Spring is perhaps the most welcomed and delightful season of all as it ushers in a sense of renewal and all that is fresh and revitalizing. For green tea lovers worldwide, the season holds a particular delight —it heralds the annual harvest of their beloved matcha tea.
Why would anyone be so passionate about something as “ordinary” as tea? The answer is simple. Matcha is anything but ordinary; it is the oldest and most celebrated variety of Japanese green tea for good reason. Since the 12th century, matcha tea has played an integral part in Japanese culture, and it is still used in the famous Chanoyu tea ceremony first introduced by ancient samurai warriors.
What’s more, an overwhelming body of evidence suggests drinking this vibrantly hued brew is one of the healthiest habits you can adopt. Let’s take a closer look at the compelling reasons for matcha’s exalted status.
Matcha, like all green (and black) teas, hails from the Camellia sinensis plant. What makes matcha unique is the way in which it is grown, processed and prepared. Matcha tea leaves are only harvested once a year, in spring, when the leaves are young, sweet and tender.
A month before the annual harvest, the tea fields are covered with tarp-shading to block any light from reaching the leaves. The tea plants compensate for this loss of light by increasing their production of chlorophyll, certain amino acids and sugars, resulting in matcha’s emerald-green colour, nutrient density and enhanced taste.
Only the best, hand-picked tea leaves are then steamed, dried and cut to remove veins and stems. These leaves are stone-ground to make the fine, “talcum-like” powder that is matcha. When you drink a cup of matcha you are, in fact, drinking the whole tea leaf, which is not the case with a steeped cup of regular green tea. It is precisely this “whole-leaf goodness” and the abundance of chlorophyll and amino acids, that make matcha superior in taste and nutrition to other green teas.
By now, most consumers are aware of the amazing health benefits of green teas in general. Countless studies over the years have established their ability to reduce the risk for cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and even neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Science has also revealed that regular consumption of green tea can help with healthy weight management and improved mental clarity.
The nutrient responsible for most of this salubrious benefit is EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate): an antioxidant scientists have hailed as an outstanding immune booster and cancer fighter. And here’s what’s amazing about matcha — studies show it contains 137 times more EGCG than regular leaf green tea. But that’s not all. Matcha also contains more L-theanine, an amino acid that can actually impart a meditative, blissful state by increasing alpha waves in the brain. Though matcha does contain caffeine, it does not induce the jitters like coffee, thanks in large part to the counteractive effect of L-theanine. So what else is in matcha? In addition to a plethora of disease-fighting flavonoids, it contains respectable amounts of vitamins A, C and E, plus B vitamins, minerals and nine times more beta carotene than spinach.
To reap all of matcha’s outstanding health benefits and truly savour its refreshing, aromatic flavour, it’s essential to prepare it properly.
“Matcha should never be prepared with boiling water,” advises Jared Nyberg, owner of Victoria’s JagaSilk Teabar and wholesale tea company. “The water should be boiled, then cooled down for two to three minutes (to 60°-70° C) to enhance the flavour profile and ensure nutrient retention.”
Proper preparation doesn’t end there. Immediately after pouring the hot water over the matcha powder, it is traditional to break up the powder with a special bamboo whisk called a chasen. The tea is then whisked briskly using a back-and-forth motion until the surface of the matcha becomes frothy. If you’re really after an authentic taste and texture, forget about using a wire whisk — it will not whip up the palate-pleasing froth that is the hallmark of the “matcha experience.”
Special matcha bowls called chawan, with high vertical sides and rounded bottoms, are also required to produce an authentic brew.
“You could just mix it with a spoon in a regular cup,” says Nyberg, “but the finished product will be entirely different, and nowhere near as pleasant in taste and texture.”
Not surprisingly, Nyberg and his wife and business partner Miyuki Nyberg, are such stalwart proponents of authentic preparation that they offer an array of workshops on the technique and more through JagaSilk’s “Tea Academy” (noted by the venerable New York Times, no less). There is even a certification course designed for the more vocationally minded.
If sipping tea isn’t your thing, don’t fret. You can still take full advantage of matcha’s healthful properties. The gem-coloured powder can also be used to make mouth-watering food.
“In Japan, matcha is used almost more for baking and cooking than it is for making tea,” explains Japanese native Miyuki.
Indeed, the tea is extremely versatile. It is delicious sprinkled over vanilla ice cream, added to cookie and quick bread recipes, and as a feature ingredient in dressings and dips. It is actually au courant to also pair the tea with food. In fact, many gourmands use matcha like a small, mid-course amuse-bouche or palate-cleanser, creating a great flavour bridge from one course to the next. More importantly, when paired with a specific dish, matcha can help enhance its flavour.
“Matcha pairs beautifully with white chocolate and seafood,” enthuses Daniela Cubelic, owner of Victoria’s renowned tea emporium, Silk Road Tea Company. “Actually, anything sweet seems to pair beautifully with matcha — the contrasting flavours enhance one another.”
If you want to experiment with the tea at home, it’s important to know what to look for when purchasing matcha. Due to the increased demand for the healthful brew, some poor quality teas have crept onto the market. Remember, if the tea hasn’t been shade-grown, steamed, de-veined, de-stemmed and stone-ground, it isn’t matcha. So how can you tell?
“Truly fresh matcha will have a bright, cool-green colour and a natural sweetness with just a hint of bitterness,” says Cubelic. “If your tea doesn’t look and taste like that, it probably isn’t authentic matcha.”
Purchasing your matcha from a reputable supplier is the best way to go. A premium-quality matcha will list things like the harvest and grinding date on the label, in addition to the region where the tea was grown. Though premium brews are not inexpensive, they are worth every penny. Just think of them as an investment in good health.
– Story by Pamela Durkin/Photographs by Don Denton