Cooking

Secret Weapon: Hojicha Tea Syrup

Pagu chef Tracy Chang uses the nutty Japanese tea for everything from cakes to cocktails
Hojicha Tea Syrup Taste & Ideas
Photo: Brendan McHale/Tasting Table

Tracy Chang loves the roast, nutty flavor of Japanese hojicha tea. The chef at Pagu in Boston first played around with it by calling on its natural sweetness in panna cotta, pastry cream and gelatinous pearls for a black sesame dessert, but then she discovered its versatility: Hojicha tea syrup makes for one smoky-sweet secret weapon.

"The syrup is velvety on the tongue," she says of her resulting ratio of tea leaves, water and sugar (see the recipe). "The viscosity allows the flavors to linger. Those lingering flavors are obviously sweet from the sugar. But then from the hojicha, you get roasty, nutty, aromatic and fresh."

Chang compares the bright flavor to potato chips fresh from the fryer versus stale ones from an open bag: Syrup is a form of preservation, locking in the "fresh roasted flavor of the hojicha, which is one of the best things about it," she says. That freshness then steeps wherever you put it. Batched cocktails taste made to order. Meat marinades get smoky and herbal notes. And desserts pack a curious extra punch. Here are a few ways Chang uses her secret weapon, hojicha tea syrup, in the kitchen—and how you can do the same at home.

Shake Up a Cocktail

Because hojicha isn't as herbaceous as other forms of tea and has that additional nuttiness, Chang says it pairs particularly well with whiskey. The deep, dark notes of toasted wood chips found in whiskey get pulled out by the syrup, making it a stellar substitution in a classic Manhattan, which is warm and comforting no matter the season.

Smoke It

After you make the syrup, dehydrate the strained tea in a low oven (150 to 200 degrees) until dry, about six hours or up to overnight. You can then use the dehydrated tea leaves to smoke just about anything. For a play on an old-fashioned cocktail, put a few leaves on a plate and torch them, then quickly cover with an inverted rocks glass to capture the smoke. "It gives an extra depth of flavor, and if you're entertaining at home, people are like, 'Wow, what did you make me?'"

To add whipped cream to a dessert that's just "a little bit different," make a smoking chamber large enough in which to whip your cream after. "It's a nice trick," she says.

Turn It into Powder

You can also use crush the dehydrated tea leaves into a powder to use in both sweet and savory contexts. Toss with sugar to make a sweet hojicha cocktail glass rim or go savory with deeply roasted, umami-heavy ingredients like mushrooms, garlic and soy, using it as you would olive oil or sea salt as a finishing touch. "Adding hojicha adds nuttiness and an extra layer of toasted, roasted, caramel notes without using the same technique you just did of high heat," Chang says.

Marinate Your Meat

"Having sugar and salt in a marinade—but mostly sugar—helps tenderize meat," she says. "So meats for Korean short ribs or barbecue have quite a bit of sugar in the sauce." For any cut of meat, substitute sugar with the hojicha tea syrup and add ingredients that complement the smoke.

To quick-cure salmon or whitefish, combine hojicha tea syrup with salt, rub it over superthin slices of the fish and leave it overnight. The next day, wash it off. The syrup adds a certain level of sweetness without screaming sugar. And while it lends layers of mysterious umami captured during the roasting process, it makes for a cured fish completely devoid of classic dill, lemon and pepper flavors found in store-bought varieties.

Spike a Cake

Conundrum: You're baking a light white angel food cake, but you're not eating it until tomorrow. How do you ensure it doesn't dry out horribly? "You imbibe the cake—you add a syrup, so it stays moist," Chang says. "In place of simple syrup, use hojicha tea syrup so that the cake takes on just a little twist. It tastes just a little different, versus being 'a hojicha cake.'"

Add to Chocolate

"Chocolate and tea go quite well together, especially as cacao gets roasted and those toasty notes go together," she says. "It goes with dark chocolate, with white chocolate, with milk chocolate . . ." Yes, hojicha tea syrup and chocolate love each other. Try it in a ganache: Steep the dehydrated leaves in the cream, incorporate a touch of syrup in the tempered chocolate or sprinkle a hojicha sugar powder on top of the final step.

Shortcut Success

Use the ground powder to give any store-bought sweet homemade appeal. Dust over cakes or truffles instead of cocoa powder or confectioners' sugar—it doesn't have that over-powdery texture and packs that dynamic flavor. You could also cold-steep dehydrated tea leaves into cream overnight, whip and layer on top of a store-bought cake. "Or if you don't have time, don't be afraid to take Reddi-wip, sprinkle hojicha sugar on top and call it your own." Secret weapon, indeed.

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