Sharing the sweets of their home country, a group of 16 Japanese exchange students, visiting the University of Missouri for a month-long English immersion program, hosted an event with MU’s Asian Affairs Center that offered a dessert whose ingredients are the epitome of Japanese history and culture.
The students from Kokugakuin University made and served green tea ice cream, topped with Shiratama Dango (related to the more traditional mochi), red bean paste (anko), soybean powder and Kuromitsu, which one student described as “sugar slop,” but I could compare to a thinned molasses.
The students prepared the ingredients prior to the event. However, for some, like Shota Kurata, it was the first time.
“How was it?” I asked about making the ingredients for the first time. Kurata said it’s not hard to find these ingredients already made in Japan. Most of the time, one can find them pre-packaged. However, that wasn’t the case in the middle of the U.S., where some ingredients are harder to find.
“Better than I thought,” Kurata said. “We usually buy this already cooked.”
Green tea with envy
Japanese tea makers have adapted styles of the tea to fit the fast-paced lifestyle of today’s Japanese population. Ready-to-drink and canned teas of many forms – green, black and oolong – became a regular commodity in the 1980s.1 Today, green tea can also be found in forms other than as a drink. Green tea ice cream is one of the most popular flavors in Japan, and it has found a growing fan base in the U.S. over the past few decades.
The origins of tea in Japan and the Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu) date to the 9th century when religious leaders brought bricks of tea leaves back from China.1 Tea was part of the Chinese culture, considered exotic and enjoyed by the elite. Powered green tea (matcha) became very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. The practice of drinking it bridged the gap between men of different social strata in 16th century Japan.2
Tea gatherings became more significant as a social event. Matcha became a popular drink at fancy parties of high-ranking military members. Military lords, such as the Ashikaga Shogun of the 16th century, incorporated tea as a cultural pursuit, incorporating it as a form of art that was part of the warrior practice.
By this time, specialized shops in Kyoto, Japan’s imperial capital at the time, began selling tea wares and utensils. Tea practice by shop owners was different from the warriors who enjoyed it in such opulence. These shop owners often prepared tea themselves (as opposed to having a servant prepare the tea) for their guests. Their methods also were different from the style of military leaders, developing a practice that came to be known as grass-hut (sōan) style, which also differed due to the exclusive use of the more plain, Japanese-styled tea utensils (the Chinese ones – part of the arts and crafts called karamono – used by the military elite were more opulent). Incorporating the idea there were symbolic and economical value to using Japanese tea utensils helped catapult the grass-hut style of tea practice to a status considered more important that the military practice.
The reintegration of karamono within the realm of chanoyu took place in the 16th century, but the appreciation for karamono became more widespread in the early 19th century with the rising popularity of another ritual that used an unfermented green leaf-tea (Sencha)3, which is more recognizable as the tea commonly drunk today.
Green tea ice cream
- To make the green tea ice cream, Kurata suggests mixing vanilla ice cream with matcha powder.
- 200g Shiratama powder (found online through Japanese cuisine specialties site like this one.
- 190mL water
- Add water to Shiratama powder and knead it. Form into 1-inch balls.
- In a pot of boiling water, place shiratama balls into water and cook until they begin to float.
- Leave floating balls in boiling pot for 1-2 minutes.
- Remove balls and soak in ice-cold water.
- Leave in water until ready to serve. (Straining from water when plating.)
- Consider coating the balls in soybean powder or your favorite topping before serving.
Red bean paste (anko)
Consider this recipe from Epicurious.
You can order pre-made or make yourself.
Made from grilled and crushed soybeans: Find it here. Yeah Amazon!
- Pitelka, M. (Ed.). (2003). Japanese Tea Culutre: Art, history, and practice. London: RoutledgeCurzon.