UJI, Japan—As I raised the bowl to my lips, I could smell the grassy, vegetal notes in the tea, like walking through a park on a dewy morning. The matcha, made from tea leaves ground into a powder, was expertly prepared by a Japanese tea master. With calculated steps and careful, graceful movements, she had entered the traditional tea room and ceremoniously cleaned the tea utensils with a handkerchief, before tipping a small amount of matcha powder into the bowl and whisking it into a frothy, emerald-green drink.
It was early October, and the day was perfect: warm with an occasional breeze. I had traveled to Uji, an area southeast of the former Japanese capital, Kyoto, to find out why it is renowned for producing some of world’s best-quality green teas.
The tea master pointed to a calligraphy scroll hanging in the alcove behind me. The characters, she said, meant “the reflection of the bright autumn moon in the water.” A vase underneath held fall flowers.
After finishing my tea—making sure to slurp as an indication that I had enjoyed it—she instructed me to kneel with my elbows touching my thighs, so that I could closely examine the tea bowl in my hands. She explained that the bowl was decorated with small figures of field mice because during this time of the fall harvest season, they would run around in the rice fields.
The spare, austere decor, the tranquility in the room, and the ritualistic movements all contributed to a sense of sacredness surrounding this highly choreographed dance: the Japanese tea ceremony. It embodied respect for nature, generous hospitality, and purity of mind—concepts derived from Zen Buddhism and the monks who developed the aesthetic and principles of the tea ceremony.
History of Matcha
Food aficionados have taken to matcha, hailing its health benefits and vibrant visual appeal. In Japan, where the art of making matcha reached its zenith, it has a storied history reaching back hundreds of years.
Zen Buddhist monk Myoan Eisai first brought green tea to Japan in the late 12th century, upon returning from a pilgrimage to China. When Eisai shared the seeds with monk Myoe, the latter spread them to Uji, where green tea production then flourished. In the 16th century, the monk Sen no Rikyu elevated tea-making into the sophisticated ceremony that we now know.
Uji’s Unique Conditions
Nobuhiro Hatsutori, owner of the Hattori tea farm in Uji—a family farm that dates back 500 years—said the geography and climate there is uniquely suited for growing tea: A perpetual fog forms above the Uji River, which spreads across the tea fields and gives the leaves moisture. The Uji harvest comes only once a year, at the beginning of May, when the leaves are at their peak quality, he said.
Hatsutori relayed a local legend that said Myoe showed the locals how to grow the tea by riding his horse and telling them to plant seeds in the horse’s footprints.
But matcha as we know it today did not exist until the 16th century, when Uji tea producers developed a shade-growing method: covering the leaves to block out sunlight, allowing the plant to produce more chlorophyll and amino acids that contain healthful nutrients, while lending a verdant color and umami taste.
Matcha is so full of energy-boosting benefits because you are consuming the whole leaves, ground-up, as opposed to drinking the nutrients after steeping tea leaves in water. Its energizing ability is so potent that monks in Japan consumed it to help them concentrate during meditation.
To produce matcha, the leaves are first steamed to prevent any oxidation. Then, the stems and veins of the leaves are removed so that only the blades are ground into powder, using a stone mill.
“Matcha is all about the juicy green bits of the leaf. The top leaves of the tea bush are the best,” said Louise Cheadle, co-founder of Teapigs, a tea purveyor based in the U.K., in an email. She and co-founder Nick Kilby recently published a cookbook, “The Book of Matcha,” full of recipes for incorporating matcha into drinks, savory dishes, and desserts.
Tougher leaves—the ones with more residual veins—are made into culinary grade matcha (for use in cooking), while the “juicy” leaves are ground into matcha for drinking.
Matcha is now consumed all over the world. Cheadle has noticed that in Asia, “the focus on matcha is more around the umami flavor. The focus in the U.S. and Europe is more around the health benefits.”
Cheadle gave some helpful tips on how to pick out good-quality matcha for making and drinking yourself. The color of the matcha hints at its quality: “If it’s bright green rather than yellow (or sludge green), then this is a good start. The taste should be sweet and not astringent or bitter.” And when you touch the powder, it should feel smooth and not gritty.
Buyers should get matcha from a trusted purveyor, as some green teas produced in China and processed in Japan has been known to be tainted by contaminants.
These days, matcha is also used as an ingredient in a variety of food and beverages. Cheadle has seen matcha beer and matcha potato chips in her travels around the world. In Uji, Japan, matcha-flavored treats abound on the main shopping street: from matcha soba noodles to matcha biscuits to matcha rice dumplings.
If you’re looking to consume the tea for its nutrients, Cheadle suggests eating matcha-infused foods that are prepared at cool temperatures, because “heating matcha or cooking it above 80 degrees C [176 degrees F] will impact the composition and, so we believe, the health benefits,” she said.
If you’re looking to experiment with matcha, see the following recipes from Cheadle and Kilby’s “The Book of Matcha.” They have incorporated matcha into the brunch favorite Eggs Florentine and into refreshing drinks, such as the Almond and Matcha Frappé and the Matcha Coconut Teashake. Or for something just a little more decadent, try the Mini Matcha Cheesecakes.