Amidst the congestion at the tail end of Mother Ignacia Avenue, Quezon City, is an unexpected oasis—past the sliding door of which is a soothing space of warm wooden tables, bamboo fixtures, shouji, and on many visits, the subtle aroma of Japanese green tea in the backdrop. The small but serene space pays homage to the art of Japanese tea-drinking—a long-standing tradition that has been around since being imported from China in the 9th century, flourishing throughout the later centuries, and which remains an important part of their culture to this day.
Zaan Japanese Tea House first opened its doors in 2014, albeit beginning on a slightly different track. Non Iwamoto, a Japanese native who wound up in the Philippines upon retirement, had been looking to open a place where she could make and sell her line of chocolate creations TsokoFino—but realized that only selling chocolate would be too small a venture to require a standalone shop. Along with proprietor Tony Fernandez, a Filipino family friend who had also stayed in Japan, they developed the concept into one of a bigger tea and coffee house that would allow them to offer more treats under one roof—and that roof was a vacant space along Mother Ignacia that Fernandez had discovered only by accident, in a building owned by the non-governmental organization NorFil Foundation.
As their name would imply, Japanese tea is the star here, and you have a short but succinct selection of traditional tea options to explore, all sourced straight from the Land of the Rising Sun. To go with a pot, Zaan also offers a small selection of wagashi—confections traditionally served with tea which Iwamoto painstakingly makes by hand. More than that, Zaan goes the next step and gives customers a more insightful look into the Japanese tradition with their Japanese tea ceremony, during which Iwamoto herself explains the core philosophy behind the practice and guides you along every step of the way. (These sessions are available for booking for up to three persons—though additional parties can join for a minimal added price—in one go.)
You’ll find a number of savory meals and snacks on the menu too, with a selection comprised mostly of Japanese home-cooking classics (many of which were dishes Iwamoto would cook and serve for her kids back in the day). Iwamoto herself does not shy away from calling her food what it is: “it’s just ordinary!” she exclaims. But perhaps it’s this very “ordinary”-ness (from a Japanese native’s perspective, anyway) that gives the food at Zaan a remarkable homey touch—one that is free of pretense or ostentation, and easily hits the spot.
Here are just some of their can’t-be-missed menu items:
Nabemono refers to Japanese hotpot dishes, and while the Philippines is in no shortage of restaurants specializing in the East Asian soup or stew cooked right on the tabletop, Zaan offers a variation worth adding to your try list. The good-for-sharing Zaan Nabe is their take on mille-feuille nabe—a style of hotpot named after the French term literally translated as ‘a thousand layers’ which, here, refers to how napa cabbage and thin slices of pork are layered alternately in a concentric manner so they fit snugly in the pot. Dashi is then poured over the meat and vegetables before the whole pot is covered to cook for a few minutes—just enough time for the meat to cook through and the cabbage to get tender, simultaneously imparting their own earthy flavors into the dashi base while absorbing the Japanese stock’s umami tinge. It’s fun picking off the layers from within the pot, like you would petals off a flower; and the flavors, though subtle, are overall comforting, needing little more than a sprinkle of Palawan salt (Iwamoto’s seasoning of choice) or a brief dip in soy sauce. Once you’re done with the pork and cabbage, rice and an egg is added into the pot to simmer with the remaining dashi, resulting in a porridge-like mix called zosui—a stick-to-your-ribs finish to a homey meal.
Dining solo (nothing wrong with that!) and looking to get a similar belly-warming mix without having to get an entire hotpot? Go for the Chazuke—a dish that embodies the simple but sublime character of Japanese cuisine. In its barest form chazuke is as straightforward as it gets, essentially consisting of cooked rice onto which hot tea or dashi is poured over, although it is not uncommon to add toppings such as sesame seeds, salted plums, and the like. Zaan tops their bowl of rice with strips of nori, teensy rice crackers, and your choice of kelp, chicken, or (as we try) salmon; and for the tea part of the equation, a pot of konbu-cha (a “tea” or light broth with konbu seaweed, not to be confused with the fermented tea drink of the same name). Pour in as little or as much as you like—it takes only about minute after pouring and mixing it in for the rice grains to swell up and absorb some of the tea, and the konbu-cha’s umami hum serves to unite the earthiness of the seaweed, the nuttiness of the rice crackers, and the savory salmon into a harmonious mix. It’s faultless as is, but for a bigger punch of flavor, dab on either of the condiments served alongside: ume (pickled plum) paste, which gives the soup a tartness not unlike sampalok in sinigang; or wasabi, which imparts the then-delicate mixture with a gentle but pungent heat.
Wagashi and Tea
Though matcha’s developed a cult following here in Manila over the years, we’ve only scratched the surface on the vast world of Japanese tea—and Zaan carries no less than six different kinds. Steeped from loose leaf mixes, a brief waiting period yields a warm, soothing pot tinged with the invigorating flavors of your tea of choice. Among the green teas, take your pick from Sencha (the “standard” or most popular of the Japanese green teas), Genmaicha (green tea made nutty with roasted wild rice), or Hojicha (a Japanese green tea whose leaves are roasted at a high temperature). Or step outside the box and try one of the Japanese tisanes: Mugi-cha (barley tea, which reminds us of chestnuts in aroma), Soba-cha (buckwheat tea, which has a deep toastiness that reminds us specifically of popcorn), and Kuromame-cha (roasted black soybean tea, which—just like kinako, the powder similarly made of roasted soybeans—also takes on a peanut-y note). A small selection of tea-based spin-off drinks are also available: Iced Matcha, by the glass or the pitcher, and a Hot or Cold Matcha Latte.
Whichever one you choose, be sure to pair it with one (or more) of their homemade wagashi, some of which are the Shiratama (small, chewy drops of mochi topped with either sweetened adzuki beans or kinako), Kintsuba (ash-colored blocks filled with anko or adzuki bean paste), and Crystal Warabi Mochi (seriously squishy, jelly-like blocks Iwamoto does not reveal the key ingredients of, but which a quick Google tells us to be bracken starch, dusted with kinako). Iwamoto also creates special wagashi that she changes according to the seasons—during our visit, we got to try the Mango Manju, a teardrop-shaped confection of a smooth bean-based skin (Iwamoto does all the bean-grinding and straining herself—”it takes me all day!,” she shares), and an interior of more of the smooth bean paste studded with tart, chewy bits of dried mango for contrast.
Zaan Japanese Tea House
A small Japanese tea house and restaurant along Mother Ignacia avenue that offers tea, handmade wagashi, iced desserts, and other home-style Japanese meals.