Bearing with Boring Ol’ Barley

Sometimes the Asian need to separate themselves – besides by large bodies of water – takes on epically stupid proportions. The worst of which concerns an herbal “tea” that goes by three completely different names. And it’s not even an uncommon infusion. The target of ire is roasted barley.

Koreans call it “boricha”, the Chinese call it “maicha”, and the Japanese know it as “mugicha”. I don’t think I’ve encountered so disparate a naming scheme in my life. Okay, if linguistics is a factor, fine, I’ll accept that. But I don’t think so. After all, the word for “tea” doesn’t deviate much between the three languages. It’s universally referred to as “cha”. So what makes bori-mugi-mai-cha so damn special? I decided to investigate.

Barley is used for many purposes; the most common being culinary. As a drink, it’s sold year-round in Japan, and marketed as a summer season cooler in Korea. Barely mixed with chicory is marketed as a coffee substitute. It is also one of the principle ingredients in beer. Mmmmmm…beer.

What were we talking about? Oh yeah, barley.

I had to try this multitasking grain for myself. On the same Uwajimaya trip where I picked up Mamaki, I ran into scores of barley tea offerings. That settled the “rarity” debate. In typical “poor bastard” fashion, I went with the cheapest and largest I could find; a huge-arse package with at least thirty barley bags in it. Awesomely tacky? You betcha.

The individual bags were a pyramid design, closely resembling the ones put out by PG Tips. (Think British Lipton). Inside the bag were a ton of barley seeds.  On closer inspection of the mesh, they looked like popcorn seeds; smelled like it too. The aroma was roasty like coffee beans but also possessed a buttery quality.

Steeping it was a mild chore. I dunked it into a normal, boring 12oz cup without thinking of the sheer size of the bag. It took up half the mug, easily. I also lacked the foresight to cover the cup initially. This was easily (and stupidly) rectified by putting a tea tin over it. However, I almost spoiled the batch of Lapsang Souchong inside. If one can spoil Lapsang.

The liquor darkened to a woody brown with a roasty aroma that reminded me of coffee/almond ice cream, but without the sweetness factor. Taste-wise, it was something else. I could see why it was marketed as a coffee substitute, for that was the closest thing I compared it to. My brother/roommate had the same opinion.

In short, was it worth the severe name disparity between three major Asian countries?  I don’t think so, but then again, I’m probably making a big deal over nothing. I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to monikers. On the inside, I’m yelling, “Friggin’ pick one!” On the outside, I’m sipping from a cup on a couch.

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Friday, November 26th, 2010 Steep Stories No Comments

Food Fusion Fail

Having a “what-does-this-button-do?” reaction to the world is no way to live, but sometimes – just sometimes – it livens things up. I’m generally a pretty safe (to the point of cowardly) person. Risk-taking is not a part of my dossier. However, every once in a while, in my own little way, I step out of the packing-corn-laden box to try something new. Usually, it involves food.

About a year ago, a “test” of sorts was inspired by a random Facebook conversation with Mr. Wind-Up Bird. The lucky S.O.B was living in Japan at the time and bragged – in status-update form – that he was having some yuzu-flavored tea-in-a-jar. Naturally, my ears perked at this. I had tea-in-a-jar before. A trip to the Stash Tea Store garnered an impulse buy of some pomegranate Korean Jar Tea.

The concept behind jarred tea alone was fascinating. In essence, it was a gelatin, syrupy-sweet, glob of pure carb-crash that one simply mixed in with hot water. As I understood it, most jarred teas were thinly-sliced fruit pieces (or whatever namesake flavor was used) combined with honey. I rather enjoyed the pomegranate one but hadn’t had the urge to try others. Yujacha – the Korean name for yuzu-fruit jarred tea – peaked my interest. Of course, anything involving small citrus fruit had that effect.

Photo from Wikipedia

Photo from Wikipedia

I jokingly responded to Wind-Up Bird’s update by daring him to use the citron tea as a topping for green tea ice cream, or I would beat him to it. He responded with a chuckle (I think? I couldn’t tell. It’s Facebook), said it sounded delicious, but gave me the proverbial “have at it”.

And so I did.

My first and only stop was at a Korean supermarket within car-shot of my work. I knew they carried a wide assortment of jarred teas, and I was confident they’d have yujacha as well. I searched up and down the aisles for a good fifteen minutes. Nothing. Dejected, I settled on some saenggang cha – honey ginger tea. It looked about the same color.

After I found the green tea ice cream, I left. My wallet was hurting. All of this for a dare I made…to myself.

First, I decided to try the honey ginger tea by itself. I took a teaspoon of the jelly, added it to a 12oz cup of boiled water, then stirred. I was mildly disgusted with the fact that small flakes of ginger existed within the honey-laden concoction. They didn’t dissipate as readily as the honey either, rather, the yellow-ish tendrils swam as I stirred like blonde hair follicles. Quite revolting.

I took a sip, and – to my “not surprise” – it tasted like ginger but with a creamy texture. The liquid was a bit on the viscous side, proof that the honey still put up a fight against the hot water. The flavor wasn’t bad, it was just…well…ginger-y. Not exactly my favorite of tisanes. I doubted it would mix well with the green tea ice cream, but a dare was a dare – even self-motivated ones.

Green tea ice cream is a love-it or hate-it affair. A lot of people can’t stand the taste of it. And it’s not a complicated creation. Someone took normal (possibly vanilla) ice cream and whipped it to hell with some matcha (powdered green tea). The result is a dessert that Dr. Seuss would be proud of, and it tastes like frozen sweet grass. I like the stuff, but it’s an acquired taste.

I had a fair idea what a ginger green tea tasted like. Tazo made one, and – boy – did it taste like burning! A tad strong on the ginger aspect; great aftertaste, though. From past experience as a tea reviewer, I knew that ginger only blended well if it was done faintly. A light ginger presence went a long way. The same was true in cooking with ginger, in my opinion. According to Ayurvedic practices, ginger was a “hot” herb, which explained why it always gave me heartburn if I had too much. I wondered how well it would mix with something cold.

In short, I thought it mixed quite well at first. The grassy-sweet flavor of the green tea meshed magnificently with the honeyfied ginger. The flakes of the herb even acted as a welcomed garnish. Problem was, a few bites down, the “hot” herb made short work of the ice cream. The concoction melted into a yellow-green, amorphous mass in the bowl. After a few minutes, it was nothing more than sweet milk soup. I couldn’t stand the texture of it then.

In summary, this food risk was a mixed bag. I didn’t faint, vomit, or lose an appendage. But I did have a craving for a lukewarm glass of water. Badly.

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Wednesday, November 17th, 2010 Steep Stories No Comments

I work for tea money.


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