The tea of samurai
The world has gone crazy for matcha—and with these health benefits, it’s no mystery why.
No other tea has ever commanded so much esteem as matcha has in Japan. In fact, it was so respected in Japan during the 14th century that it was only allowed to be consumed by nobles and elites, such as the samurai and shoguns. What’s more, the entire art of the Japanese tea ceremony, which still persists today, was created around the presentation of matcha to guests. Now, matcha has transcended classes and borders and is available in everything from ice cream to frappés and even salad dressings. According to some sources, its mainstream popularity has multiplied by 250 in just the last two years.
Matcha is made from the same tea leaves (Camellia sinensis) as most teas you normally find, including black teas, green teas and oolong. What distinguishes these teas is the way they are processed, and matcha is one of the most labour-intensive and demanding to produce. Three weeks before harvest, the tea bushes are covered to create shade and slow down growth. This increases the amount of chlorophyll that’s produced, which in turn pumps out more amino acids—these are responsible for replacing the bitterness in the tea leaves with sweetness and umami. The tips of the tea leaves are then picked and dried before being stone-ground into a very fine green tea powder. It takes over an hour of stone grinding to produce just 40 grams!
Because the entire tea leaf is consumed, matcha is unrivalled in not only its rich flavour but also its health benefits. Approximately 60 times higher in antioxidants than spinach, matcha has been found to drastically improve the immune system and even prevent cancer according to some studies. It is also jam-packed with L-Theanine (about five times more than regular green tea), which is the amino acid that gives matcha the magical ability to make you calm and invigorated at the same time. Since that translates to caffeine without the jitters, matcha makes a far superior alternative to coffee when you’re trying to be productive and focused.
Because of the labour-intensive process of making matcha, it tends to come with a pretty hefty price tag, so it’s important to pay attention to the matcha’s grade so that you don’t overpay needlessly. Unless you are using it for a very formal occasion, like a Japanese tea ceremony, the lower grades are perfectly suitable for everyday drinking or cooking.
To prepare matcha the traditional way, you’ll need a bamboo whisk, a bamboo spoon and a bowl. The whisking of the matcha powder in hot water takes a bit of practice before you can master the art of stirring up a creamy and foamy texture, but is well worth the effort if you want to appreciate matcha in its purest form.
If you want to get the benefits of matcha in other ways, you can make it your culinary secret weapon and put it in almost anything—because it is in powder form, it is incredibly versatile. You can mix some into your milk or cocktail, sprinkle it onto cold tofu or even bake it into your muffins.
A little taste of matcha
Matcha contains about 70 per cent of the caffeine contained in coffee, but the L-Theanine neutralizes the jittery effects of caffeine without reducing its mind-alerting abilities.
For those of you who don’t want to give up your morning cup of coffee, matcha is a great pick-me-up in the afternoon hours.
- In a Japanese tea ceremony, the offering of matcha is immediately preceded by the consumption of wagashi, or a Japanese confectionary, to strike a perfect balance on the palate.
- Originally brought from China by priests, monks consumed matcha in the morning to help them meditate.
- Matcha blends are given poetic names by the tea masters at each tea farm, such as “The Past of the Cloud Gate” and “Sound of Mist.”