Banchas as ethnographic documents

Bancha is most often understood as designating a Japanese tea from a late harvest, and then coarsely processed in the same way as sencha.

However, “bancha” is also and above all a myriad of regional teas produced using methods as widely different as they are surprising, though generally very simple. These are endangered teas, very little commercialized, and yet they are valuable documents that record not only the teas that Japanese people used to drink until very recently (the 1960s) but also the role of tea and how it spread in Japan, and more generally in Asia.

In 1998, the ethnologist Nakamura Yôichirô 中村洋一郎 wrote a fascinating book called “Banchas and the Japanese” (番茶と日本人, Yoshikawa Hiroshi Bunkan Publishers, ISBN4-642-05446-4). Without going into the details and examples, I would like to very (too) quickly present some of the essential points in this work.

First, concerning the way that the leaves are processed: whether they have just been plucked or whether they are still attached to branches cut directly from the tea plant, no matter what, they are heated.

Grosso modo, there are four methods:

– direct heating in a kind of pot (this is called the Chinese method today);

– steaming (this is called the Japanese method, though it came from China);

and also, though they are now very rare,

– boiling;

– passing directly over a fire.

The last method is certainly the most primitive. However, there are still some people who employ it in Japan, in the mountains of Kyûshû, on leaves (still attached to branches) from “mountain tea plants”  ヤマチャ (yama-cha), in other words, wild tea plants. No other step is necessary. The leaves are brewed in a kettle, which stays on the fire all day, and water is added when there is none left (this is an extremely common brewing method for banchas).

There is a tendency to think that, of the three other methods, heating in a pot or frying pan (kama-iri 釜炒り) is the most recent. Indeed, it did not develop in China until the Ming Period, long after the others, and at that point the steaming method disappeared from the mainland. There is also a theory that access to ironware is in fact relatively recent for the common people. This is correct, but the author notes a small detail. In Japan, there is a method that consists in heating the leaves in a kind of earthenware jar, which is laid on the fire. This is clearly direct heating, and it shows that the direct heating method is not inseparable from access to iron. Thus, this method could be just as old as the others since pottery has been widespread for thousands of years. In fact, a similar method is used in Tibet.

Nakamura’s main point is in fact the relationship between tea and meals, food.

The great question that drives historians, ethnologists and anthropologists is how tea was first used: was it eaten or drunk? No one knows the answer. In China, in particular among the minorities (that is not a very nice word – let us say not among the Han) in Yunnan, and in southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar, etc.) there are many examples of teas that are consumed, eaten, as is, as part of a meal. There are no examples of this in Japan.

Yet, banchas are often the basis for a liquid that is not consumed as a drink but used in cooking.

Today, we do not have to look very far to find cha-zuke (茶漬け), which is very common.  Rice is garnished with pickled vegetables, fish, etc., and then bancha is poured over everything.

Cookbooks that appeared in the Edo Period contain many recipes for cha-gayu 茶粥 (a sort of rice porridge with tea), in particular, nara-cha 奈良茶, which seems to have been very well known across the country, not just in Nara.

Moreover, a whole category of regional banchas, no matter how they were processed (steamed, boiled, heated directly, rolled or not, dried in the sun or with artificial heat…), were used not for drinking but as a broth for cooking rice in the style of nara-cha. Various other ingredients were also cooked in the rice.

Most of the time, these banchas were homemade for personal consumption, using leaves from tea plants growing nearby. However, in some cases, which were certainly more unusual, tea for cooking was imported from elsewhere. For example, historically, goishi-cha 碁石茶 from Kôchi Prefecture (Shikoku) was sold on the other side of the mountains on the shores of the Seto Inland Sea, and it was used to prepare cha-gayu.

Another interesting point concerns what is known as furi-cha 振茶, “whipped tea.” There is, for example, bote-bote-cha ボテボテ茶 from Izumo (for which the leaves and flowers are used!), buku-buku-cha ブクブク茶 from Okinawa, and also bata-bata-cha バタバタ茶 from Tôyama. There are many such examples, so I will not go into detail on how they are made. They are banchas, and in some cases oxidation is stopped by steaming, in other cases by direct heating, and others are boiled, dried in the sun, occasionally post-fermented, etc.

It is the way that they are consumed that is interesting. Of course, as is often the case, they are boiled and sometimes other plants are added. Next, this furi-cha is whipped using kinds of very large chasen. The first thing that springs to mind is matcha. Yet, these “whipped” Japanese teas are used differently from matcha. A great deal of importance is placed on producing a lot of foam. Once there is a lot of foam, then a wide variety of foods are added, generally cereals (grains) and beans, most often in the form of flour.

To eat grains and beans, it is much easier to roast them and grind them into rough flour than to boil them long enough to soften them. However, flour is not very easy to swallow. This is where bancha foam comes in: it is used to make such powdered ingredients “edible” by making them go down easily. Thus, such furi-chas are not made to be drunk as such, but to accompany food.

One final interesting phenomenon is the more rare shiri-furi-cha 尻振り茶. “Shiri-furi” could be translated as “shaking the bottom.” I am going to disappoint you right away: it is not a kind of tea that is drunk while happily wriggling the derrière. In this case, “shiri” does not refer to the bottom of the drinker, but to the bottom of the bowl. Depending on the region or even the village, different kinds of bancha are used to eat what is remaining in the bottom of the bowl. Tea is poured over the remains of the food, the bowl is shaken vigorously, and the contents are literally thrown into the mouth. It nonetheless seems that this style of consumption has completely disappeared, and all that remains is the testimony of elderly people who saw it in their childhood. It also seems to be very difficult. The author admits that every one of his attempts ended with tea and food all over the room.

In short, varieties of bancha are historical documents, evidence from the past, that show that Japanese folks have been drinking tea for centuries. The teas they used to drink were very different from those consumed by aristocrats, monks and priests, both in terms of form and especially, as the author shows brilliantly, in terms of how they were consumed. They were everyday teas, inseparable from meals. Moreover, they were not drinks, but cooking ingredients. During the Tang Dynasty, Lu Yu 陸羽 stipulated that other foods should not be added to tea, that doing so was a waste. This shows that this was a common practice in China. However, despite the tea sage’s decree, the practice remained for many years. Tea for itself, as a drink, finally was until very recent history confined to high society.

Finally, the Japanese language itself provides proof of the very close connection between tea and meals. Even today, if someone asks you, “お茶しませんか” (“Won’t you have some tea?”) it doesn’t mean that the person is inviting you to drink tea, but to drink or even eat something.

Moreover, in some regions, meals are designated by expressions that can be translated as “morning tea,” which means breakfast even if absolutely no tea is drunk, “noontime tea,” for lunch, etc.

To complete the many analogies between Japan and other Asian countries, the author shows how the spread and development of tea was directly related to and inseparable from food.

It seems to me that all the pseudo-spirituality of “ancestral tea” is, given the historical and ethnographic situation, something that has never concerned more than a tiny portion of the population.

Other points are discussed in the work, but these were the ones that seemed most fascinating to me. They show that the gradual disappearance of banchas is a tragedy comparable to the loss of a library full of rare ancient documents.

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Categories: History

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2 replies

  1. Thanks! It´s an honor to learn all the things you teach. Nora

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