The Book of Matcha (Sterling Epicure, 2016), by Louise Cheadle and Nick Kilby is an introduction and guide for readers about the all-natural, powerful, and nutrient-rich matcha. Readers are taught the history of matcha and the unique growing process leading to its bright green color and popularity for use in tea and cooking. Using matcha in recipes often leaves those who consume it with an alert and focused feeling and a better and longer release of energy throughout the day. Recipes containing matcha first began with teas and other drinks, but have now expanded to almost every area of cooking.
Although you may have only recently discovered matcha – the super-concentrated 100 percent green tea powder – only recently, it is nothing new. Matcha has been drunk in Japan since the twelfth century, and before that in China. Although the Japanese are considered the masters of matcha, key elements of matcha production originated in China.
In China, drinking green tea was commonplace in the eighth century, and the tradition of steaming and drying green tea into bricks was widespread. Then the Chinese Zen (Chan) monks got involved. They broke off chunks from the brick and ground it into a very fine powder using a pestle and mortar, before whisking the powder with hot water in a large bowl to make their green tea. The whisking of the ground green tea leaves became a key part of the Zen Buddhist daily ritual.
Matcha came to Japan when Myoan Eisai, a Japanese monk, discovered ground green tea leaves while traveling in China in the late 1180s to study Zen Buddhist meditation. In love with China, Zen Buddhism, and ground green tea leaves, he returned to Japan in 1191 with a few tea plant seeds. He then began a very successful one-monk campaign to popularize Zen Buddhism within Japan and promote the consumption of matcha, which he believed was vital for meditation.
The Chinese moved on to other teas, including pu-erh, oolong and black tea (which they call red tea). Meanwhile, in Japan, the popularity of green tea developed further, with matcha soon becoming an intrinsic part of Japanese life.
Zen monasteries in Japan embraced the matcha movement as the monks found that the long periods of meditation were easier with matcha inside. The L-theanine (whether they knew it) kept them calm and alert for long periods of time.
Enjoying matcha became part of the cultural tradition and the artistic life of Japan. Those who enjoyed poetry, music and high society activities also enjoyed the luxurious (and expensive) matcha. As the Samurai, aristocrats, and intellectuals began to understand and appreciate matcha, it grew in popularity over the centuries, in particular toward the end of the sixteenth century. At this time, having your very own tea master (page 11) to make your matcha at home became the norm among the Japanese elite.
Ancient records suggest that the very first batch of tea seeds were planted in Japan in around 805 by two monks, Saicho and Kukai. Following the method they had seen on a trip to China, they pressed the leaves into bricks, and then put scrapings from the bricks into hot water. Emperor Saga fell in love with tea and encouraged the propagation of tea in Japan, but it wasn’t until Eisai (see page 10) promoted matcha in Japan and brought tea to his friend, the priest Myoe, in Kyoto, that production really took off.
In the 1190s Myoe took matcha plants to many locations including Uji, south-east of Kyoto, where tea cultivation really flourished. This region has a climate suited to tea production, with limited frost and a mild but constant wind, and is renowned today for the excellent quality of teas produced there.
Tea producers began to develop and enhance their production techniques in order to optimize the growing, shading and grinding of the very best matcha. It’s thought that the shading of the bushes (known as Tana, see page 26) was introduced in the sixteenth century.
In 1738, Soen Nagatani established the Uji green tea processing method. This is a standard production method still used throughout Japan today. He steamed the tea leaves to stop the fermentation process – a method now called Sencha (see page 24). The Uji method/Sencha gives a fresh, green taste to the leaves.
This development was key to tea production in Japan, making the Japanese green tea unique and different from the pan-fired or roasted green teas of China. The matcha process includes a gentle steam after the leaves have been picked to retain freshness.
Matcha production has been refined over the years, and very different qualities of matcha are now available. The number of matcha producers has increased, and the standards can vary dramatically between them.
Matcha was one of Japan’s best-kept secrets, but it is now increasingly consumed around the world. Matcha is a key component of the Japanese tea ceremony, where ceremonial-grade matcha is used. Matcha is also widely consumed as a beverage in Japan, and there are several different grades of matcha for drinking.
In addition, the demand for “ingredient”-grade matcha has increased in recent years as matcha began to be used in both sweet and savory foods. In the last ten years, matcha has found its way into some very mainstream products – from ice cream and Kit Kats to bread and Oreo biscuits.
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