Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Umami on My Mind

With perhaps one of the last snowfall of the season and its attendant powdery patina still on the ground, E and I ushered in spring with our cups of the sakura-cha, a tisane made from salted cherry blossoms. This was the first tea served at a recent tea-tasting at our favorite local Japanese restaurant, Nanakusa.

Under the stern eyes of Hello Kitty -militaristically imposing in her bearing- our group of tea enthusiasts gathered around our hosts, Richard and Yoko, as they offered us cups of the sakura-cha. I held the delicate teacup in my hands and gazed at the lone cherry blossom reposing on the bottom of the cup and marveled at this study in fragile beauty.

I sipped the pale liquor slowly as a burst of a briny, floral flavor cascaded over my palate. It was a wonderful revelation. From a plate cradling an array of o-kashi (bite-sized savories and sweets traditionally served with tea), I took an artfully shaped ginger cracker, the shoga senbei. The melange of flower, egg, sugar, and ginger melded together seamlessly.

Carrying forward the briny motif, our hosts next served the kobucha, a tisane made from the kelp seaweed. Its savory nature had me conjuring up a steamy bowl of miso soup to accompany tamari-flavored rice crackers.

My mind, started on its trajectory of musings on savories, it was only natural that the tea which came next was the soba-cha, roasted buckwheat steeped in boiled water. Its taste was one of nutty toastiness.

After we had lingered on the three tisanal amuse-bouches, we were ready for the tasting of green teas. The green teas served were bancha, kukicha, genmaicha, hojicha, sencha, gyokuro, and matcha- these words were like a tripping waterfall splashing over pebbles.
It was the first time I tasted bancha in earnest; its vegetal flavor was bolder than that of the more familiar sencha- this did not surprise me as bancha is made from the tougher leaves harvested later during the season than those used to make sencha.
The more nuanced sencha segued beautifully into the penultimate tasting of the evening with the Uji gyokuro. I savored the gyokuro's umami nature- umami, denoting the ineffably rich mouthfeel imparted by the amino acid, glutamate- while Hello Kitty was now practically beaming with benevolence from her corner as if giving us her benediction for the chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) which came next.

I watched our hostess perform an abbreviated chanoyu, appreciating the grace and utility inherent in each of her gesture. Each movement seemed to flow into the next, mannered, but at the same time, effortlessly natural.

The higashi, a soft sweet candy served with matcha, melted in my mouth as I gratefully received the bowl of matcha into my hands. Its familiar brothiness was soothing and bracing. With its warmth suffusing me, E and I thanked our gracious hostess for a wonderful evening and we were soon enveloped in a clear moonlit night.


Anne said...

Wow. Is your hostess looking for any new friends? If so, please pass my name along.

cha sen said...


I will let her know that she has a new friend!