Matcha is a traditional Japanese green tea powder that was originally used for tea ceremonies. But what is it about matcha that makes it so special?
Matcha is everywhere—you can find this beloved green tea powder not only in Japan but also all over the world. Here in Toronto, matcha takes many forms—you might have even tasted it as matcha ice cream or a matcha latte. Far from just a trend, however, this special tea has a long history in Japan.
Tea was introduced to Japan 800 years ago by student monks who studied abroad in China. At that time, only the noble class were tea drinkers; ordinary people could not even afford to buy it. Matcha itself was originated by a monk named Eisai in 1191: he introduced the way of making tea by mixing tea powder with hot water. The technique was then spread by Jukō Murata and Jōō Takeno, and Sen-no-Rikyu advanced the traditional tea ceremony that is so well-known in Japan today.
So what is matcha exactly? The de nition of matcha according to the Japan Tea Central Public Interest Incorporated Association is “ground tencha tea leaves which are grown in shade and dried without rubbing.”
Tencha is an important keyword for matcha: it refers to tea leaves that are covered for 20 days before being harvested. This method is called “ooishita” and it was originally done to protect the tea leaves from frost damage. However, the process of covering the tea leaves also improved tencha’s colour, taste and flavour.
The umami component of matcha’s flavour has to do with the presence of some amino acids such as theanine. If tea leaves grow under the sun, this constituent will change to catechin which has a bitter taste. The ooishita method blocks the sunlight and prevents catechin from developing, thus producing the rich flavour of the tencha leaves. (Gyokuro is another type of tea that is also grown by the ooishita method. You could say it is a sister of matcha.)
Even though they look similar, you cannot refer to ground sencha powder as matcha—they are produced differently. Sencha powder also has a more bitter taste—try doing a taste test and you’ll quickly notice the difference.
Matcha is also more expensive because so much time and effort goes into the growing process. Real, high-quality matcha can become quite costly.
Matcha is available for a range of prices, however—how expensive or cheap the matcha is depends on the way it has been cropped (by hand or using scissors) and the cutting positions of the leaves. Matcha made from tencha using only new leaves will be expensive, for instance. In general, good matcha has excellent flavour, rich taste and a beautiful colour. Each tea shop makes an effort to offer all of these factors in their matcha.
Expensive matcha is most likely sold and advertised as “tea ceremony grade.” However, the most important thing is to buy your matcha from shops that understand the value of matcha. Never buy sencha powder that is sold as tea-ceremony-grade matcha.
Also, be advised that expensive matcha is not necessarily the best for every purpose. For instance, it is not worth it to use tea-ceremony-grade matcha for matcha lattes or baking. Whatever the grade of the matcha you purchase, it is important that the raw material is tencha. For example, matcha for cooking is bitterer than tea-ceremony-grade matcha, but the bitterness of matcha is different from that of sencha powder. Matcha bitterness does not leave a bad aftertaste. The better-quality matcha has less bitterness, letting you enjoy a creamy and mild taste.
Tea ceremony (wabi-cha) was started by Jukō Murata and popularized by Sen-no-Rikyu. This ritual is a way of serving a cup of tea to guests following exacting rules, and is a way to extend hospitality to tea ceremony participants. Historically, tea ceremony was once a necessary accomplishment for a samurai and it had a useful place in politics.
A tea ceremony emphasizes lessons of politeness, manners and other important things in life. It’s also a rich and intricate craft—experts in tea ceremony have to keep learning throughout their lifetimes.
I would like to introduce some of my favourite words from those lessons.
Ichigo Ichie:Treasure every encounter. This means that each experience of a particular moment will be lost when it’s finished—everything happens only once in a lifetime, so enjoy that time carefully.
Wakei Seijyaku: Mentality of the tea ceremony. This concept shows the host the importance of the ceremony for soothing their guests and helping them appreciate the moment.
Wa (和): Harmony
Kei (敬): Respect
Sei (静): Purity
Jyaku (寂): Tranquility
There are several schools in tea ceremony— the main ones are Omote Senke, Ura Senke and Mushakohji Senke. The manners learned slightly vary depending on the schools, but all of them originally started from the teaching of Sen-no-Rikyu. Ura Senke makes a particular effort to spread tea ceremony overseas. There are many overseas branches of the Ura Senke school, and we have an Ura Senke gathering group here in Toronto. The group aims to share this beautiful culture with the world. Nowadays tea ceremony practitioners are predominantly women, which is a reflection of history: the Japanese government used tea ceremony to educate women after the war.
“Matcha was once only used for tea ceremony, but nowadays it’s easy to enjoy a casual taste of this fine Japanese product.”
The matcha-making process
As was mentioned earlier, matcha is made from tencha leaves. First, the producer cuts tencha leaves into small pieces, sifts the leaves and sorts them. Then the leaves are left out to dry. After drying, they are sorted again and ground with a tea-grinding mill (Cha-usu). Each mill produces an average of 40g of matcha powder per hour.
Since matcha goes through this extensive process, it was once saved to be used only for tea ceremony. However, the unique taste and flavour has attracted attention even from people who don’t know tea ceremony, and nowadays it’s easy to enjoy a casual taste of matcha—for instance, at one of the matcha cafés that are becoming increasingly common.
And not only is matcha tasty, but the fact that the drink contains the full leaves means it also grants you a variety of nutritional benefits. The health effects of matcha are as follows: anti-hypertension, cancer prevention, anti-aging, preventing bad breath, activating cranial nerves, improving overall immunity and an antibacterial effect.
My tea ceremony teacher, who is around 90 years old, is like a testament to the benefits of matcha—she has beautiful skin and is always energetic.
Do you feel like drinking matcha now? I will explain how to make a great cup of matcha. Hotter water brings out better flavour, however, water that is too hot tends to make tea bitterer because of the tea’s catechin. But water that is only 50-60 degrees Celsius will not bring out the flavour as much and will not produce enough foam. Finally, matcha requires mixing with a specialized stirrer; this process also helps to lower the temperature before you drink. The ideal temperature for making your matcha is 70-80 degrees Celsius and the best temperature for drinking is 60-70 degrees.
Now, let me share how to perform a tea ceremony with matcha. When doing a tea ceremony, there are two ways to make matcha. One is called Usu-cha (light tea), and the other one is called Koi-cha (thick tea). When learning the art of tea ceremony, one learns how to do Usu-cha first.
How to make delicious Usu-cha:
1. First, warm up a tea whisk by putting it in hot water to soften the tips.
2. Put the filtered matcha powder in the tea ceremony bowl using a matcha teaspoon. One teaspoon is about 1g. Two scoops (2g) will be the best amount. It is important that matcha powder is filtered before use to avoid lumpy tea.
3. Pour hot water into the tea bowl—about 60ml, with a temperature of 70-80 degrees Celsius.
4. With a snap of the wrist, draw quick “W”s with the tea whisk. For the Ura Senke way, cover the surface of the tea with a fine coating of foam. The more foam you produce, the milder your tea gets.
For those who want to try Koi-cha, this variety uses double the amount of matcha powder with less water. Therefore, the nest-grade matcha powder should be used here (because you are tasting it much more intensely). This is like the cappuccino of matcha.
Sen-no-Rikyu is considered to be the person who most influenced the “Way of Tea” (chanoyu, sadō or chadō in Japanese).
How to make delicious Koi-cha:
1. Warm up a tea whisk by putting it in hot water to soften the tips.
2. Put the filtered matcha powder in the tea ceremony bowl using a matcha teaspoon. Four scoops (about 4g) will be the best amount.
3. Pour hot water into the tea bowl—about 15ml, with a temperature of 90 degrees Celsius, a bit higher than when making Usu-cha.
4. Mix it with the tea whisk for about 60 seconds.
How to enjoy matcha
Try following the formal tea ceremony drinking method when you enjoy your matcha. Make your home into a sacred space!
1 Hold: Take a bowl with your right hand and place it on your left hand. While picking up the bowl with your left hand, place your right hand lightly on the side.
2 Turn: Turn the bowl twice from the position of 2 o’clock to 4 o’clock in order to avoid the front of the bowl.
3 Drink: Enjoy it carefully while being thankful for this opportunity to taste matcha. It’s not a written rule, but generally try to finish the tea within three to four sips.
4 Wipe: After drinking, clean off the lip of the tea bowl and turn its front forwards again by turning back twice from the position of 4 o’clock to 2 o’clock.
For those who want to experience tea ceremony in Toronto, join a Chado beginner’s course at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. (jccc.on.ca)
Tea ceremony utensils
The type of equipment used depends on the type of tea ceremony. The basic utensils that are used in tea ceremony are:
Tea bowl*: For the preparation and drinking of matcha. For beginners, it is important to select one that is slightly heavy for stability and so it’s easy to hold on to.
*This tea bowl is made by Secret Tea Time. www. secretteatime.com
A few sweets make the perfect accompaniment to a tea ceremony.
In the tea ceremony, guests are offered sweets before having their tea. This is to make the tea more enjoyable and delicious. Usually confectionery is eaten before drinking tea. There are various kinds of sweets offered with matcha in traditional tea ceremony, notable not only for their taste but also for their delicate beauty and celebration of the four seasons.
Higashi: Dry confectionery. Made with Japanese premium fine-grain sugar called wasanbon. They are often offered at Usu-cha ceremonies. Place one in your mouth and let it melt before drinking your tea.
Daifuku: Sticky rice cakes. I recommend trying daifuku to accompany casual matcha tea time. This is a traditional Japanese sweet containing red bean paste.
*created by Natural Japaneats. www.naturaljapaneats.ca
Modern twist on matcha
It’s not just tea — try home-made matcha lattes, matcha cake and more. There are endless ways to enjoy this flavourful powder.
When thinking about matcha-flavoured sweets and coffee shops’ matcha lattes, many people might think that matcha is sweet. But the primary characteristic of matcha is its bitterness. This is what makes matcha great for desserts: adding matcha allows for the harmony of the bitterness and reasonable sweetness, giving matcha desserts a mellow and unique taste.
Matcha preparation and tea ceremony have been handed down for hundreds of years, and along with these modern twists, both continue to fascinate people all over the world. Here are a few tips to enjoy matcha to the fullest:
Try baking a green tea cake roll! Cooking with matcha powder is also a great way to enjoy the aroma.
Making a matcha latte at home is a must try because it allows you to make it just as strong or mild as you’d like. Here is how you make a delicious matcha latte: Mix 2g of matcha into 10ml of hot water (about 80 degrees Celsius is recommended). Then, mix in 50ml of warm milk, soy milk or almond milk. Add sugar as desired.