Growing up, there was nothing I loved more for breakfast than a bowl of sugary, crunchy cereal drenched in cold milk. It wasn’t only the sweet taste and colorful cartoon characters that entranced me; I also loved the ritual involved: unhinging the cardboard flap, rustling the plastic bag, hearing the tinkle tinkle of wheat flakes and puffed rice tumbling into the bowl, poring over the product-specific recipes printed on the side of the box. Ultimately, it was the process I loved, not the product.
As you might expect, my taste for cereal has since diminished, but there’s still part of me that craves breakfast food served in a bowl. In Japan, the answer to such a craving would almost certainly be ochazuke, an incredibly simple dish of hot tea over rice with a sprinkling of savory garnishes.
It sounds almost mind-numbingly simple, and in fact it is: you take some rice, place it in a bowl, and pour over the tea that you were planning to drink with breakfast anyway. You can use the rice from last night’s dinner, provided it hasn’t turned cold and crunchy in the refrigerator, and the toppings can be whatever you have on hand. In my case, these were shiozake (salted salmon), umeboshi, shiso, and black sesame seeds. (The other dishes here are kinpira gobō, hiyayakko, and kuromame. Needless to say, the ochazuke stole the show.)
Whoever first made ochazuke likely did so by accident. Tea and rice, those two cornerstones of Japan’s cuisine and culture (not to mention the country’s landscape), are traditionally served together at the end of a meal, along with pickles and miso soup. Perhaps some grains of rice were sticking stubbornly to the bottom of the bowl, as is their wont, and the best way to loosen them was with a bit of hot tea. And as long as the tea was in the rice, why not add the pickles, too? After all, the dish would need some crunch and piquancy. (It is worth mentioning here that the “zuke” 「漬け」 in ochazuke forms the root of the words tsukeru - to soak or pickle – and tsukemono - literally “pickled things.”)
Or perhaps ochazuke’s roots lie in breakfast: the leftover rice from the previous evening, plus the tea and pickles one would normally consume at the morning meal. Whatever its origins, ochazuke is a testament to resourcefulness and ingenuity and, like so much Japanese home cooking, it is unabashedly humble yet quietly elegant. Above all, it is deeply nourishing: a warm breakfast on a cloudy morning, a light yet sustaining lunch, or simply a comforting snack to ease a bout of pre-spring blues.
Ochazuke - お茶漬け
1 cup warm Japanese rice
1 small filet shiozake (salted salmon), cooked and flaked, optional*
Freshly brewed green tea.**
Place the rice in a bowl and top with salmon, if using, and other toppings. Pour over the tea and enjoy.
*Japanese markets usually sell pre-salted salmon filets labeled “shiozake.” You can also distinguish shiozake by its color: thanks to the salt-curing process, the flesh is usually a deeper red than uncured fish. However, you can salt your own salmon just as easily at home using Maki’s instructions at Just Bento. Alternately, canned salmon will work, too. Ochazuke prepared without fish is equally delicious.
**Genmaicha also works particularly well here. If you’d prefer not to have caffeine, you can substitute mugicha (barley tea).