What is Matcha?
Once Japan’s best-kept secret, matcha is gaining popularity around the world, making waves in the food world for its incredible health benefits and delicious flavor.
In Japanese “cha” means “tea,” and “ma” means “powder”, thus matcha literally translates to “powdered green tea”. Unique from other teas, it is the only tea where the entire leaf is ingested in powder form, making it the most potent green tea in the world.
Matcha leaves are grown on green tea bushes kept under the shade. The shade increases the amount of chlorophyll content in the leaves, making them bright green and full of nutrients. Once harvested, the leaves are then dried and sifted to separate out the stems from the leaf. The plant is then ground into a fine powder using a stone or ball mill.
Matcha is traditionally prepared by whisking a scoop of powder with hot water until frothy, smooth and creamy with a pleasant nutty bitterness. Matcha has a grassy and sweet flavor.
The Origin of Matcha
Matcha tea culture in Japan can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty in China, which reigned from the 7th — 10th century. By that time, drinking green tea was commonplace, and the tradition of steaming and drying green tea into bricks (“tea cakes”) was widespread. The tea was prepared by roasting and pulverising the tea leaves, then brewing the resulting tea powder in hot water before adding a pinch of salt.
From these origins, the process evolved until the grinding of green tea leaves became popular in the Song Dynasty (10th–13th century). To preserve colour and freshness, tea leaves were first steamed, and then dried and ground into a fine powder called ‘tea paste’. The tea paste was placed into moulds where it was then pressed and left to harden in the sun. Soon enough, preparing the tea by whipping the powder together with hot water in a large bowl became the preferred method.
Preparation and consumption of this tea played an essential part in the lives of many early Zen Buddhists, as they realised the meditational benefits of matcha, which provided them with sustained energy and a state of calm alertness that they never experienced before.
The ritual of preparing and consuming powdered tea was eventually brought to Japan in 1191 by Myoan Eisai. Eisai, also known as the father of Japanese tea culture, was a famous Zen Buddhist monk who spent the better part of his life studying Buddhism in China. In 1214 he wrote the first literature on tea, Kissa Yojo-ki (The Book of Tea), which famously described the cultivation method and benefits of tea. The first sentence of the book states, “Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete”.
Eisai was instrumental in the popularisation of tea. The tea seeds that Eisai planted at Mount Sefuri, located on the border of Fukuoka and Saga prefectures, were largely considered to produce the highest quality tea leaves in all of Japan. He also gave seeds to a priest named Myoe of Kosan-ji in Taganoo in the suburb of Kyoto, who planted them in various locations such as Uji, Ninnaji and Daigo.
By the 13th century, during the Kamakura Shogunate, the use of matcha shifted from a strictly religious practice to one synonymous with samurai class traditions and became a symbol of luxury towards the end of the 16th century. It was during this time that tea growers, mostly in Uji, Kyoto, really began to understand the best cultivation techniques.
By the end of the 16th century, another Zen-master, Sen-no-Rikyu, further shaped the tea culture in Japan and is considered one of the key figures in the development of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. He is also associated with the development of the wabi (deliberate simplicity in daily living) and sa bi (appreciation of the old and faded) aesthetic in the tea ceremony.
As the tea ceremony became more desirable as an art form, matcha continued to remain the secret tea of Japan’s elite until the mid 18th century. In 1738, Sohen Nagatani developed a new process of steam drying tea leaves, known as the “Uji method”. This method, still in practice today, revolutionized matcha production and allowed for a much more efficient process, which finally brought this highly revered tea to the masses. Along with this development, tea plantation owners in Japan continued to perfect the process for developing and maximizing the most potent and therapeutically beneficial matcha.
Matcha used to be one of Japan’s best-kept secrets. Today, the popularity of matcha has never been greater or more widespread. Modern matcha ceremonies provide an opportunity for social and intellectual engagements, as well as showing an expression of care and reverence for the tradition.