WHAT IS MATCHA?
Matcha is traditionally ground using a stone mill. © Suntory
Matcha (抹茶) is a powdered green tea. Known for its particularly strong flavor, it holds a special place in Japanese culture as the leading role in the Japanese tea ceremony, where it is served along with a confectionary sweet, known as wagashi (和菓子). In recent years, matcha has witnessed an international "boom," and it can be found used not only in Japanese tea ceremony, but also as a flavoring ingredient in sweets such as chocolates and even in beauty products such as facial masks.
not your typical green tea
Although matcha is often referred to as "green tea," the actual word for green tea in Japanese, ryokucha, typically refers to the general category of green tea with an emphasis on sencha (煎茶, steamed, rolled, and dried green tea leaves). The main difference between matcha and other green teas lies in the preparation process. Most teas are infused with water and the leaves are not directly consumed. On the other hand, matcha powder is actually whisked into hot water and consumed, meaning that the tea leaves are directly consumed.
Regarding the cultivation process of the tea leaves, matcha actually goes through extra processes compared to sencha tea. Once the buds of the tea leaves are begin to sprout, the entire crop is shaded for about a month before its harvest. This slows the rate of photosynthesis, increasing the amount of chlorophyll in the leaves. In the end, this produces a tea leaf with a sweet flavor and bold umami, or body. Lastly, the careful grinding of the tea leaves using a stone mill results in the powder form that we all know. This powder form is what makes it possible to add a rich green tea flavor to the many green tea flavor products that can be found around the world today.
Tea leaves for matcha are grown under a shade. © hoshi tea
HEALTHY AND ENJOYABLE
While many people enjoy matcha for its unique, complex taste, matcha is also known for its positive health benefits. Herbal teas were traditionally consumed as medicine in Japan. There is a proverb saying “good medication is bitter in taste” (ryoyaku wa kuchi ni nigashi 良薬は口に苦し), and matcha was one of them. Matcha contains a great concentration of a variety of nutrients. It is known to boost metabolism as well as having a calming effect to help relax or sleep better. In addition, the aroma has therapeutic properties, and appreciating the scent of the tea is actually an important part of the Japanese tea ceremony.
Despite its mild bitterness and role as medicine, matcha has long been loved as a special drink. In early Japan, matcha was not something everyone had access to; when tea was first introduced to Japan from China, it was valuable and difficult to obtain. Thus, many strict rules and formalities were created surrounding the tea ceremony. However now is not the case, and we can enjoy matcha outside of the tea ceremony as well, and in Japan, many matcha products are available in common places like supermarkets and convenience stores.
MATCHA MEETS THE WEST
Matcha has long been used in a variety of Japanese sweets. With its recent increase in international fame, combinations with sweets of Western origin has been increasing as well. Here are some examples of some modern matcha adaptations that you can enjoy.
1. Ice Cream
While it is difficult to point to what exactly started the matcha boom, green tea flavored ice cream was one of the first products that spread matcha globally, and it can be found in supermarkets not only throughout Japan, but also in countries around the world. Commonly sold in tubs abroad, soft-served varieties may be more limited to Japan. If you are looking for a cool treat with a traditional taste, try green tea flavored shaved ice (kakigori), a long loved summer treat.
You have probably had a latte before... Next time, try the green tea version! The combination of milk, matcha, and a bit of sugar enhances the sweetness of the tea leaves in a perfect combination. Green tea lattes can be found in various cafes around the world today.
Matcha is often mixed into white chocolate to make green tea flavor chocolate. This can be found in department stores as well as usual supermarkets and convenience stores. A great gift if you are not sure what to get. After all, who doesn’t like chocolate?
4. Baked goods
If you want to enjoy the mild bitterness of matcha more, baked goods may be the perfect option. The baking process enhances the rich aroma of the matcha. Various forms of green tea flavored baked goods can be found, such as cakes and cookies. If you are looking for a more traditional sweet, try matcha flavored castella (カステラ), a cake that was originally brought over from Portugal that has become a common Japanese sweet.