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Local Libations: Hello Mary

2011 July 29

By Louisa Shafia

I crave savory flavors, both in my food and my drink, which is why I’ll always choose a Bloody Mary over a Mimosa when given the choice at brunch. When I saw the ingredients in Jessie Chien’s Bitter Expat cocktail, I was fascinated by the delicate combination of sweet and bitter flavors. I had to look up half of the ingredients, such as Gentian root and Calumba root, because they were so foreign to me, and I love when that happens! But whereas her creation is to be drunk as a digestif after a meal, I wanted a cocktail that would go before a meal, or perhaps serve as a substitute. What I was after was something savory.

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From Jessie’s recipe, I drew on the tea element (she uses sweet Pu-erh tea), and chose Japanese Genmaicha, a unique tea that’s a combination of popped brown rice and green tea leaves. Drinking this tea is like drinking a meal, because it tastes like a bowl of fresh popcorn. My subconscious fills in the taste of butter and salt, and the whole effect makes me feel warm and full.

Tomatoes seemed like an obvious choice to pair with the tea. First off, we’re in the middle of tomato season, when they’re vine-ripened and bursting with flavor, and everyone’s growing them on their fire escape, so they’re as locally grown as possible. But tomatoes also possess special chemical properties that make them a winning choice for savory foods. Tomatoes have recently been singled out for their high content of umami, also known as the “fifth taste,” or the embodiment of salty goodness. Other foods with high umami content include mushrooms, fermented Asian fish sauce, and cheese. Yum. Combining the roasted grain taste of the tea with the tomatoes seemed like a good way to approximate a rich cheese taste, without actually using cheese.

As the last key ingredient in my cocktail, I chose shiso, aka beefsteak plant — that’s really one of its names! — because it’s got a delicately smokey taste. Even if you don’t know what shiso is, you’ve probably seen it: it’s the green leaf that serves as a garnish under sushi. Here in the United States shiso usually gets left on the plate, but in Japan it’s a beloved ingredient that’s used in everything from salads to omelets to pickles. Recently, Pepsi’s annual novelty flavor of the year in Japan was shiso! It used to be that you could only find shiso in Japanese food stores, but in the last few years it’s become more popular, and you can now find it at farmer’s markets, including the Union Square greenmarket.

This recipe took me not only to the farmer’s market where I found juicy Jersey tomatoes, fresh green shiso, and chives, but also to Sunrise Mart, the wonderfully compact Japanese store above St. Mark’s bookshop in the East Village. This is where I found shichimi togarashi, the beautifully colored dried pepper mix found in every Japanese restaurant, as well as Genmaicha. Scanning my list of ingredients, I saw my recipe was more Japanese than anything, like a Japanese Bloody Mary. Like it or not, the best-known cultural symbol of that ancient and complex country is Hello Kitty, so the name for this drink seemed inevitable. Enjoy!

Hello Mary

Prep Time: 1 hour 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Tools: Blender, fine mesh strainer, muddler or wooden spoon, small bowl


  • ½ cup Genmaicha green tea
  • 1 cup filtered water
  • 1 1/1 lbs ripe Jersey tomatoes (about 5 medium-sized tomatoes)
  • ¼ cup chives, chopped
  • 10 shiso leaves for cocktail mix, plus 16 shiso leaves for muddling
  • ¼ teaspoon shichimi togarashi
  • 1 ½ tablespoons sea salt
  • 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 4-8 ounces vodka
  • Optional: Green olives, shiso leaves, chives for garnish


  1. Place the Genmaicha in a medium-sized glass or ceramic bowl. Boil the water, then let it cool for 1 minute. Pour the water over the tea, and let it steep for 3 minutes. Strain the tea, and cool completely.
  2. Coarsely chop the tomatoes. Place them in the blender with the chives, 10 shiso leaves, shichimi togarashi, salt, and rice vinegar. Add the tea. Blend until smooth, then strain through a fine mesh strainer. Press the pulp with the back of a large ladle to extract as much juice as possible, then discard. Taste and season the cocktail mix with salt, then chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or as long as 24 hours. If the mix separates over time, simply shake it up before serving.
  3. Pour 1-2 ounces of vodka (depending on your taste) into 4 drinking glasses. Add 4 shiso leaves to each glass. Using a muddler or the handle of a wooden spoon, muddle the shiso leaves for 1-2 minutes, or until they release their scent. Add ice, then pour in 1 cup of the cocktail mix. Garnish with a few olives, a shiso leaf, and a few chives.

Louisa Shafia is the IACP Award-nominated author of Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life, a collection of seasonal recipes and tips on eco-friendly cooking. A former editor for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, Shafia has cooked at noteworthy restaurants in New York and San Francisco, including Aquavit, Pure Food and Wine, and Millennium. To learn more, visit her website,


  • Parisbreakfast

    Absolutely fascinating and the best explanation of unami I’ve read yet.
    And Chiso leaves at Union Square Market! WOW
    Beautifully presented.