Hachijū-hachi-ya, the 88th day after risshun, the first day of spring, falls on May 2 in most years. It’s the day that marks the beginning of the new tea harvest season, according to tradition.
The nation’s actual tea-harvesting season begins a little earlier, starting with the southern tea fields of Kyushu and ending in June in northern regions. In any case, May and June are the time when shincha (new harvest green tea) is available and at its peak. Shincha is also called ichibancha, which means “first tea”; subsequent harvests are called nibancha (second tea), sanbancha (third tea) and so on.
Shincha is eagerly anticipated by tea lovers since it is the mildest, most flavorful tea of the year. (Another reason it may be so highly prized is because Japanese people love the “new harvest” or “first catch” of so many things, from rice to wine to fish.)
Since it’s made only with tender new tea leaves that have not been exposed to sunshine for long periods, shincha is low in catechins and caffeine, which means it has less bitter and tannic qualities. Shincha is also higher in an amino acid called theanine than later-harvest teas, so it has more umami and a subtle sweetness.
There are small differences between shincha from different regions, too. I find that the shincha grown in Kagoshima in Kyushu, for example, tends to bit a little sweeter than the shincha from Shizuoka Prefecture, which has a clean, fresh green flavor. Some people swear that the shincha from Uji in the Kyoto area is the best, but there are great tea producers in many parts of the country. It’s a lot of fun to compare and contrast shincha from various areas from year to year.
To maximize the subtle flavors inherent in shincha, it’s worthwhile taking some extra care when brewing it. The most important element is the water, which must be combined with the tea at the right temperature — it should be around 70 to 80 degrees Celsius. This brings out the umami and sweetness of the tea, not to mention that very hot water causes more catechins to be released from the tea leaves, which produces a bitter flavor.
Boil the water, then cool it down by pouring it into the tea cups first. Put two teaspoons of tea leaves per serving into the kyūsu (teapot), then add the slightly cooled (but still hot) water from the tea cups. Swirl the pot a couple of times to bring out the full flavor of the tea, then pour. A little tea leaf sediment in each cup is fine.
You can of course enjoy some refined store-bought wagashi (traditional sweets) with your tea, but one of my favorite tea accompaniments is karintō, an old-fashioned, down-to-earth sweet, popular since the Edo Period (1603-1868), that my grandmother used to make for us whenever we visited her.
You can buy karintō ready-made almost anywhere, but it’s easy to make at home. The key is to fry the dough slowly at a low temperature until each piece is crispy all the way through. I like to mix dark brown and white sugar for the coating syrup, but you can try it with just dark brown sugar if you want a more assertive flavor.
Karintō traditional sweets
Makes approximately 50 pieces
For the dough:
- 200 grams cake or pastry flour (hakurikiko)
- 25 grams granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 medium egg
- 50 milliliters milk or water
- additional flour for the work surface
- vegetable oil for frying
For the sugar syrup:
- 30 grams dark brown sugar
- 30 grams granulated sugar
- a pinch of salt
- 60 milliliters water
Making the dough: Sift the flour, sugar and baking powder together into a large bowl. Beat the egg and milk (or water) together and add the liquid to the bowl.
Mix the contents until a rough ball of dough forms, then take the dough out and knead it lightly until it becomes a smooth ball.
Wrap the dough tightly using plastic wrap, and then sit it to rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to two days at the most.
When you’re ready, take the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface.
Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out until it’s about 5 mm thick.
Next, cut the long roll of dough lengthwise into 5 mm-wide strips, and then cut each strip into 5 cm-long pieces. Roll each piece lightly between your palms.
Heat up some cooking oil to 180 C. Drop the dough into the oil (you may need to do it in batches), taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Lower the heat to 160 C (or turn the flame down low), and fry the dough for 10 minutes or until it is cooked all the way through. Drain on a rack or on paper towels.
To make the sugar syrup: Combine the sugars, salt and water in a large pan. Bring the mix to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until large bubbles form.
Add the cooked dough pieces. Keep cooking while stirring the dough pieces around until the syrup is thick and every piece is evenly coated with it.
Spread the pieces out on a large tray or baking sheet lined with kitchen parchment paper or foil, and leave until the coating hardens.
Store the karintō in an airtight tin for up to two weeks and serve with green tea.