However, the ingredient has become so ubiquitous that often it’s purchased and prepared without acknowledging its cultural roots. Despite being a “trend” in the U.S., the tea has been sipped and served in Japan, China, and Korea since the twelfth century. Elaborate matcha tea ceremonies are still common in these countries; this truly is a very special tea.
Even if you aren’t going to have an elaborate tea ceremony at home, there is a very specific way to make matcha that not only honors its roots, but ensures it truly tastes how it’s supposed to. What follows is a brief history of the tea and tips for making it at home.
How do the health benefits of matcha compare to green tea? Watch the video below to find out.
The history of matcha
Classically trained chef and Kintsugi Wellness ($23) author Candice Kumai has studied matcha with monks in Kagoshima, Japan (and other parts of the country) to learn more about the tea’s deep cultural and spiritual roots. “Thousands of years ago, monks from Japan went to China and they tasted delicious green tea,” Kumai says. She says the monks took the tea back with them to Japan and ground up the leaves to make matcha. In fact, sipping matcha reportedly enriched the monks’ meditation process, as one benefit of matcha is mental clarity and alertness from its caffeine content.
In addition to bringing matcha to Japan, Kumai says Buddhist monks were the ones who originally produced the tea as well. She explains that the traditional matcha-making process is very ritualistic and sacred because its roots are connected to Zen Buddism. “[Matcha is produced] by taking the shade-grown tea leaves, steaming them, and drying them. The grinding is done using a special stone,” she says. The stone is called mikage-ishi, and Kumai says this traditional Japanese stone milling process is much slower than industrial methods. The slower milling process minimizes heat and friction that can destroy the nutrients in the leaves.
Consuming matcha has equally been as done mindfully as it has been made. Traditionally, matcha is served during an elaborate tea ceremony. “Tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522–91) is best known for perfecting the art of the matcha tea ceremony and making the Japanese tea ceremony more accessible to the Japanese. He made the tea ceremony into an art form,” Kumai says. “We still honor his work and matcha tea ceremony ways in Japan to this day. It is our duty to respect and carry on the traditions of this beautiful practice.”
She says the steps of a traditional Japanese matcha tea ceremony include taking off your shoes and washing your hands as an act of purification. Next, the host does a cleaning ritual of the tea bowl and whisk, then prepares the matcha by whisking the powder and water in a bowl. From there, it is served one of two ways. “Koicha [thick matcha] is made by the host and the tea is sipped from one bowl from each guest. In an Usucha [thin matcha] tea ceremony, a bowl of tea is served to everyone individually and is much more chill.”
Of course, matcha is no longer only sipped by monks and an elaborate tea ceremony is not done each time. “Around the seventeenth or eighteenth century, Baisaō, another monk, wanted everyone to be able to drink tea; he wanted it to be available to everyone,” Kumai says. He reportedly popularized sencha drinking, another type of green tea, making the more formal matcha slightly less popular as a result. But people in East Asia—and all across the globe—still enjoy drinking matcha every day.
Kumai says while having an elaborate tea ceremony every time you make matcha at home certainly isn’t necessary, it’s still important to make it a certain way. In order to do so, you need the right tools.
What you need to prepare it at home
The first thing you need to make matcha at home is, well, the matcha itself. Tomoko Honda, the manager of the Ippodo tea store in New York City and the company’s leader of global operations, explains that it’s important to pay attention to where your matcha is sourced from, to make sure it’s authentic.
Honda explains that authentic matcha is grown in shaded fields in Japan. “Green tea is grown in shaded fields and also in open fields with no shade. Both are often ground up and sold as a powder, but truly authentic matcha only comes from shaded green fields, ground into powder using a stone mill.” She recommends doing a little research into any company before buying its products to see exactly where the tea is sourced from and how it’s made. Ideally, the brand you pick is also Japanese- or BIPOC-owned, as many white-owned companies have colonized matcha without paying proper credit to the drink’s cultural heritage.
“There are also different grades of matcha,” Honda says. She explains that the higher the grade, the deeper green the hue and the more potent it is. “A high grade is more bitter, savory, and fuller-bodied, while a lower-grade matcha has a lighter taste.” She explains that which one to go for comes down to taste preference, but adds that high-grade matcha is often reserved for special occasions while a lower-grade one is typically meant to be sipped more regularly.
Both Honda and Kumai say the color of the powder is another way to know if what you’re buying is high quality. It should be a vibrant green (or deep, forest green for high-grade varieties). Powder that’s yellow or brown is either low quality or rancid.
Besides the matcha itself, there are a few other tools needed to make it at home: a tea bowl (called a chawan), bamboo tea ladle, tea strainer, and bamboo whisk. (Both Ippodo and Kumai sell matcha sets.) Honda says that the tea ladle is used to scoop the powder from its container to the bowl, while the tea strainer is important because the powder can clump. The whisk is the pièce de résistance necessary for blending the matcha powder with the water, making the perfect frothy tea.
“It’s important to have the [right tools] because making matcha is a ritual that’s really grounding,” Kumai says. “When I make it in the morning and go through the motions, it sets a tone for the day and it’s a way to pay homage to my grandmother, who gave me my first matcha whisk.” Even if you don’t have a direct personal connection to the tea, Kumai says the ritual of making it correctly is a way to honor the drink and its mindful, meditative origins.
How to make matcha
Now that you have your powder and tools, you’re ready to make your tea. First, Honda says to use the bamboo tea ladle to scoop matcha powder into the bowl. (A typical serving is two scoops.) Next, use the sifter to get out any clumps. Then, pour hot water into the tea bowl. “The best temperature is 175°F to 185°F,” Kumai says. “Boiling water makes the matcha too bitter and unpleasant in taste.”
The last step is the most artful: the whisking. “Whisk by making vigorous ‘m’ or ‘n’ motions quickly flicking the wrist,” Kumai instructs. “You want the whisk to slightly touch the bottom of the bowl,” Honda adds. After about 15 seconds, you’ll start to see little bubbles form on top.
Now, your matcha is ready to drink, which Kumai says can be done straight from the tea bowl. “The proper way is to hold the bowl with one hand on the side and one underneath so you can really smell the aroma of the matcha while you drink it,” she says. Honda says if you plan to enjoy the drink with others, you can pour it from the bowl into a teapot and serve it, pouring from there into teacups.
Some people prefer to make their matcha with alternative milk rather than water or add in health-boosting ingredients, like collagen. Kumai says she’s all for this. “You can make it your own while still honoring the process,” she says. If you’re adding anything extra, she says it’s best to do it before the water (or milk) is added to the tea bowl. That way, it’s integrated into the whisking process.
“The matcha-making process is very meditative and it’s supposed to be,” Kumai says. “This is part of what makes it special.”
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