There are times when you buy a type of tea because it looks like a challenge rather than because it looks inviting.
I have to confess this was the case when, last April, as I browsed a small ‘everything for 100 yen’ shop in Tokyo, my eye fell on this particular item and I looked up the translation of the ingredients. Gyokuroen Ume Konbucha: Kelp tea wtih Japanese plum, tea from Kombu seaweed.
.Despite reading gyokuroen and ‘cha’ (tea), I was still a little bit uncertain – I had never heard of kelp tea before – so I chased down a shop assistant and, with a display of my nonexistant Japanese skills, pointed at the packet and asked: “Cha?” just to make sure. When she confirmed, I promptly purchased it, as well as another orange packet of pure kelp tea, without any added flavours.
Life gets distracting, however, and the Italian summer is hot, so it wasn’t until this morning that I finally sat down to taste this tea, having breakfast with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in quite a while.
The little envelopes contain small granules, not powder as I would expect. After mixing it in hot water, the result is what looks like ever-so-slightly murky transparent water (a bit like Miso soup) with the palest green tinge, brought by the algae powder suspended in it, with pale pink flecks floating at the top (that look like dried tuna but are, I would guess, plum blossom petals) and a white-ish foam coating the top.
All in all, a not too inviting look, I have to confess, which brings to mind a kind of light soup rather than tea. And in fact, I suspect that this product might be used for more than just tea: if you look at the back of the packet, it would seem that there are instructions to cook in different ways. In fact, I think Konbucha is also used the way we Italians use bouillon cubes, as food flavouring and occasionally to replace salt with something more tasty:
However, I was sadly forced to conclude that kelp tea – at least with added plum blossoms; I will soon try the pure kelp tea and make sure – is really not my… cup of tea. The scent is salty and very, very heavy; it reminds me of seawater stagnating on the rocky piers where I used to look for crabs as a child. I remember the strong smell of the small seawater puddles, that smelled like algae and little dead shellfish; well, sniffing this tea makes me feel like I’m about to take a sip from those puddles, except boiling hot.
However, provided I hold my breath as I bring the mug to my lips, the first taste is not that bad. It’s hot, salty water, with a slightly bitter taste. It’s not too different from simple miso soup, which I really like (and my trip-mates loathed, so every time we went to a restaurant, I ended up with five or six miso cups lined next to my plate!). However, it gets worse after swallowing the mouthful down: the aftertaste spreads at the back of my mouth, heavy and sickly-sweet in a way that really doesn’t match the salty taste. That sweet bout is completely out of place according to my mouth, and it ends up being simply heavy and nauseating.
Japanese cuisine has, obviously, very different flavors and combinations compared to Italian cuisine – every country has their trademark style, after all! And while my trip-mates struggled with the salty algae and pickled vegetables and bitter sauces and variety of savoury soups, I found myself right at home with the light, uncomplicated cuisine, the soy and rice and and light ingredients, to the point where I had heartburn for a week when I returned to Norhtern Italy and its heavy meals, its bread and pasta and roasts and generally heavier, more elaborate cuisine.
But this time, this time I have to admit defeat: my palate just can’t make its peace with the kelp-plum combination.