In 1168, a Buddhist priest named Myōan Eisai became disillusioned with the state of Buddhism in his homeland, modern-day Okayama, Japan, and set out in search of Mt. Tiantai, China, which was the birthplace of his religious sect. It would be the first of two visits that Eisai would make to Mt. Tiantai, and when he finally returned to Japan for good in the year 1191, he brought with him not only a deep understanding of Zen Buddhism, but also the seeds of a plant which would eventually produce the finely-powered green tea known as Matcha.
Today, Matcha, which means “Froth of Liquid Jade” in Japanese, is at the heart of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. During the Tang Dynasty, it was prepared by roasting and pulverizing the tea. They would then boil the resulting powder with a bit of salt. However, during the Song Dynasty, another method of preparing Matcha became popular. It involves using steam-dried tea leaves to make the powdered substance, and then “whipping” it in a bowl with hot water. This latter method of preparation is still used today in modern-day tea ceremonies.
Matcha is made from shade-grown tea leaves, and therefore its production begins when the plants are covered to prevent exposure to sunlight. This is done several weeks before the harvest takes place. After the plant has been covered, its growth slows and its leaves become a darker shade of green. Also, when the tea plants are covered in this fashion, they tend to produce more amino acids, which are what make Matcha sweeter than most other teas.
Only the plant’s best buds are used to make Matcha. After they’re handpicked, the leaves are laid out flat to dry and eventually crumble into a substance known as tencha, which is then stone-ground into the bright green powder of which Matcha consists. The most famous regions of Japan in which this process is carried out are Uji, Nishio, Shizuoka and Kyūshū.
The quality and price of Matcha depend upon several factors, including the position of the leaves on the bush. Ideally, tea leaves used for Matcha are harvested from the top of the tea bush. These leaves are softer and more supple, and give the higher grades of Matcha a finer texture. This is due to the fact that the tea bush sends all its nutrients to the top to support its newest leaves. The leaves found toward the bottom portion of the plant are of a darker color and produce a more bitter tasting tea.
Before the Japanese drink Matcha, they use a wooden spatula to force it through a sieve, which breaks up any clumps. If the Matcha is going to be used in a formal tea ceremony, it’s placed inside a small tea-caddy known as a chaki, otherwise, it’s simply placed directly inside a tea bowl, which is where the aforementioned “whipping” or “whisking” of the tea is done using a bamboo brush called a chasen. The tea is whipped until no lumps remain in the water and no ground leaves are sticking to the sides of the tea bowl; there are two types of Matcha tea made from this process: Usucha, which is a “thin tea” prepared with approximately 1.75 grams of Matcha and 75 ml of hot water, and a “thick tea” known as Koicha, which requires 3.75 grams of Matcha and 3/4 cup of water per serving.
Aside from tea, Matcha powder is used to make a wide variety of other food products. In Japan, it can be found in castella, manjū, and monaka. It’s also frequently used as a topping for kakigori or mixed with milk and sugar to create a tasty drink. In the West, we use it in everything from Swiss Rolls and chocolate to cheese cake and green tea ice cream. North American cafés have also followed the lead of Japanese cafés in offering Matcha lattes, milkshakes and smoothies. It’s even used to make a liqueur called Zen liqueur. You can also find Matcha in a number of health food stores as a result of its various health benefits.
Check back for more information on the Japanese Tea Ceremony!