Serious Eats: Drinks
Tea Time: Genmaicha
Green tea with rice krispies in it? You bet-cha.
Genmaicha, having spent long-suffering generations in the category of poor folks' tea, has come into its own in more tea-enlightened years. The unique blend of toasted rice and green tea is one of the more balanced, accessible green teas going.
A good tea rarely comes without a fable, and the origin stories of how roasted grains of rice fell into a cup of green tea leaves vary. The bloodiest of legends (far more interesting than wise Japanese merchants seeking to stretch their low-grade teas with filler) involves a peckish servant, whose "snack he was saving for later" in his kimono sleeve dribbled crispy brown rice puffs into a cup of green tea. Though the servant lost his head, the nutty-grassy mix of puffed rice and tea lingered on Japanese tongues long enough to become a worldwide phenomenon.
Or was it simply a practical way to stretch a spoonful of tea? This is more likely, and indeed, Genmaicha's original incarnations leaned heavily towards the economically pragmatic: bancha, a late-season picking of green tea leaves, has traditionally been relied upon as the tea base for genmaicha. The roasted-rice flavor of genmaicha nicely offsets any of the bancha leaves' less refined characteristics.
Nowadays, however, genmaicha can be easily found comprised of the oft-savored sencha, a spring-and-summer harvested green tea calibrated by many tea blenders to a popular, smooth and flavorful taste profile. The combination of the more elegant sencha with the toasty notes of roasted unbleached brown rice forms an odd, sort-of-healthy-tasting-yet-rich, smooth tea that's reliably pleasing.
Though it's argued that the nutrients in the brown rice enhance the already bountiful health properties of green tea, genmaicha shouldn't be taken too seriously. Tea purveyors allow some of the grains of rice to actually pop like popcorn; it's a pretty fun, tasty cup to sip.
Try steeping your genmaicha for 2 to 3 minutes at 175 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit and experiment to find the green, toasty sweet spot you like best.