February 15, 2016

The Japanese Food Guide: Matcha

By Stuart Turner

What is it?

Matcha is a finely powdered green tea which is very popular in Japan and becoming renowned worldwide for it's health effects. Matcha comes as a bright green powder, which is made from just the leaves of specially grown tea plants. Just the leaves are used - the stems and veins of the leaves are removed. The whole of the powder is mixed with hot water to create the tea, unlike other teas where the leaves are simply steeped then removed. Because you are drinking and consuming the whole leaf, it's thought to provide more health benefits than standard green tea.

Matcha tea plants are specially grown in the shade for approximately three weeks before they are harvested. 

You will now find the taste of matcha and the colour is so revered, that many chefs and food companies are using it in baking and confectionary, such as matcha mochi, matcha cheesecake and matcha ice cream.

How is matcha tea made?

Matcha tea making isn't as simple as boiling a kettle in most instances - matcha is often used in tea ceremony, and thus more care is taken over it's preparation. You can prepare matcha in two ways; thick, or thin. Thick tea uses a lot more matcha powder in ratio to water.

Matcha preparation begins with a small sieve which is used to ensure there are no clumps in the powder that would be difficult to mix. Traditionally, the Japanese use a wooden spatula to force the matcha through the sieve, so it is very fine.

In Japanese tea ceremony, the finely sieved powder is presented in a beautiful caddy at the table, from which the host will take a small spoonful from, using a 'chashaku' scoop. Water which is cooler than boiling (around 75C) is then poured onto the matcha.

But you don't use a teaspoon to mix matcha! Traditionally matcha is mixed into water using a bamboo whisk, which helps ensure the powder has combined well. 

Traditionally, matcha tea is served with wagashi, which are small, often beautifully crafted sweets.

How is Matcha Produced?

Preparation of the matcha plant begins long before harvest. The plants are covered to prevent direct sunlight, which forces them to produce a lot more chlorophyll, turning the leaves a very dark shade of green. Matcha is so expensive because the process is labour rich - once dried and carefully de-veined, the leaves are ground to a talc-fine consistency, and grinding 30g of matcha may take up to an hour!

Matcha is graded on the time of harvest, the quality of the tea leaves picked, the colour (which indicates good drying), the grinding and the oxidisation - oxidised matcha loses it's colour and obtains a hay-like smell.

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