Matcha (抹茶), the Japanese green tea, is a special kind of tea made by grinding tea leaves to powder, and it’s famous for its characteristic color. It is used both for drinking, and to add flavor to many dishes and desserts. Matcha is also good for health for its antioxidants and for the fact that it’s rich in vitamins and minerals. Curious to know more about matcha? Let’s start from the beginning.
Origin of tea
According to one legend, the tea plant was born when Bodhidharma, an Indian Bodhisattva who came to China to teach Buddhism, was so disappointed at himself for falling asleep during meditation that he cut his eyelids off. From his fallen eyelids grew the tea plant. The tradition states that tea was brought to Japan from China by the monk Eichu in 815, who served the beverage to Emperor Saga. The Emperor liked tea so much that he gave order to start growing the tea plant in the capital city area. With the introduction of Zen Buddhism, the use of tea was codified in a ritual form, the Tea Ceremony. It was with the increase in popularity of the Zen school that tea became an important part of the life of the upper class, then its use spread to the merchant class and from there it became a common tradition of Japanese culture.
Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Japanese Tea Ceremony, called chanoyu (茶の湯) or sadō, chadō (茶道), is deeply connected to the tradition of Zen Buddhism. Its rules are complex and very specific. Every step of the ceremony is codified, from the way to open and close the doors, to the way to bow or to wash the equipment.
Of course also the tea preparation must follow specific rules: tea powder mut be prepared, and it’s important to know how to measure the tea and powder and how to whisk the tea to the proper consistency. There are many tools used for the Tea Ceremony, such as Chakin (茶巾), a cloth used to wipe the tea bowl, Chawan (茶碗), the tea bowl, that can be of different styles and shapes, Chashaku (茶杓), the tea scoop, usually carved from a single piece of bamboo, and Chasen (茶筅), the tea whisk.
Sen no Rikyū
One of the most important figures linked to the Tea Ceremony is Sen no Rikyū. He was the tea master of two of the three men who carried on the process of Japan unification, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Rikyū’s deep impact on the Tea Ceremony revolves around the concept of wabi, a concept of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. He emphasized important aspects of the Tea Ceremony, such as the rustic simplicity, and his heritage lasts to this day: the tea room Taian can be seen today at Myōkian temple in Yamazaki.
As we’ve seen, matcha has a long and rich tradition in Japan. Today, in addition to being such an important part of the cultural heritage, matcha is also used as an ingredient for many delicious desserts. Let’s see some of them!
- Matcha ice-cream.
- Matcha dango: Japanese sweet dumplings made with rice flour.
- Matcha Kitkat: A special version of the famous chocolate.
- Matcha manjū: rice cakes made with rice pounded into paste, usually filled with anko (red bean paste).
- Matcha monaka: is a sweet made of azuki bean jam filling between two crisp wafers made from mochi.
- Matcha kasutera: it’s a sponge cake. Its main ingredients are sugar, flour, eggs and starch syrup.
- Matcha flavored Western-style desserts: there are matcha cookies, chocolates, candies, cakes and pastries. Matcha makes everything better!
Apart from dessert, matcha is also used in salty dishes, for example it is used to flavor tempura and soba noodles.