Matcha: traditional versus trendy

MatchaSupPre_B01Several months ago, I acquired 100 grams of matcha from someone who sources it directly from a Kyoto farmer. Japanese green teas, such as sencha and gyokuro, are my favorites, but I’d rarely had matcha.

I immediately did a Google search for “matcha preparation.” Among the many links appeared was a video by a young man named Kohei Yamamoto (no relation), “How to prepare MATCHA.” He came across as a likable guy next door, and his presentation was both old school and approachable:

  • he used a chasen (bamboo whisk) and other Japanese utensils not always used outside Japan;
  • he taught the back-and-forth whisking method (as opposed to circular);
  • he took measurements by feel (no measuring cups);
  • he showed the proper way to serve tea, by turning the bowl so that the front faces the guest (I love this detail); and
  • he drank the tea recipe in the traditional manner: bowing, saying “Itadakimasu,” and downing the serving all at once, in a few gulps.

AkaRaku_B01

I also found his blog, Tales of Japanese tea, which chronicles his study since 2009 of sado (also chado, chanoyu), the Way of Tea, Japanese tea ceremony. The more I read, the more I realized how “preparing matcha” is only one element of sado–like how asana is only one element of yoga. Everything in life has another angle to look at it from, for those of you that don’t particularly like this tea, see different blends of green tea at monicashealthmag.com.

I was amused by Kohei’s anecdotes, for example, when he critiques his wife’s ceremonial bowing posture compared to their teacher’s form. (The comparison will be clear to Iyengar teachers’ eyes!)

Nowadays it’s mostly young women who study tea ceremony (mostly to make themselves more marriageable, according to some) and the meticulous protocols might seem unnecessary, even absurd. But if a person is truly interested, those protocols can foster deep concentration and appreciation for the smallest detail.

On YouTube, I found many other how-to videos, such as “How to Make Matcha Tea – Dr. Jim Nicolai” by the Andrew Weil Integrative Wellness Program. Nicolai followed some of the traditional methods while adding a Western sensibility and informative tidbits.

Then I found Panatea and Breakaway Matcha, polished, urbane online retailers of matcha. Their focus: matcha’s health benefits, gourmet cachet, and trendiness. Panatea’s slogan is “Sip up and Zen out,” and the husband-and-wife founders describe their Ceremonial Grade Matcha Green Tea Set as “sleek and sexy.”

MatchaSupPre_B02Breakaway Matcha is served at The French Laundry, offers workshops at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and is very high quality (and pricey). Breakaway caught my attention when the founder demonstrated his way of preparing it: with a milk “matcha frother.” At first, I found something incongruous about using a battery-powered tool instead of a whisk. On the other hand, the raw ingredients are the same (he’s not drowning the matcha with milk and sugar and whipping up a Frappuccino, after all).

While Westerners (including myself) are openminded about unfamiliar cultural practices, we tend to adopt only the most obvious, graspable parts. We do yoga asana, but might study yoga philosophy only superficially. We drink matcha for its antioxidants, but might ignore the rituals of its preparation. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. But the “other” aspects can elevate the experience to more than another health fad.

Images: Hibiki-An

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5 thoughts on “Matcha: traditional versus trendy

  1. Funny how the Westernization of Eastern practices manifests in diciplines outside of Yoga. The Tai Chi and traditional meditation communities are also struggling with similar onslaughts of variants spiriited with the “200 hour” and weekend certification models.

  2. There is no sin in enjoying a beautiful cup/bowl of hyperpremium green tea in any way one wishes. It’s not so much trendy versus traditional as it is traditional versus everything else. Not everyone is into the health benefits first and foremost — they’re just a happy side effect, a bennie quite rare in the realm of foods that taste really great. Many, including myself, come to it from an epicurean perspective, and the farmers from whom I purchase our matcha couldn’t be happier about that development.

    Nor do many care about the trendier aspects of using matcha as an ingredient in cocktails or in pressed juice drinks or whatever health dream drinks everyone seems to be concocting. Whenever matcha is being mixed with other ingredients, trendy or not, you’d be foolish to waste money on good matcha, since you won’t be tasting the matcha anyway — flavors will be dominated by the other ingredients, rendering the grade of the matcha quite moot. These types of drinks should never use anything but culinary matcha, inexpensive matcha that’s *designed* for food/recipe use.

    In the end, it’s all about the farmers/producers: it’s very difficult to grow and produce outstanding matcha. It requires a tremendous amount experience and expertise I can tell you that the ones I work with are thrilled to extend their client base toward sommeliers, many of whom understand how much work and knowhow and experience it takes to produce a superior product. As the soms are beginning to realize, great matcha and great wine have many, many things in common (as do crappy matcha and crappy wine — matcha is just a lot like wine in so many aspects, including and especially the concept of terroir).

    Matcha at the higher levels should never be made with anything except water. You CAN of course make a lovely latte with fantastic matcha, but the fat and sweetness of the milk will dominate the palate and you’ll have no way of determining whether the matcha is any good or not; everything tastes good when it’s a milkshake. Using great matcha for latte-type drinks is a lot like making a sangria with a bottle of Screaming Eagle; delicious, perhaps, but hardly the best use of that wine; you might as well use a cheaper one.

    It was a lovely piece, and I fully realize the concept of space constraints, but the big part that’s missing is the epicurean angle, nor was the subject of coldbrew matcha brought up.

    And finally, thank you very much for the link!

    1. Eric:

      Many thanks for your thoughtful response. When I read about your background (your living for many years in Japan, your keen interest in tea), I hoped that my post wouldn’t be offensive or too narrow. (You’re right about the limits of space, not to mention time and energy.)

      I just wanted to point out that cultural practices (such as matcha and yoga) have backstories worth getting to know. I saw that you appreciate that (I loved your post “Matcha, Zen, and Beginner’s Mind”). But too many people are driven by the latest, hottest, coolest thing–while others make a bundle from satisfying the demand.

      You’re right that there’s much more to know about matcha. I’m Japanese American, and I find that most Japanese people drink simple genmaicha or sencha at home. So matcha is new to me. In fact, I’m finding it a challenge to produce a decent froth with a whisk! Truth be told, I’m curious to try an electric frother myself.

      I regularly visit the Bay Area, so maybe I can stop by your San Anselmo office for a tasting!

      Thanks again,
      Luci

  3. Hi Luci, this is such an interesting post! I love how you went in-depth about the tea ceremony and the traditions surrounding it, rather than just talking about the tea itself. Matcha is great for health benefits but you are absolutely right in saying that we should also respect the age old cultural practices that surround it! I definitely want to order some matcha of my own to have at home and read more about the tea after this blog post. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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