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MATCHA: From the Song Dynasty to Starbucks

Matcha is distinct in the realm of tea: its colour, texture, flavour and its versatility are unique across the board. It’s likely you’ve seen matcha in at least one of many contexts; served in a traditional matcha bowl, in smoothies or lattes, or baked into biscuits, cakes and other confections.


But what IS matcha? And how is it different to other tea? Firstly it should be noted that it comes from the same plant as any other tea - it’s the way it’s grown and processed that makes it so distinct.

A classic matcha latte

I think the first thing people should know about matcha is that it’s strong. In flavour and in caffeine content, matcha outdoes all other counterparts - this tends to make it an acquired taste. It also differs from loose leaf tea in that it isn’t steeped - that is, leaves brewed in hot water then removed - but rather a powder that’s mixed and dispersed into water, and therefor consumed directly. Because of this, the high levels of theanine, chlorophyll and amino acids matcha is known for are digested.


There are different grades of matcha, so price and flavour profiles will vary. When shopping for a matcha, look out for two things: colour and texture. Higher quality matcha will be bright green and a finely ground powder, whereas lower quality matcha will be less vibrant in colour and grainy in texture - think more grey and chalky with cheaper matcha, as opposed to emerald and fluffy with more expensive matcha.


WHERE DOES MATCHA COME FROM?

The idea of powdered tea was popularised during the Song Dynasty in China around a thousand years ago. Prior to this, standard trade-ready tea was produced in bricks of compressed, partially dried leaves. Powdered tea was used in Chinese Chan Buddhist meditation and ritual practices, and it was the visiting monk Eisai who introduced matcha to his homeland in Japan. From there, Zen Buddhism embraced powdered tea fully incorporating it into their rituals as well. During the 14th and 16th centuries, Japanese high society gained an appreciation for matcha, further developing its aesthetics and integration into daily life.


HOW IS MATCHA GROWN AND PROCESSED?

Before matcha is made, tencha leaves must be harvested. Tencha, translating to something like “mortar tea” or “tea for grinding,” is tea that is grown, in part, shaded by cloth. Cloaking the tea inhibits it’s ability to photosynthesise resulting in a darker shade of green and higher levels or chlorophyll, theanine and amino acids. These tencha leaves are then processed, removing the stems and veins - only then can tencha become matcha.


Tencha leaves are then ground very slowly with large mill stones - grinding too fast creates heat which in turn changes the aroma of the leaves, and it takes roughly one hour to grind about fifty grams of matcha. Interestingly, drinking tencha leaves was forbidden in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, so only tea growers and traders knew its flavour.


Chawan (matcha bowl) and chashaku (bamboo scoop)


HOW DO I MAKE MATCHA?

As mentioned earlier, there are a lot of ways to use matcha as both food and beverage. A popular method is a matcha latte: simply add 3/4 of a teaspoon of matcha to a little bit of hot (not boiling) water and make a paste. Heat up some milk, pour it over the paste and sweeten to taste. Easy!


To make it in the traditional Japanese way, check out this video we made with Gourmet Traveller magazine. In it you’ll see the various tools of the matcha trade and how they’re used to prepare the traditional expression of matcha.







Traditional matcha has a complex profile, one that in my experience pairs well with food. Matcha’s sweet-like-a-snowpea flavour accompanies the often savoury nature of the Japanese food I like to eat, the contrast is really satisfying. Add some pickled ginger in there and you’ve got yourself my kinda party. As Riley Wilson from Gourmet Traveller says, “skip the lattes, muffins and soft-serve and embrace matcha on its own terms” and on one hand I agree. But on the other, there’s just so much you can do with matcha - it being a powder with such a distinct taste makes it so interesting. From cakes to cocktails, lattes to lemonade, google “matcha ideas” and you’ll see endless possibilities.


RECIPE: AMBER’S ICED OAT MILK + STRAWBERRY MATCHA LATTE

YOU WILL NEED

1 teaspoon of matcha

1 teaspoon of honey

50ml of hot water

3 or 4 strawberries

A glass

A glass full of ice

300ml of cold oat milk


DIRECTIONS

1. Create a paste with your teaspoon of matcha, honey and hot (not boiling) water - swirl it around so it binds together, then leave it to cool.

2. Muddle your strawberries in your glass, and pour your ice on top.

3. Pour your match paste over the ice, and add your oat milk.

This recipe takes about 3 minutes and isn’t only delicious, but super healthy: strawberries are high in vitamin C, and matcha is a powerful source of antioxidants, theanine, chlorophyll and amino acids.





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