Looking for a dish that comforts in the cooler, darker days of winter? A perfect combination of a simple broth and Japanese green tea, ochazuke is the dish that brings me back to my college days, when cooking in a dorm on a hotplate seemed the height of ambition. Traditionally the fortuitous combination of leftover bits of fish or other protein and cooked rice, this catch-all bowl of goodness might also use a properly made dashi (a sheet of kombu seaweed, dried bonito flakes, and water) as a base, topped off with some ribbons of velvety lightly smoked salmon. But drinking lots of green tea back in those days meant that there was always some leftover brew to pour into the bowl, mingling the grassy or toasty flavor of the tea with the other flavors of the dish. More than a way to use up leftover brewed tea, ochazuke became the perfect late-night snack back then and today the tradition continues, albeit in a more planned-out way.
Given that Japanese green tea and seafood of all kinds are a match made in culinary heaven, it isn’t surprising that this delicious, easy-to-prepare dish resides squarely in the home-cooking tradition. It’s not something you would find on the menu of a refined kaiseki multi-course-style restaurant. It’s a dish that might be considered too humble, too rough, or too impromptu. But for all that, it’s certainly worth adding to your end-of-a-busy-work-day dinner repertoire.
In my kitchen, I like to use a bit of chicken stock (homemade or purchased) combined with the simplest Japanese dashi broth as the base. If there’s some Italian risotto-style or Thai sticky rice left over – both of which have enough starch to hold together – I like to compact it into rough patties, maybe 3 inches around by ½ inch thick. Then, I sauté them slowly and carefully in a bit of olive oil to crisp and brown the surfaces, allowing each rice cake to crisp on one side before attempting to turn it over to brown the other side. This crisp rice cake then becomes the main event in my own cross-cultural version of ochazuke. And if I have some wild-caught salmon that has been grilled or pan sautéed from dinner the night before, it, too, will enter the mix, along with a tangle of thinly sliced scallion greens and a scattering of toasted sesame seeds, raising the elegance factor up a notch. For the tea pour-over nowadays, I tend to use houjicha, with its deeply roasted flavor, as the element that ties together all of the other elements of the dish in a nourishing, but simple, package. Since the dish is really meant to be improvised based on what morsels you have on hand, you really won’t even need a recipe. But if you’re casting about for one, Elizabeth Andoh’s books on Japanese cooking are a good place to start.