tea

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Fresh shiso leaf tea for hot summer days.

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From the archives: We apparently had the coldest spring on record in this area. It's finally getting warm again, and today I started my first batch of mugicha this year. Here is a slightly updated article about mugicha, or toasted barley tea, my favorite non-alcoholic summer drink. This was originally published on May 10, 2007, and updated on June 10, 2008. I've added another update at the end.

When we were growing up, my mother frowned upon most sugary drinks for us kids. So things like sodas were generally not stocked in the house - an ice-filled cup of Coke was a great treat whenever we went out to eat. Things like Calpis, or when we lived in the U.S. Kool-Aid, were strictly rationed. The cool drink we always had in the refrigerator was mugicha, or barley tea. Even when we lived in White Plains, New York, there were always a couple of jugs of mugicha in the large American refrigerator.

Mugicha is traditionally made by briefly simmering roasted barley grains. It has a toasty taste, with slight bitter undertones, but much less so than tea made from tea leaves. To me, it's much more refreshing to drink than plain water.

My anti-sugar mother always made sugarless mugicha, but my younger self craved the sweetened mugicha that most of my friends' mothers seemed to make. I always begged my mother to make sweet mugicha, but she always refused. Some day, when I am the one making mugicha, I'll put all the sugar I want in it, I used to think. So, when I reached my teen years, and my mother was back working full time, I used to pour rivers of sugar into the mugicha. My little sisters loved it. I'm not sure if it made them more hyper than usual, though I have vague memories of my younger sister sitting on my head when she got bored.

Now that I am nominally an adult, I much prefer unsweetened mugicha. I'm growing more like my mother as I get older, a rather scary thought.

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Kagizen Yoshikusa, Kyoto

This month's Japan Times article is about Kyoto sweets.

This is a follow up to my previous post about above-safety limits levels of radioactive elements (namely, cesium) found on tea grown in Kanagawa prefecture. There seems to be some confusion over how tea is tested, due to some misleading news reports. (Note: I have updated this post several times to reflect new events.)

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Regarding the radiation contamination detected on tea leaves grown in Kanagawa prefecture.

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[From the archives. These sesame cookies with matcha icing look and taste quite dramatic. In leaf shapes they are rather spring-like, but try simple rounds or squares for year-round appeal. Originally published in April 2007.]

Flavor wise black sesame seeds aren't that different, if at all, from white or brown sesame seeds. But there is something about their dramatic black-to-grey color that is quite exciting. At the moment I'm quite enamored with black sesame seeds, and have been using them instead of the regular brown ones in everything from sauces to salads.

These leaf shaped cookies contain toasted and ground black sesame seeds, dark brown muscovado sugar, and whole wheat flour, and are decorated with matcha (powdered tea) royal icing. The sweetness is quite restrained, both in the cookie and in the icing. You are first hit by the tea-flavored, very slightly bitter icing, followed by the nutty darkness of the cookie. It's an intriguing combination. They are a wonderful accompaniment to tea, black or green, hot or iced. If the ultimate cookie to you means something very sweet and gooey you may not like these. They are quite adult cookies.

I had to shoot the pictures in a hurry, because they were disappearing faster than almost any other cookie I've made recently.

Since I don't have a leaf shaped cookie cutter, I just made a simple paper template and cut the leaves out with a knife. You can cut them out into any shape you'd like of course, though given the coloring leaves seem appropriate. Quite spring-like, in fact.

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Just about anyone who takes a trip to the historical city of Kyoto goes home bearing a box of yatsuhashi (八つ橋), a small delicate sweet that is flavored with nikki or cinnamon. While I am not from Kyoto, I get a fit of nostalgia for yatsuhashi on occasion. Fortunately they aren't that hard to make at home. Added bonuses: they are more or less fat free, gluten-free, and vegan!

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genmai-chagayu.jpgA traditional custom in Japan is to eat nanakusa gayu, or seven greens rice porridge, after the New Year's feasting period, to rest the stomach and bring the body back into balance. At any time of the year, kayu or okayu are eaten when the body is weakened by sickness, fatigue or overeating.

Chagayu or tea rice porridge is a speciality of the ancient city of Nara and the surrounding area. (Nara was briefly the capital of Japan in the 7th century, and is one of the most historical cities in the country). Chagayu is usually made with white rice, but I used brown rice (genmai) instead, plus a small amount of firm green puy lentils from France. The lentils are not traditional, but I like the contrasting texture.

This has been my breakfast for about a week now. It's not in the same category as eggs and bacon or a stack of pancakes, but I find my body needs something like this sometimes to bring it back into balance. It's filling and warming, yet feels very cleansing to the body. A cup of this has less than 100 calories, and is high in fiber.

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The lemon verbena plant that I planted last year and almost lost to a summer storm, is now firmly established and positively thriving. Whenever I pass it I can't resist rubbing a leaf, because it smells so wonderful.

Transferring that wonderful lemony scent to taste is quite easy - simply steeping it in some boiling water for about 10 to 15 minutes does the trick. This granita is infused with the aroma of lemon verbena, soured with a little lemon juice, and sweetened with a delicate acacia honey. Any light colored honey will work here instead. It makes a wonderful light dessert or palate cleanser, or cooling summer snack.

Reader Nanette has posted a great question here, about hosting a fund-raising green tea tasting party for a large group (50 people). I had to think about this for a bit, and here are some of the ideas I have come up with.

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