Matcha, a fine powdered green tea, has gained popularity in recent years in the United States. Whisked with hot water, it is not only consumed as a stand-alone beverage, but in powder form can also be found mixed into ice cream, integrated with artisanal chocolate, and whipped up with milk and syrup into a foamy green tea latte.
The history of matcha dates back to the 7th century during the Tang Dynasty in China where tea leaves were steamed and molded into bricks for storage and trade. The tea was prepared by roasting and pulverizing bits of the brick into powder, and whipping it with hot water. It was not until many years later in the 12th century that this method of preparing powdered tea was brought to Japan. During that time, Japanese priests sent envoys to China for the purpose of cultural exchange. In addition to bringing back examples of Chinese artworks such as calligraphy and poetry, they also brought back powdered tea along with information pertaining to its preparation, including ceremonies developed by Chinese Zen Buddhists. With its proclaimed medicinal properties, such as having a positive effect on heart and organ health, improving brain function, and preventing fatigue and disease, powdered tea, and tea drinking in general, gained immense popularity in Japan.
All teas, whether white, green, oolong, or black, are harvested from variations of the camellia sinensis shrub. The difference in appearance and taste of different teas are due to the treatment of the leaf, including growing conditions, handling, and processing to attain varying levels of oxidation. Matcha is unique in that today in Japan, where most Japanese green tea leaves are grown in full sunlight, matcha tea leaves are grown in the shade for about 20 days before being harvested. The lack of direct sunlight reduces the rate of photosynthesis and increases naturally occurring amino acids and alkaloids, resulting in a sweeter, more complex flavor. The young leaves are then picked and steamed, preventing any oxidation and allowing the leaves to retain their natural green color and fragrance. Unlike loose-leaf teas whose leaves are then rolled and twisted for several cycles to remove moisture after being steamed, matcha leaves are cooled and dried without being rolled or twisted. After the leaves are dried and their veins and stems removed, the leaves are then stone ground into the fine powder we know as matcha.
Traditionally, matcha is prepared in a matcha chawan (tea bowl). A few scoops of matcha powder are added to the matcha chawan with hot water, then whisked vigorously with a chasen (bamboo tea whisk). The tea can be enjoyed straight from the bowl.