Bancha is most often understood as a term for late-harvest Japanese tea, then coarsely made in the same way as a sencha.
But “bancha” is also and above all a myriad of traditional regional teas, with very various manufacturing methods, but also very varied consumption way. Formerly present throughout Japan, they have for the most part disappeared, very little marketed, they nevertheless represent precious documents concerning not only the teas that could have drunk the Japanese people, not the elites to whom were reserved matcha and sencha until a very recent period (the sixties), but also on the role of tea and its diffusion, in Japan, and generally in Asia.
The ethnologist Nakamura Yôichirô 中村洋一郎 has devoted numerous studies and books on this subject, for example “The Banchas and the Japanese people” 「番茶と日本人」 (Yoshikawa Kôbunkan editor, ISBN4-642-05446-4) published in 1998 is exciting. Without going into too much details and examples, I would like to present quickly some essential elements that emerge from the studies of these banchas.
These banchas can be classified according to several criteria, their initial heating methods to stop the oxidation, the fact that they are kneaded/rolled or not, and finally, more surprising the question of fermentation.
Initial heating of the fresh leaves to stop the oxidation (殺青 shaqing in Chinese, sassei in Japanese)
– The passage directly into flames of tea leaves still attached to the branches, aburi-cha (炙り茶)
This method is undoubtedly the most primitive. Nevertheless, we still report some examples in Japan, in the mountains at Kyushu, with leaves (with branches) from “mountain tea plants” (yama-cha), tea trees growing in a semi-wild state (see this article for explanations). No further steps are necessary, we infuse these leaves in a kettle, which could remain on the fire all day, water added when there is no more (this is a method of consumption quite current for bancha). This was a habit of forestry workers spending several days in the mountains. This example is still a little different from traditional regional bancha.
– Simple drying in the sun, without shaqing (I’ll come back to it later)
Fresh leaves are steamed, as is the case with most Japanese green teas today (sencha, matcha, gyokuro, etc.).
Fresh leaves are boiled. This method is today a minority in the world.
There is no doubt that these two methods are very old. While some people think that the boiling is older, others, like Nakamura Yôichirô, suggest that steaming would be older, and that the boiling would have come later as a simplification of the steaming method.
– Direct heating, roasting (kama-iri 釜炒り type)
With respect to the other three, the shaqing on hot surface, direct heating in a wok, is the most recent. Indeed, it developed in China only during the Ming period, well after the others, while the steam method disappears from the continent. Also, it is considered that the diffusion and the access to iron accessory is finally a recent thing for the people. This appreciation is fair, but the author brings a small nuance. In Japan there is an example of a method of heating tea leaves in an earthenware, lying on the fire. We have there a direct heating. This shows that the direct heating method is not inseparable from access to iron, and therefore this method could be just as old as the others, as the pottery has been widely circulated for millennia. Also, we find a similar practice in Tibet.
After shaqing heating, the methods of manufacture, ie drying are also various. We can thus distinguish between those who are kneaded/rolled and those who are not.
For the latter, after shaqing, leaves are most often simply dried in the sun. This is the case of mimasaka bancha, or even kyô-bancha, or even simpler kancha 寒茶. The character 寒 wants “cold”, these are teas made from winter leaves, usually steamed or boiled, and simply dried in the sun.
More special case, that of teas that do not undergo shaqing. For example, in Fukui. The leaves on the branches are simply hanged and left to dry for several weeks.
Some may be lightly kneaded, such as the Tokushima awa-bancha, while others are more strongly kneaded, for example, with a straw mat on the floor. In this case, it is most often kama-iri type teas, or alternates wok firing and ground mixing.
Finally, Japan still has a number of examples of dark teas 黒茶 or post-fermented teas 後発酵茶. It is not oxidation as for black / red tea, but indeed fermentation due to ferments (bacteria, etc). On the Japan Sea side, there is the example of dark tea used in Toyama for batabata-cha, but it is the island of Shikoku that keeps a large number of these teas in a relatively small geographical area. The goishi-cha from Kôchi (double fermentation and pressing), the Ishizuchi-kurocha from Ehime (double fermentation), and the Awa-bancha from Tokushima.
Of course, this type of fermented tea naturally evokes certain teas from China and South Asia.
The most essential point presented by Mr. Nakamura is the link of tea with the meal, the food.
The big question that animates historians, ethnologists or anthropologists is that which concerns the first use of tea, drunk or eaten? No one is able to answer this question. We find in China, especially among minorities (not very pretty word, say not among Han) Yunnan, Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar, etc.) number of examples of teas consumed, eaten, as is, as a component of a meal. No such example (leaves directly eaten) is recorded in Japan.
Yet, bancha are often the basis of a liquid that is not consumed as a drink, but used for cooking.
Without going very far, still today, cha-zuke (茶漬け) and very current. Rice is garnished with pickled vegetables, fish, etc., and we pour bancha on the whole.
The cookbooks that appeared in the Edo period listed a number of recipes for cha-gayu 茶粥 (a kind of rice porridge with tea), in example the nara-cha 奈良茶, which seems to be well known in the whole country, not just Nara.
Also, a whole part of the regional banchas, whatever their method of manufacture (steam, porridge, direct heating, kneaded or not, dried in the sun or the artificial heat, …) are used not as a drink, but as a broth used to cook the rice, in the manner of nara-cha. Various foods are cooked with.
Most of the time, these bancha are from a personal production, with tea plants growing nearby. However, in some cases, tea is bought from outside to cook. For example, the goishi-cha 碁石茶 of the of Kôchi prefecture (Shikoku), historically, was sold on the other side of the mountains, on the Inland Sea side, and was used for the preparation of cha-gayu. It was then a bargaining chip against the salt produced on the shores of the Inland Sea.
Another interesting point is that of what is called furi-cha 振茶, “whipped tea”. For example, you can find Izumo’s Botebote-cha (for which leaves and flowers are used!), Okinawa’s buku-buku-cha, or bata-bata-cha バタバタ茶 from Toyama, there are many examples, so I will not go into the details of how they are made.
It is their mode of consumption that must attract attention. Of course, as often, they are prepared boiled, other plants are sometimes added. Then these furi-cha are beaten with large bamboo chasen whisk. We immediately think to matcha. However, in the case of these “whipped” Japanese teas, the purpose is very different than in the case of matcha. A very great importance is focused on making a lot of foam. Indeed, once the foam is well done, we puts a wide variety of foods, usually cereals (grains) or beans, mostly in the form of powder.
It is much easier to eat cereals and beans, to roast them and to reduce them to a coarse powder than to boil them long time enough to soften them. But in the form of powder, it does not go very well in the throat. It is then that the foam of the bancha has its purpose: it serves to “pass” these foods gently in the throat. Thus, these furi-cha are not produced to be drunk as such, but to accompany the meal.
Last interesting phenomenon. The rarer one is shiri-furi-cha 尻振り茶. “Shiri-furi” could mean “shake your buttocks”. I disappoint you immediately; it is not about tea that is consumed by happily shaking the posterior. Here, “shiri” does not mean the bottom of the one who drinks, but that of the bowl used. Here again, depending on the region, the village itself, we uses a variety of bancha. This is used to consume what is left in the bottom of the bowl. Pour the tea on the rest of the food, shake the bowl, and literally throw the contents into the mouth. However, it seems that this mode of consumption has disappeared, it remains only the testimony of elderly people who saw this practice during their childhood. It seems moreover that it is very difficult. The author of the book admits that his attempts were all ended by a throwing of tea and food throughout the room.
The consumption of bancha with rice, in the form of rice porridge or fish ochazuke often, or even a kind of rice biscuit wet with the tea (we find similar things in China), in many villages of fisher. It’s interesting, because this time is about areas where we do not produce tea, and even mostly no rice. Thus, for this consumption habit, rice and tea must be brought, together.
It must be remembered that in general the places of cultivation of tea and rice are different. This is not insignificant because it testifies first, like the other examples above, not only of the intimate link between tea and meal, but between tea and rice (is the invention of genmaicha in the 20th century not a natural evolution). By having in mind similar reports on the Asian continent, one can imagine that tea was brought to Japan well before the first historical mentions (with Eichû in the 9th century) at the same time as rice, the two being strongly linked. The question of if the tea was originally eaten or drunk, might be badly formulated. Tea was probably a component of the meal without individual existence.
In short, ancient documents, testimonies, varieties of bancha, show that the common Japanese people have been consuming tea for centuries. These teas are very different from those used by aristocrats and religious, by their forms, but especially, by the mode of consumption also very different. These are everyday teas, inseparable from the meal. Much more, it is not a drink, but a component of the food. Lu Yu 陸羽 during the Tang stipulated that one should not add other foods in the tea, that it was spoiling it. This shows that this practice was common in China. But no offense to this wise man of tea, this practice continues to exist for a long time. Tea for itself, as a drink, remains until recently a privilege of high society in Japan.
Finally, the Japanese language itself testifies to the strong link of tea with the meal. Very close to us when someone asks you “お茶しませんか”, it could mean “would you have a drink” (not especially tea), or even “let’s have a break”.
Also, in some areas, meals are designated by expressions that can be translated as “morning tea”, which means breakfast, even if you consume absolutely no tea, “the tea of noon”, for lunch, and so on …
To finish with many analogies between Japan, and other Asian countries, the author shows how the diffusion and development of tea was directly related and inseparable from food in Asia.
It seems to me that the whole pseudo-spirituality of “ancestral tea” cliché seen from western counties is in the light of the historical and ethnographic reality, something that has never concerned a tiny part of society. Reality of teas was quite different.
Other points are addressed in this book, but here is the one that appeared to me as the most exciting. Demonstrating how the gradual disappearance of bancha is a drama comparable to the disappearance of a rich library of rare and old documents. You’ll find some on Thés du Japon.