Likely the most surprising event I have attended in Japan was the day I pan-roasted some tea. If you're new to tea and wondering why this is such a surprising event, it is because Japan rarely ever pan fries their tea; they steam it.
Perhaps it's better if I back up a bit. To make green tea you must first stop oxidation. Oxidation, the chemical process that changes tea leaves brown (it does this to your bitten apples too) also changes the flavour. Enzymes react with oxygen and a whole bunch of things convert and change within the leaves. By applying heat, one can kill the enzymes and stop the reaction. Typically in Japan, this heat source is steam. Elsewhere the heat source is a hot pan or wok. So imagine my surprise when I was taken to the town community center and was instructed to help in the setup of propane-fueled heaters. Why do the Japanese use propane barrels inside buildings? Probably the same reason they renovate building in sandals. I have no idea and just assume everyone is a daredevil, chancing death to get the next cup of tea. I love it.
So, we've established that pan-fired teas in Japan are a rare thing. In fact, only a few places are really known for it and they include the Saga and Kumamoto prefectures on the southern island of Kyushu. OIther prefectures may practice pan-firing their teas and I'll be honest and admit I never received clarification as to why we were doing such a thing in Kyoto. My guess is that it was simpler to set up and safer than boiling water. But again.....propane barrels in an enclosed space would raise all kinds of hell over here in Canada. I suppose you just take the lesser of two evils and enjoy the tea as much as you can.
Now kamairicha (釜炒り茶) translates to pan-fried tea. A kama is an iron pot after all, and cha simply means tea. What is interesting, and will make you sound great at a party, is that kamairicha has two forms. There is kamairicha tamaryukucha (釜炒り玉緑茶) and kamanobicha (釜伸び茶). The first is a pan-fried green tea that has curly leaves and the second is one that has straight leaves. To make the leaves straight (read: needle-like) one has to hand manipulate them or have the leaves undergo further mechanical processing. Durig the event we made the former, it's much easier.
I'm unaware of why Japan moved to a steaming method while the rest of the tea making world continued with a pan-frying method. My guess is that they preferred the taste or someone famous recommended farmers do so, or perhaps it just saved energy and time while cooking. That's a tidbit of history I'd love to sip on, but perhaps another time.
This event started with hand picking teas early in the day and had us move into the community center where we began to roll the leaves within weaved baskets. This rolling brought out the juices, mixed the compounds, and allowed the teas to develop in flavour. What I'm unaware of (this seems to be a trend when you don't speak the language and write blogs four years later) is why we rolled the leaves before frying them. I believe it was to draw out flavour in the leaf. When steaming the leaves all the rolling was conducted after the steaming. Here it was before the firing. My thoughts now recall that steamed leaves are much more malleable while pan-fried ones are stiff and rigid. The tea world gets ever more fascinating the more we learn about it.
Of course, we couldn't pan-fry the leaves without literally frying the leaves. Would you believe that you can deep fry tea leaves? It's a thing and it's kinda delicious. You don't taste the leaves much, but the batter is sure tasty.
At the end of the day, the group had successfully hand made kamairicha tamaryukucha. How did it taste? A little nutty with hints of vegetalness. I don't imagine we became masters that day but what we did have was a lot of fun. And isn't that what playing with fire is supposed to be?