Kitchn Love Letters

My Favorite $2 Grocery to Make Leftover Rice Taste 1,000 Times Better

published May 3, 2024
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someone is fluffing rice in an orange pot with a metal fork
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Brett Regot

The Japanese dish ochazuke (or rice submerged in green tea) has always been a bit of a head-scratcher for me. It’s basically leftover rice decorated with bits of savory toppings doused in hot green tea or dashi broth (the savory stock that’s the base for miso soup). It’s included in all of the dozen or so Japanese cookbooks I own, but I never tried it because it just wasn’t my cup of tea — or so I thought. 

Credit: Ivy Manning

It turns out the magic of this thrifty dish was lost in translation for me — that is, until about a year ago. I had just returned from a long flight to find a gift left by our pet sitter, a former student of Waseda University in Japan. She had thoughtfully left behind Japanese instant ochazuke packets for me with a note that read, “To help you when the jet lag hits.” 

Indeed, I was still on Berlin time and couldn’t put together a sentence — let alone a meal. So I microwaved  some rice I had in the freezer, topped it with a colorful little packet, and poured over boiling water from the tea kettle. One bite and I understood the soothing magic of this Japanese comfort food. The broth was savory and mild, the rice filling, and the crunchy little strips of freeze-dried nori and crunchy rice crackers on top added interest. This was so much more than a bowl of rice with tea on it.

Credit: Ivy Manning

What’s So Great About Nagatamien Ochazuke Nori?

Ochazuke can be made from scratch by assembling toppings like broiled fish, Japanese pickles, and seaweed over rice and then pouring over homemade green tea or dashi broth. Or, for about 50 cents per packet, you can sprinkle a cup of Nantankien instant ochazuke over leftover rice and have a comforting, filling lunch or snack ready in as many minutes as it takes to boil water. I choose the latter. 

Nagatanien ochazuke comes in a handful of different flavors. My go-to is the nori chazuke, which includes thin strips of nori with little rice crisps in a broth that’s more dashi than green tea. It tastes something like miso soup, but with a clear broth and a more subtle flavor. Other flavors include sake, freeze-dried salmon bits, and a more pronounced green tea flavor, plus a zippy wasabi flavor and umeboshi, a slightly sharp-sour pickled plum variety that’s a great eye-opener in the morning. 

You’ll find Nagatanien ochazuke online and at Asian grocery stores; look for it where Japanese rice toppings and instant soups are sold. The bright yellow, red, and green striped packets serve one and usually come in perforated strips of three or four packets per strip. Multi-flavor combo packages are available, so you can try the most popular flavors without committing to just one type.  

If you have any trouble deciphering the Japanese on the label, use an app like Google translate on your smartphone to take a picture of the packet; it will translate the text instantly. The shelf tag with the price will also be in English in most stores, so you can double check. 

Worried about caffeine? Don’t be. I’m fairly sensitive to caffeine and I’ve slurped down bowls of instant ochazuke as a midnight snack and not missed a wink of sleep. Your mileage may vary, but the effect is generally very mild. If anything, the warm, filling soup will help you sleep — whether you’re jet-lagged or not. 

Credit: Ivy Manning

What’s the Best Way to Make Nagatanien Ochazuke Nori?

The point of ochazuke is to use up leftover rice, but freshly cooked rice will work as well. I like brown short-grain rice because it has added flavor and fiber, but white rice of any type works. Scoop one cup of rice into a medium soup bowl and sprinkle one packet of instant ochazuke over the top. Bring 2/3 to 3/4 cup of water to a boil and gradually pour it over the bowl. Stir to dissolve the soup granules and serve piping hot. 

Credit: Ivy Manning

I will add extra garnishes when I’m feeling fancy. A bit of leftover broiled salmon, tamagoyaki omelet, finely chopped green onion, quick-pickled cucumbers, or chopped reconstituted dried shiitake mushrooms are all nice additions. A few drops of your favorite soy sauce or chili crisp (not-too-spicy SB Chili Oil with Crunchy Garlic FTW) can also add a bit of flavor if you find the soup a bit too mellow. But don’t go overboard — like so many Japanese foods, the magic is in the subtlety. 

Note: Want to learn more about ochazuke culture? Check out Netflix’s Midnight Tokyo Diner Season 1, Episode 3 “Ochazuke Sisters” for more context.

Buy: Nagatanien Ochazuke Nori, $19.62 for 40 packets at Amazon