This week’s tea is genmaicha from Chado Tea, a place that I discovered when I lived in Pasadena. At the time, I wasn’t a romance author—I just had a terrible job.
It was really an extremely horrible year and the only way I could sneak off and get time to have brunch with friends on a weekend was to go somewhere very near my workplace and have my coworkers front for me. The boss never came in on the weekends, but he did call. If we were willing to lie for each other, we could sometimes sneak in a few hours away. The plan went like this: they would tell Mr. Boss that I stepped out to get coffee and would be right back. Then they’d call me, I would throw money on the table, and frantically drive back to work.
So my sneak-out-and-get-tea break, one of only a handful I managed that year, was getting tea with a friend like historical romance heroines. We went to the Chado Tea room in Pasadena and for a few hours, I was able to forget everything I was dealing with and have scones and tea.
I still sometimes order tea from them for nostalgia’s sake. (They don’t have their genmaicha in stock at the moment, unfortunately, but David’s Tea has one that looks similar and won’t break the bank.)
Oh, and that friend I went with? For anyone wondering, she is now better known as the amazing and acclaimed author, Tessa Dare, and being able to have occasional sneaky brunch with her was the best part of a truly awful year.
Anyway: back to the tea. Genmaicha is one of my favorite Japanese green teas. In Kanji, it's: 玄米茶: 玄 meaning dark, 米 meaning rice, and 茶 meaning tea. It's a tea that's made by combining tea leaves with toasted brown rice, and the result is a tea that is both nutty and sweet. Just opening the can containing it releases a wave of that scent.
Confession: I used to think that I didn’t like Japanese green teas (except for genmaicha), largely because they tasted like grass to me.
Something I found out many years after having this observation: This is because Japanese green teas are prepared differently than Chinese green teas. Both teas have a stage that’s called the “kill green” stage—a stage where you heat the leaves to stop them from oxidizing further into darker teas like black or oolong.
This is a generalization, but Chinese green teas are usually pan-fired, whereas Japanese green teas are usually steamed. There’s a chemical reaction that occurs when you pan-heat things—it’s the thing that gives both steak and bread that wonderful brown crust—and it turns out that it has a similar impact on tea. Green tea that has been pan-fired has those toasted notes. Steamed teas tend to retain the flavor of the tea leaf more heavily. (They also have more antioxidants, for those who are counting.)
I always liked genmaicha, even though I didn’t think I liked other Japanese green teas, because the toasted notes from the rice were adding that flavor I expected.
I’ve since started enjoying Japanese greens a lot more. It’s not that my tastes have evolved since the early years. It’s that I learned more about brewing tea. Yes, things like water temperature matter. But it’s more than that.
But in November of 2019, I went to Japan to watch Yuzuru Hanyu skate at the NHK Trophy, part of the Grand Prix of figure skating (if that doesn’t mean anything to you, just ignore it for now) (this is not an idle Yuzuru Hanyu mention; they never are). On the morning of my first day in Japan, I woke up bleary-eyed and extremely jet-lagged in my hotel room and reached for tea. Here is the tea bag I found.
This is the part that surprised me: the directions on how to make a delicious drink specifically say to leave the tea bag in the water for “30~60 seconds.” By contrast, Western standards say to steep green tea for 3 minutes.
I have never liked tea steeped for so-called standard brewing times. I had always tried to reduce the steeping time—2 minutes for green, for instance, 3 or 4 for black. But 30 seconds! That seemed so little!
Naturally, I steeped the tea for 30 seconds. And it was delicious. These teabag directions sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole on cultural tea brewing differences, and I’m delighted that it happened.
Yuzuru hanyu tribute edition
Some of you, who know my true nature, read the line in the section above about why I was in Japan and said, “oh no, here it comes.”
You were incorrect. It’s, “oh, yes, here it comes.”
I am (to put it mildly) a fan of Yuzuru Hanyu, a Japanese skater, two-time Olympic gold medalist, wildly improbable producer of miracles and also regular human being who, when asked what he’s bad at, replied (humorously) “everything except skating.”
There are a million competitive skating videos from Yuzuru Hanyu, but he announced about a week ago that he is transitioning from competitive skating into being a professional athlete. So I thought I would highlight some of his non-competitive skating programs.
The first one is the medalist on ice version of Seimei. Seimei is his Olympic-winning, multiple record smashing free skate. But one of the things I like best about this non-competitive reboot is that he was able to bring back the beautiful and fierce backwards crossrolls (check them out at 1:54 through 1:58 in the attached video), which he very sadly had to remove from the competitive version to maximize the score.
I’m also a huge fan of some of his Skating at ice shows. Here he is, skating to “Real Face” and pouring a cup of water on himself.
Finally (only finally because I limited myself to three, but I could do this all day), here’s Yuzuru Hanyu skating to Masquerade in collaboration with ToshI.
What am I reading this week? 蒼い炎 by 羽生結弦
I have been working on reading this book for over a year now, largely because it is written in Japanese and my Japanese is not very good. It is, however, not really available in English, and the only way my Japanese will get better is if I use it.
Anyway, I took a little time this weekend to get a few pages deeper. The title is 蒼い炎: blue flames. And the author is…uh, well, this is the Yuzuru Hanyu tribute edition of the newsletter, is it not? So anyway, this is the first part of a multi volume autobiography by Yuzuru Hanyu, meaning I read about Yuzuru’s decision to continue skating in 2011 after the Tohoku earthquake in Japan which destroyed his home town and his skating rink (the earthquake hit while he was on the rink).
It’s very slow going—I have to read every sentence two to three times, looking up unfamiliar words, and then going back to the beginning of the sentence and reading it again. But there is something very rewarding about the process of being very patient with my reading.
Someday I will finish this—but it probably won’t be this week, or this month, or even this year.
the Duke who didn't
I’ve mentioned before that I started writing The Duke who Didn’t because of something Yuzuru Hanyu said about changing his programs for the Four Continents Championship in Seoul, Korea. He said that he wanted to remind himself of skating for himself. At that point, I felt very much like this as a writer, and so I gave myself permission to deviate from what I thought I “should” do to do what I felt like I needed to do for myself.
Yuzuru hanyu in seoul: pictures by me
But Yuzuru Hanyu also ended up being relevant while choosing her Chinese name. I had picked a name in the beginning, but I didn’t feel a strong connection to it, so after I finished the first draft, I went back and tried to find something that felt more right.
Many Chinese names (this is much less common now) used to contain a family name (shared by everyone in the family), followed by a generational name (shared by everyone in their generation) and then a personal name.
I had read a lot about generational names in Hakka families (this includes mine). Not all women get generational names in Chinese culture, but I knew they did at least sometimes in Hakka culture in part because my great-aunts and my grandmother all had a generational name. (The women had a different generational name then the men). I also wanted the mother’s generational name to be contained in the character for the child’s personal name.
So I tried hundreds of names. I settled on 玉 (Nyuk, meaning jade among other things) as her mother’s generational name because it was my grandmother’s generational name. I then knew that I needed to find a personal name that contained that character, and to pick a generational name for Chloe.
When I was trying to figure out Chloe’s Chinese name, I had a huge book that contained Chinese characters with Hakka pronunciations from the late 1800s because I wanted historically accurate transcriptions, and transcription universalizations changed between then and now. I knew I wanted her to have a connection with her mother’s generational name; I knew I wanted her name to have some meaning I could use in the story. I also knew I wanted the name to sound nice.
I found 玲 (Lin, meaning a tinkling sound made when jade collides), which I liked as her personal name, and I liked the sound of YiLin, so I searched for Hakka characters that were pronounced Yi. This was not a digital book, so it was basically skimming (as fast as I can skim with characters, which is not fast at all) pronunciations and looking at the character to see if it felt right.
When I saw 羽 (meaning feathers or wings)—I actually gasped. I had that magical feeling that things had come together suddenly, without expectation, as if something in this story had been waiting to be discovered.
羽生 in Japanese is Hanyu: feather born might be a translation. The genesis of my writing the book turned into something more. Chloe became 羽玲: the tinkling of feathers. And her understanding the seemingly contradictory feeling of the name (feathers don’t tinkle!) became a part of her journey.
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