‘Cha-zuke’ (the ‘O’ is an honorific) literally means cooked rice served in brewed liquid tea. It is a rice dish in which hot water, hot brewed tea or hot flavored dashi stock (Japanese stock) is poured over cooked rice in a rice bowl. Cha-zuke was born out of necessity because in the past during hard times we did not to waste cooked rice. Also, the hot liquid helped to revive old and tired long-stored cooked rice.
You may have enjoyed a variant of this dish, onigiri Cha-zuke at a Japanese restaurant. This is a popular dish at an izakaya, the informal restaurants serving snacks, small dishes and accompanying drinks. In this dish a grilled, brown-hued onigiri rice ball is placed in a bowl and hot liquid – could be tea, could be flavored dashi stock – is poured over it. After a short while the onigiri rice ball slowly disintegrate in the hot liquid. You enjoy it as its texture changes.
In the past without rice cooker with its “keep warm” function or a refrigerator, leftover cooked rice was stored at room temperature and kept until it spoiled. Cooled, dry rice was no longer very tasty because the nature of the starch chemically changes from alpha types to beta during such storage and this results in a firm, closed mass of rice with no fragrance.
The quickest way to revitalize this cold, stored rice was to shower it with hot liquid. Hence, the birth of Cha-zuke. Cha-zuke has this very humble origin and remains this way today. The dish is usually eaten after a rich meal to refresh our mouth and to fill the last space in our stomach. To cheer it up a bit we sometime add toppings such as umeboshi (salty plums), tsukemono (pickles), salt grilled and flaked salmon, nori sea vegetable, or other taste enhancers.
Today is a snacking age and Cha-zuke might fit to this trend. If you cook rice at home regularly making Cha-zuke is a piece of cake. Put the rice (microwave it if it has been stored in the refrigerator) in a cereal bowl and add hot Japanese tea that becomes your “consume” – try matcha, hojicha roasted tea, genmaicha brown rice tea or sencha fine green tea. I never have tried it with Chinese or Indian black teas or with coffee, but you can experiment with these or other hot liquids if you wish.
Cha-zuke is a unique, delicious and innovative way to enjoy rice, especially older left-over rice that you might think cannot be revived to produce a delicious dish. It is healthy. No oil is involved. You are consuming rice together with liquid, so you are consuming fewer total calories, but making your stomach satisfyingly full. If you ever tasted cha-zuke at Japanese restaurant, let me know of your reaction!