In other words black soybean tea; possibly my most treasured discovery during my sojourn in Japan. It all began one cold spring trip to Hakone-the mountain escape for Tokyoites for a bit of rest and relaxation. My boyfriend and I were visiting to try out my first onsen (hot natural springs/baths) and experience the calmer, more picturesque side of Japan which had somewhat evaded me during my first few weeks in Tokyo. We stayed in a traditional inn known as a ryokan in the freezing temperatures of the high altitude location. I had foolishly left Tokyo in a summer dress, leggings and a light jacket not drawing upon years of geography education: that at higher elevations, temperatures are lower. This began to dawn on me as we took the series of cable cars and funiculars to reach our Hakone getaway, and my feet began to lose sensation. This was followed by acute observations of ‘Hmmm I see snow on those trees. That’s odd…’ and culminated in a full blown blizzard in the final stage of our cable car journey, underscoring that I was somewhat under- dressed. This heralded the largest sock purchase I have ever embarked upon to shield my bare feet. Ohayo my new ‘Hello Kitty’ footwear collection.
The arrival at our inn which had at least 4 onsens was a very welcome facility in our lodgings. Within 5 minutes of arrival I was happily defrosting in the hot baths and massaging life back into my blue toes. Well
thawed and sporting a lobster red glow from my superfluous soaking in the onsen I proceeded onto the tea facilities in our room. A good selection of which among them featured a wonderful smoky, subtly sweet -tasting tea: Kuromame-Cha. It was love at first sip. We were served it again after dinner, upon which we asked the ryokan owners what this wonderful concoction was. The ryokan sold a number of products in their reception area, including this tea, which we did not consider buying thinking it would be easily available in retail stores in Japan. How misguided we were.
This elusive tea took us 3 weeks, many googles and innumerable shopping hours to find. Eventually we located it in a food hall of a department store on our travels in the south of Japan. I found that there were a few of these department stores who sold it. The second time we located this enigmatic infusion was in Amanohashidate (translated roughly as ‘ladder to heaven’), one of Japan’s renowned ‘Three Scenic views’- a stunning 3.6 km sandbar. This town was akin to a kuromame paradise! Beans of this proverbial gold dust laid out for us drain our bank accounts into impulsive bean buys. Why so ‘cher’? As would say our French friends (or not…). I’m not really sure, the beans are a national produce but only account for a minority of soybeans grown in Japan, and in most other south-east Asian countries. The cheaper variety are the kuromame grown in volcanic rich soils of Hokkaido and those of apparent superior quality are from the Tanba region in Japan, which come in as the world’s priciest beans!
So what is this glorious beverage of which I speak? Explained simply Kuromame-cha is black soybean tea. Kuromame meaning black bean and cha is tea. So to be more accurate the Japanese terminology is black bean tea since this bean is never referred to as kuro daizu which means black soybean. This in fact indicates the different uses of this bean compared to the typical yellow soybean, so much so that it is almost perceived as a different food. The black soybean is widely used in Chinese medicine for its health properties and was traditionally fed to livestock in China. In Japan, in feudal times the ninja who were skilled in the art of invisibility would carry a pouch of ground roasted kurokame and sesame due to its lightweight and nutritional properties.
For the infusion, the lightly roasted beans are steeped in hot water to release their taste and health giving antioxidants: anthocynanins, which are found in the skin of the beans (which you will also find in purple fruit and vegetables such as blueberries, grapes, cranberries). Plus according to various sources kuromame-cha also provides a whole host of other health giving goodies to turn you into a glowing, ninjaesque demi-god (dess) *:
- Good source of cholesterol-lowering fibre–>happy arteries
- A cornucopia of folate and magnesium–> brain food and happy heart, muscles and bones respectively
- Rich in iron–> blood enriching & vampire friendly
Traditionally these beans are eaten in a New Year’s dish, cooked with sugar (as part of Osechi Ryori) and signify the wish for good health in order to work hard in the New Year. To blacken the beans it is preferable to cook them in an iron pot or with rusty nails! Popeye eat your heart out! And if eating, rather than drinking them floats your boat more check out a few recipes here or here.
Now time to hone my ninja fighting skills… I’m off to watch an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…I know you’re humming the tune with me…
*These assumptions are based on a highly scientific survey of one person who may or may not fully understand what the survey was about. But he certainly feels like a God.
- Kuromame-cha, black soybean tea, for your everyday health
- Hokkaido Black Bean Tea
- History of Whole Dry Soybeans
- AKEMASHITE OMEDETO GOZAIMASU! – HAPPY NEW YEAR!