Matcha Madness

I have always been a lover of Japanese language, food, culture and traditions. All cultures have something unique and beautiful that distinguishes them from all others but I find Japanese culture especially captivating.

In honor of the victims of the heart-rending natural disaster currently happening in Japan, this month I am holding the people of Japan in my thoughts and I would like to share my passion about one of their most wonderful creations – matcha green tea. I am taking the time to honor the victims and survivors of this tragedy by sending them my spiritual support and blessings , many times each day.

Matcha lattes have recently become hugely popular since being introduced by Starbucks although they have been available for longer in specialty tea houses. Matcha is not only delicious but full of health benefits.  The reason for that is that the whole green tea leaf is ingested rather than simply the water in which the leaves have been steeped. Matcha contains more antioxidants than superfoods such as blueberries, goji berries, pomegranates and spinach. Some of the health benefits of matcha are reducing cholesterol, boosting metabolism, naturally enhancing energy and vitality, and reducing oxidative stress on the body.

What also makes matcha unique is its delicate creamy flavour which is the result of harvesting the leaves in a very special way.   Several weeks before harvest, the green tea plant leaves are covered, which stimulates the production of more chlorophyll, a darker green color and more amino acids which, in turn, gives the tea its characteristic creamy sweetness. Once the tea buds are hand picked, the leaves are laid out flat to dry and then de-veined, de-stemmed and stone ground into the fine matcha powder we get to enjoy. It takes up to 1 hour to manually stone grind 30 grams of matcha! The elaborate process of cultivating the plants, the quality of the tea buds (only the finest ones are selected) and the ceremonial hand picking and stone grinding is what makes matcha so prized and expensive.

Gastronomers sometimes like to say that there are 5 flavors – sweet, salty, bitter, sour and… creamy the last being so appreciated that it deserves to be in a category of its own. Matcha’s unique creaminess is nicely enhanced by the sweetness of steamed milk (or rice/almond milk for those of us who are dairy-intolerant). Unfortunately, the matcha lattes available at Starbucks contain ingredient-grade powder and less than 50% matcha, the other ingredients being sweet additives. Local coffee shop Blenz uses higher quality matcha and our local tea house – the Granville Island Tea Co. prepares probably the most heavenly matcha latte I have ever had, koicha (thick) and lightly spiced with cardamom, another heavenly ingredient.

There are two main ways of preparing matcha – koicha and usucha (thin). Forgoing the traditional way of steaming the tea, I personally prepare my homemade matcha latte the usucha way (1 gram of matcha or you can use 1.75 grams) and use my Fresco electric whipper rather than a chasen (a bamboo whisk) to blend the powder with fresh cold or steamed milk  until there are no clumps remaining and the milk is frothed into fluffy cream. I then pour hot water into the cup and gently blend it in with the whipper, adding a teaspoon of condensed milk or honey if I want it slightly sweet. Very non-traditional but delicious! And here’s my secret of the month – you can order the best quality matcha from Granville Island Tea Co. and can also get the cheapest relatively good quality matcha available in 30 gr cans at Booster Juice. Finally, in Japanese tradition, matcha is an ingredient of many desserts such as manaka, castella, mochi, matcha cake, manju and ice cream. The tea is usually served unsweetened with a dessert on the side. So if you ever feel like being an impromptu Japanologist for a day, try the matcha latte with green tea cake or green tea moscarpone at Chicco  (1504 Robson St.) – you’ll be glad you did.