Hot green tea is served at sushi restaurants across the world. Here in Japan, the tea traditionally given to customers for free at local sushi restaurants is called agari (あがり) by the Japanese sushi chefs. It may surprise you that this tea is not a high quality Japanese tea. Rather, it is made from konacha, or the residual dust, leaf particles, and tiny bits of stem left behind from the processing of more expensive teas like gyokuro or sencha. It is a low quality tea derived from high quality leaves, the leftovers if you will. Agari is a bitter tea that is said to complement the taste of sushi very well. Not to be mistaken for wasabi powder, it is often available for self service at many inexpensive sushi bars.
The tea found in sushi restaurants is usually extremely hot, hotter than your average green tea. This is because the hot water and green tea both work to cleanse the tongue and remove the oily reside that can be left behind from the fish. Each piece of sushi has a very distinct but delicate taste. It is necessary to refresh your palate in order to fully appreciate the fresh flavor being offered to you by the next piece. In addition to green tea, marinated ginger, called gari, is also served as a way to refresh your taste buds so they are ready for the next flavor.
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The History of Agari Tea
The terminology of this tea has a fascinating, yet somewhat confusing, history dating back to the red light districts of the Edo period. To fully understand the intricacies of this word, let’s learn some Japanese! The most common meaning of the word agari (上がり）is “to go up.” In a similar way, it can also refer to the “goal” of a boardgame or “to enter/step in” a place such as a home or shop. Customers of Edo period pleasure districts would almost always be greeted with a cup of tea. A common misconception is that the first was called odebana (お出花) literally meaning “served flower” and the last tea was called agaribana (上がり花). Actually, these terms could be interchangeable and, overtime, agari came to symbolise the tea we know and love today.
Interestingly, there is an old Japanese proverb “Ocha wo hiku” (お茶を引く) which literally means “grinding tea” but is a metaphor for wasting time. Prostitutes were said to be grinding tea if the did not have any customers. For this reason, these women would refer to the tea as agari tea as a way to bring luck and welcome customers to “step in” to their business.
Today, agari simply means green tea but it is strictly used as sushi bar language. However, visitors may want to be careful when using this word at a sushi restaurant in Japan. The Japanese language is strange in that there are some words that should only be said by certain people. For example, sushi chefs have their own vocabulary and, sometimes, it can be seen as impolite for the customer to use these words. Agari is one of these special words. To say “agari please,” can sometimes come off as rude. Instead, you might want to ask for “ocha please.” One reason for this is that a customer asking for agari may suggest they are finishing their meal because that is one of the many connotations of this word. While no one will be angry at you for making this easy mistake, it’s better to just avoid the cultural blunder and ask for tea without using sushi shop lingo.
Other Teas Offered
While you’re most likely to find agari tea at your average sushi restaurant in Japan, some restaurants do have other options. Sencha and Genmaicha also go well with the taste of sushi. Their grassy flavors offer a pleasant base for eating different types of sushi. In cheaper conveyor belt sushi restaurants (kaitenzushi) what is most often found is powdered sencha or genmaicha (don’t mistake it for matcha!). In more expensive restaurants, gyokuro or high quality sencha teas are offered.
Genmaicha is brown rice green tea.
This tea is common in sushi restaurants and is also easily accessible if you want to have your own sushi party! This tea has a bitter flavor and should not be left to steep for too long. In general, an individual serving (about 5 ounces of water) should use 3 grams of leaves. Steep at 176°F (80°C) for just one minute.
Tea: 3-5 grams, Time: 1 minute, Water: 1 cup at 176°F (80°C). On second steeping, decrease the time to 20-30 seconds.
Yunomi has good collection of Genmaichas from Japan
Sencha is the ultimate pairing for sushi
Particularly mid-grade sencha with a strong but not overwhelming astringency balanced with a bit of umami, the taste complements the salt/vinegar taste of sushi like a matcha made in heaven. While temperatures and steeping times depend on the quality of your product, in general sencha should be steeped at 158°F (70°C°C) for no longer than 1 minute.
Tea: 3-5 grams, Time: 1 minute, Water: 1 cup at 158°F (70°C). On second steeping, decrease the time to 20-30 seconds.
Yunomi has a good collection of Senchas from Japan
Gyokuro is piece of luxury
A high quality Japanese tea that may be found in upscale sushi restaurants. All green teas come from the same plant (Camellia sinensis). The different flavor and quality variations available are mostly due to the way the tea is grown, when/how it is harvested, and how it is processed (tea plant type, region, terrain, and weather are also factors, but more minor). Gyokuro tea’s characteristic quality is the intense umami (savory) flavor resulting from shading the leaves from sunlight for about 3 weeks before harvesting. This covering removes about 85% of the sunlight the plant otherwise would have received preventing the plant from creating bitter-tasting catechin and allowing it to retain the amino acid theanine resulting in the umami flavor.
Yunomi has a good collection of Gyokuros from all over Japan.
When brewing Gyokuro tea, it is crucial to lower the water temperature down to 122°F – 140°F (50°C – 60°C). Many people make the mistake of brewing it at the same hot temperature as sencha. A hot temperature will extract the bitter catechin flavor from the delicate leaves overwhelming the umami flavor that is so prized. In general, Gyokuro also requires more leaves per serving than sencha and 1/3 the amount of water for the first cup of umami syrup. You can always change the amounts to suit your personal taste.
Tea: 5 grams, Time: 2-3 minutes, Water: 1/3 of a cup at 122°F – 140°F (50°C – 60°C). On second steeping, you can increase the temperature and water to 1 cup to enjoy it as a sencha.
Green tea goes so well with sushi, many sushi purists swear not to drink anything else with their meal. The next time you visit your favorite sushi bar or Japanese restaurant, skip the sake and sip some tea with your meal!