There was a time when matcha was completely unheard of in the West, but it’s been quite a while since the Japanese green tea powder started making its way into our beverages, desserts and confectionery. In fact, it’s been around long enough that newer imports from the East are angling to seize its crown.
Despite a deep russet appearance, hojicha is also a type of green tea. Its colour comes from being roasted at a high heat over charcoal – a technique developed in 1920s Kyoto by enterprising tea merchants keen to put to good use the cheaper second (and third) flushes of tea leaves that make up bancha, or ‘common’ grade tea.
Nevertheless, its fragrance and comforting flavour have proved a hit with punters in its native land, where the market has been growing. Market research firm Intage Inc. reported that beverages made from hojicha increased by 30 percent from 2012 to 2016.
Hojicha tastes and smells markedly different from the bitter grassiness usually associated with green tea, possessing instead a nutty, malty, toasty and even smoky flavour – one that sits well in sweet and savoury dishes alike.
Crisp and clean, low caffeine
Where matcha is traditionally presented by itself and treated preciously for its high-grade purity, hojicha is the versatile cousin brimming with possibilities.
Like all green tea products, research suggests it possesses antioxidant properties, but it’s also lower in caffeine than other varieties.
In Asia, hojicha-infused beverages and desserts – made by steeping the leaves in hot milk, water, syrup or ground into a fine powder – have led the charge. In speciality cafes, it’s not uncommon to see hojicha-flavoured ice creams, cheesecakes, chiffon cakes and Swiss rolls.
Starbucks have been selling it as a latte in Asia for several years, while the Frappuccino version launched in 2017 in Japan and debuted in Singapore just last month.
Häagen-Dazs toyed with a limited-edition mini-cup of hojicha last year, and companies in Japan have incorporated it into various chocolates – including a KitKat – as well as using it as a flavouring for everything from kakigori to rice.
In Australia, hojicha has been baked into a sponge at Sydney’s Black Star Pastry, but it’s more commonly seen in its ice cream form outside Asia: London’s Milk Train served a scoop within a cloud of candyfloss when it launched in 2016; LA’s Tsubaki offers it as a soft-serve dessert option; and Perth’s Chicho Gelato featured it last summer.
Let’s get versatile
Thanks to its gentler profile, one advantage hojicha has over matcha is an ability to pair well with other flavours. At Pâte, a café in Shanghai, patissiere Ting Ting Chang pairs her hojicha mousse with chocolate and praline.
“Like matcha, hojicha comes in different grades – though its versatility is only limited by your imagination,” she explains. “I think it’s important to balance its earthiness with other flavours.”
Need some more examples of how to use it? Recipe blog Tea Squirrel also pairs hojicha mochi (sticky rice) muffins with tahini drizzle, while tea vendors Good and Proper offer hojicha panna cotta with boozy prunes. Serious Eats suggests burnt hojicha honey ice cream; the Philly Enquirer espouses hojicha miso honey chicken thighs; and Tasting Table rather ingeniously incorporates hojicha syrup into a Manhattan cocktail.
Drinks is one area where the fads really seem to hang about a bit. Matcha is a difficult thing to follow though because its original popularity came with celebrity endorsers and lots of media airtime.
The big selling point for the matcha was catechins, which supposedly aided in cancer prevention (real research was inconclusive). Unfortunately, these are lost during the production methods used for hojicha, so it is unlikely to have the same appeal there.
There is an upside though in that hojicha has a unique caramel flavour profile and similar properties to a green tea despite it being roasted, which could be marketed effectively.