Made with tea poured over a bowl of cooked rice, ochazuke is Japan's underrated gift to tea-infused cuisine, since it really brings out the flavor of the tea! Learn how to make this cozy, tea-forward favorite with a range of Japanese green teas.
If pouring good tea over rice sounds a little odd at first, don't worry. I felt the same way when I first heard about ochazuke. It's a traditional Japanese tea rice dish that's made by pouring tea over plain white rice, kind of like a porridge (but better!).
And while I know that "lunch" isn't exactly the first thing we're thinking of when we brew up a batch of tea, hear me out on this one.
Because of all the tea-infused recipes I've ever tried, ochazuke is king.
I've tried lots of tea recipes, but no other tea dish actually highlights the tea as much as ochazuke. It actually matters what kind of tea you use here, and yes, you'll actually taste it in the final product -- and isn't that great news when a tea recipe actually tastes like tea?
The secret behind ochazuke is its simplicity: traditionally, it's just white rice, a handful of toppings, and toasty green tea poured over it all. It's a fool-proof formula that also gives us a lot of freedom to tinker, because while the traditional ochazuke recipe is usually made with Japanese green tea, you can try making it with any tea you'd like, as long as you use the right rice and toppings that complement the tea's flavor profile.
But before we get fancy, let's get down to the basics. Here's what you need to know.
Ochazuke (お茶漬け) is a traditional dish from Japan, and it literally means "submerged in tea", since, well, you submerge the rice in the tea. It's not the kind of thing you'd find in a Japanese restaurant though, since it's really meant to be a quick, easy dish you make at home.
Simple, cozy, and super nostalgic.
Originally, ochazuke came about as a way to use of day-old rice: basically, someone figured out that you could pour hot tea over yesterday's cold rice and make a really dope breakfast, and that was that. There's also the added bonus of being able to scoop up every single grain of rice with the tea, so ochazuke developed a connotation for resourcefulness and practicality.
Before that people did something similar with plain hot water poured rice, but this version with tea became popular around the 1600s, around the same time that tea culture really started kicking up in Japan. The famous haiku poet Matsuo Basho, who lived around the same time, was said to be a big fan of both tea and ochazuke.
Today, ochazuke is something people would whip up when they're in need of something quick and comforting - kind of like a more wholesome instant ramen, and often just as convenient!
There are even instant ochazuke packets you can buy at the store if you REALLY want to keep it simple (more on that later), if that gives you a sense of how down to earth this dish should be.
I'd say that most folks in Japan aren't even really thinking about which tea to use for ochazuke: whatever's in the cupboard will do, and the few specialty ochazuke restaurants that exist mostly use broth instead of tea and focus mostly on the toppings. But there's certainly a few joints that are as tea crazy as we are, especially in tea producing areas like Kyoto, where vendors can use it as a way to showcase their signature teas and cuisines.
Like many Japanese dishes, you'll find different kinds of ochazuke in different regions. Shizuoka is famous for ochazuke topped with grilled eel, while in Kyoto it’s known as bubuzuke, for which Kyoto's famous homemade pickles are the topping of choice.
There's even an old saying about bubuzuke in Kyoto: that if your host asks you if you'd like some, especially after a long night of socializing, it's a subtle signal that it's time to leave. Whether or not that's true today, I'm not sure, and it seems like a story told about Kyoto's super polite culture rather than something that's actually done today.
If anyone's willing to test this out in Kyoto, be my guest -- that's one tea experiment I'm too scared to do!
Ochazuke can also be prepared both hot and cold, depending on your preference and the season: cold ochazuke, for example, can be served during the summer as a light and refreshing meal by using lukewarm or chilled tea.
Regardless of what ochazuke you try to make, remember that it's a pretty down to earth dish: something to make at home with any leftover ingredients in as little as 5-10 minutes.
And while you can also use any tea you'd like, Japanese green tea is an easy choice here.
Bonus points if you can use any random, leftover green teas you picked up that one time at the grocery store. This is the perfect time to use them, and even green teas past their prime will work just fine since they'll get some help from the rice and toppings.
Let's get started.
At its very core, ochazuke is as simple as it gets. Cooked rice; toppings; tea. You can even whip it up right at the tea table as long as you have some leftover rice on hand, along with any basic toppings, which we'll cover in a bit.
Like many simple dishes though, you gotta have the right ingredients. Start with the rice, which is traditionally rice from the day before, but you can use fresh rice, too.
You can re-heat the rice if you want a super steamy ochazuke, or let it cool for a refreshing summer-style ochazuke.
Now, the best rice for ochazuke is short grain rice, the type that's often used for sushi, followed closely by medium grain rice. Both types contain a compound called amylopectin, a starch that's released during the cooking process and that makes particularly soft and sticky rice.
Amylopectin is the same compound that makes other brothy rice dishes, like Chinese congee and Italian risotto, so creamy and satisfying to eat. It's no coincidence that Japanese ochazuke has that same deliciously satisfying vibe.
Short grain and medium grain rices are often interchangeable, and you can use either for a good ochazuke. You can identify them by their smaller, more rounded grains.
Long grain rice, on the other hand, is longer and cooks up with distinct grains. This type of rice contains more amylose than amylopectin, which doesn't release as much during the cooking process. This leads to more dry and chewy rice, perfect for holding up to Indian curries or sauce but not quite right for ochazuke.
It also doesn't re-hydrate well, so pouring hot tea over long-grain rice will get you some crunchy ochazuke. Personally, I'd hold off until you can find some short grain rice: it really makes a huge difference!
Next up is the star of the show: the tea!
For many other tea recipes, it takes a super strong infusion and TONS of tea to get the flavor to show up in the final result. In this case, though, all you're dealing with is plain, fluffy rice and simple toppings, so just brew the tea as you would normally. The tea flavor should come through just fine.
The tea you choose is super important for ochazuke recipes, since it not only serves as a broth but it also permeates through every grain of rice, making it the star of the entire dish.
Technically, ochazuke is assembled with toppings before you pour in the tea, so that any flavor from the toppings gets infused into the entire dish. You can certainly do this if you know what you’re doing. But if you’re like me and you have no idea what houjicha-soaked rice is gonna taste like, go ahead and pour the tea over the rice first to get an idea of what you're working with.
Then, after you know how your chosen tea tastes with the rice, you'll have a better idea of which toppings to use to make an all-around kickass dish.
Again, the type of tea you choose is important here, and you can switch it up depending on if you want a light, refreshing ochazuke or something more smoky and satisfying. You got options!
Any tea can be used for ochazuke, in theory, but let's start with the classics: Japanese green teas.
Japanese green teas have the benefit of already being well-suited to the flavors that are sought-after in Japanese cuisine: they have that savory, seaweedy thing going on, with some toastiness (as in genmaicha, houjicha, and some sencha) and umami (as in kukicha and gyokuro) to keep things interesting.
All these flavors do well with rice, so you don’t have to go all tea sommelier here yet as long as you go for Japanese green teas.
Houjicha, genmaicha, and sencha are most commonly used in Japan, but kukicha and gyokuro can also work in interesting ways!
Here's how each tea can change up your ochazuke.
Genmaicha is a classic, toasty Japanese tea that's made of green tea leaves mixed with popped brown rice or barely. It's sometimes called "popcorn tea" or "toasted brown rice tea". Genmaicha is often made from older tea leaves, which are naturally less bitter already. Add in the sweet, toasted rice in the blend and you have a super easy, toasty tea to work with!
It has a rich, golden color that looks really inviting in a warm bowl of ochazuke!
Genmaicha's robust, no nonsense flavors really do so well in ochazuke, especially if you’re looking to make something with more bold, savory toppings like grilled eel, flaked fish, or pickles. (I personally love salmon ochazuke with genmaicha!)
Houjicha makes for a darker, more rustic ochazuke, with its smoky, sweet, and slightly tart flavors. It's a unique among Japanese green teas since it's been roasted, making it naturally low in caffeine and high in sweetness -- so if you're looking to make some late-night dinner, I'd recommend using houjicha so your dinner doesn't keep you awake
I absolutely love houjicha ochazuke, it's probably my favorite. In my tests it seems to do surprisingly well with heavy sauces, like soy sauce and ponzu, and it can stand up to hefty toppings like mushrooms and grilled meats that would otherwise overtake more delicate teas.
And the flavor of the houjicha REALLY comes through! Pair it with earthy, umami toppings for a super cozy ochazuke, or pour it chilled over rice for a sweeter take on the dish. Either way, it'll be super satisfying.
Sencha ochazuke is an interesting one, since there are so many styles of grades of sencha that can really change up the outcome of your dish. It's basically Japan's standard green tea, but while sencha is super common in Japan (and likely used often for ochazuke), I'm willing to bet many of us have nicer sencha than most Japanese households.
And that means you'll have more room to play around. ;)
Depending on the specific style, sencha can be warm, umami, and seaweed-like or fresh, bittersweet, and a little floral -- so choose your sencha carefully!
You might even get to practice a little tea-and-food pairing if you use one: pick a savory, deep-steamed sencha for more robust ochazuke (I love furikake with these!), and more delicate, light-steamed sencha for more refreshing ochazuke (delicious with light pickles).
Sencha is also more delicate than both genmaicha and houjicha, so be sure to brew carefully: you want to avoid getting bitter green tea in your ochazuke, right?
Now we're getting into some fancy territory.
Kukicha, which literally means "stem tea", is much less common in ochazuke in Japan, just since it's not as popular as the other three teas. It's made kind of as a by-product, by sorting out the stems from other more standard green teas.
It's super popular for cold brew tea, and I think it has a ton of potential to make really interesting ochazuke, with that bright, vibrant character and almost citrusy flavor!
Since it's made just with the stems of the tea plant, which contain less bitter catechins and more fragrant and umami compounds, kukicha makes for a poppy, zesty, and lightly umami base that does well with pickles or citrusy flavors. Add some yuzu or ponzu sauce for added zest, or use kukicha in summertime ochazuke (brewed cold) for an extra refreshing experience.
Even further into fancy territory now. Gyokuro is Japan's most uncommon and expensive green tea, and even in Japanese households you’ll be hard-pressed to find gyokuro unless one of the residents is a hardcore tea drinker.
It's also too pricey (and too valuable) to use in ochazuke most of the time. Kind of like using a precious vintage wine for cooking risotto, most people would probably think that ochazuke gyokuro is a little over the top. But if you can keep your ochazuke super simple and minimalist, I think you can still let the incredible flavors of gyokuro shine through and create a really special experience.
Gyokuro is special since unlike most Japanese green teas, it spends the last 4 weeks of its life under dark cloth shade. This causes the plant to basically freak out a bit and be unable to produce polyphenols, which make up the grassy, bittersweet flavors in green tea. Instead, the leaves maintain high amino acid levels. Translation? You get a super savory, super umami, downright freaking brothy tea.
A cup of gyokuro can be a little like drinking butter. Not everyone's into that. But if you are, then you could probably use gyokuro to make a show-stopping ochazuke. Use a light hand on the toppings and seasonings to allow the gyokuro to shine, and enjoy what's possibly the most decadent ochazuke on the planet at any given time. ;)
It’s certainly possible to use other teas for ochazuke, like Chinese green tea, Korean green tea, or teas from a different category altogether. I haven’t done a lot of testing on that front, and it’d probably take some trial and error to figure out which teas are well-suited for ochazuke, but the possibilities are endless here.
Our friend Christine S. used a sticky rice sheng pu'erh to make a mango sticky rice ochazuke, for example, which sounds just freaking kickass. Go experiment!
Once you've tried the rice combined with the tea, it's easier to pick toppings to build out the dish, and from there you could use virtually any toppings you want! It's hard to go wrong with the classics though:
Most of these can be found at any Asian supermarket, or even made at home. If you can find these toppings pre-packaged, you could whip up a bowl of ochazuke in just 5-10 minutes!
Even simpler, you can sometimes find pre-packaged ochazuke seasoning for about a dollar, or around 25 cents a bag. The packets contain umami boosters like MSG, kelp powder, and dashi stock, in addition to already having green tea powder in them, and all you'd need to do is to sprinkle it over some rice and have some tea ready, and you're ready to go.
I personally prefer building the toppings myself, but these packets are honestly pretty tasty! Sometimes I'll use both a premade packet and some toppings when I'm just needing a quick fix.
You don’t have to stick to traditional Japanese ingredients either: I’ve tried using fried mushrooms and seared chicken as toppings and as long as you’re not overwhelming the tea flavor, try almost anything that goes well with rice.
To serve ochazuke, I like picking dishes that complement the color of the tea. It’s typically eaten with chopsticks in Japan, with the leftovers slurped up like soup, but a spoon makes it even easier to eat.
Ochazuke is sooooo easy, simple, and honestly designed for long afternoon tea sessions. If you’re armed with the right toppings, you don’t even have to leave the tea table for a tea-inspired snack. Why not give it a try?
If you're having trouble with your ochazuke, here are a few potential solutions.
Enjoy creating something amazing and actually tea-flavored. ;) Cheers!
Hey there, I'm Rie and I'm a professional tea nerd. I share the techniques and strategies we've used to seriously level up our tea game so you can get super confident with tea too!