus. Poor Eiko had to gamble at every meal on what I might like or not like, and even ‘safe’ dishes — like pasta — occasionally arrived with a surprise twist (as with the night that there was a whole octopus gorgeously arrayed on top of the noodles as though it were still alive, and I was faced with a horrifying decision: to send it back when it was so beautifully prepared and offend, or to…urp…eat it). Combine this hit-and-miss ordering with my growing teen years and the fact that Japanese eat far smaller portions than we get accustomed to eating, and I was often more than a little bit peckish.
One afternoon, we travel to see the Daibutsu (giant Buddha) at Kamakura. Afterward we wandered through the little market stalls set up off to one side to look at Japanese historical merchandise of dubious quality (katanas, tsubas and netsukes, oh my!), stopping where someone was cooking little rice cakes — sembei. They had all sorts of different flavors, soy sauce most common. The fresh ones were fantastic, but…lo and behold…they sold them pre-packaged, too. I enjoyed the fresh sembei so much that my hosts from that point forward saw to it that I had a pretty overwhelming supply of the packaged ones, and my vexing food issue was finally solved.
That is what this tastes like, to me. Not popcorn or cereal, though I can readily find that there, it makes utter sense, and probably would have gone to that flavor had my tongue not had this other experience…but sembei. Of course now that I’ve found it, I can’t escape it. That’s what I smell as it brews, too — those cruchy, slightly sticky, sweet-on-the-tail-end, savory snacks that I practically lived on for the last leg of my trip, and which Eiko was forever afterward bringing back to school with her from trips home, just for me.
Why does this surprise me so much? It really shouldn’t. Toasted rice, toasted rice cakes. Logic prevails. I had just not expected to discover it again. It’s entirely possible that other people will have had it without even knowing it; I gather that there are trail mixes that like to toss in chunks of stuff that taste almost just like sembei.
And this is already way, way too long now, so it’s time to abandon memory lane and get back to the tea that I’m now working on my second cup of. First cup I brewed for two and a half minutes and added just shy of the full tablespoon of, afraid that it looked awfully potent, wary of overdoing it. This cup I added the full tablespoon and went for the full four minutes, and I think I prefer this one…the sweetness is so much stronger, and it seems to come not just from the rice but also from the tea this time…two different types of sweet, with the tea sweetness softer and the rice sweetness higher. In the mouth the tea is thick and I find it easy to think ‘creamy’ without any objections from my tongue. It’s like creamy tea without the mouth-sticky that comes from actual dairy.
I’ve lost the brine. I think the reason for this may be that eating soy-sauce sembei has irrevoccably connected salty and savory together with the rice in my palate’s memory…so what I think of isn’t the ocean, but instead that giant, beautiful Buddha gently putting on a green patina just south of Tokyo.
I think this one can stay.
Edit: Worth a mention: a nice honey flavor toward the end of the second cup, lukewarm, especially evident on an exhale or cleared throat. Yum.