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The Way of Matcha

The ancient ritual of making matcha

Whipping up the frothy green stuff is actually fairly speedy, but the effort expended in ensuring perfect enjoyment of it is quite extraordinary. Calligraphy, painting, architecture, ceramics, furniture making and even gardening are all conscripted into service at the altar of Teaism.

The matcha magic starts early in April when the first new shoots appear on the undulating rows of tea bushes that hug the contours of the land beneath them. Tea is grown all over Japan, but the three powerhouse prefectures of Kagoshima on the southern tip of Kyushu, Mie in central Honshu, and Shizuoka between Mount Fuji and the Pacific, account for well over half the archipelago’s harvest. Three to eight weeks before picking, large overhead frameworks are constructed over the tea bushes destined to become matcha and gyokuro 玉露, ‘jewel dew’ tea. The frames are loaded with rush screens and rice straw to block out the sunlight. By slowing down photosynthesis, the bright green leaves are higher in theanine, the amino acid responsible for matcha’s clean and mellow flavour. On the 88th day after Risshun, 立春, the first day of Spring according to the traditional calendar, the topmost leaves are hand plucked and then immediately steamed. Steaming sets the hundreds of varieties of Japanese green tea apart from their Chinese and Korean counterparts. The leaves are blow dried in multi-chambered air machines and then, erstwhile bushbuddies gyokuro and matcha part company. While the jewel dew leaves are tightly twisted, the matcha is scattered flat and the leaves are allowed to disintegrate. Removing the veins and stems produces tencha 碾茶, ‘ground tea’, which is then pulverised in stone mills to a bright green powder as fine as cornflour. There are three main grades of matcha; low grade for cooking; usucha 薄茶, ‘thin tea’, the most commonly used variety; and koicha 濃茶, ‘thick tea’, reserved for extra special use. Quality is reflected in price and a quick online search returns premium grade koicha at a whopping $99.95 for 40 grammes.

There is a correct way to make matcha and straying from this path will result in a bitter brew at best and, quite possibly, eternal damnation at worst. Tea is a serious business (being English born, I understand this seriousness too) and matcha is about as serious as it gets. The full paraphernalia required to simply make matcha at home is prestigious. We’ll get on to the full blown tea ceremonials shortly, but your basic matcha making shopping list includes; chashaku 茶杓, chasen 茶筅, furui 篩, chakin 茶巾 and, of course, chawan 茶碗. Until you’re up on your terminology, I’ll translate; a bamboo scoop, a bamboo whisk (50 to 120 prongs for usucha, 32 to 48 prongs for koicha), a sifter, a linen tea cloth and a tea bowl. A thermometer is optional, but you’d better be certain your water is in the Goldilocks zone between 70°C to 80°C or else. Perfect usucha has a thick froth of tiny bubbles with no breaks in it to the liquid beneath, while koicha is froth free. You can avoid a catalogue of horrors from weak froth to clumps clinging to your teeth with your very own cut-out-and-keep guide to making usucha, listed later in the article.

Matcha also has something in common with Genghis Khan. Yes, really. While everyone’s favourite Mongol warlord was ‘just’ a man of flesh and blood and matcha is ‘just’ a preparation of plain old camelia sinensis (otherwise known as tea), both are the relics around which cultural phenomena swirl. Limiting a discussion of matcha to cultivation and preparation is about as useful as discussing Mr Khan in terms of his height and penchant for ankle boots. Matcha‘s mythos began with the introduction of tea to Japan in the early 9th century (compared to its 17th century début on British shores) by Buddhist monks. As in the UK, this imported Chinese leaf became a touchstone of national identity. In contrast to the homely British cuppa, however, matcha finds itself at the pinnacle of high culture as the focal point of the tea ceremony. Like much of traditional Japanese culture, sadou 茶道, the ‘way’ or ‘philosophy’ of tea, first took form during the Muromachi period from 1336 to 1573. Sadou aficionado Asai Hiroki tells me that the tea ceremony can be considered a kind of ‘time capsule’, preserving customs and social practices of the era. Hiroki also makes a mean matcha carpaccio, incidentally.

Whipping up the frothy green stuff is actually fairly speedy, but the effort expended in ensuring perfect enjoyment of it is quite extraordinary. Calligraphy, painting, architecture, ceramics, furniture making and even gardening are all conscripted into service at the altar of Teaism. The sukiya 数奇屋, ‘tea house’, and its surrounding gardens are deliberately designed for maximum aesthetic effect. Seasonal sweets and a special meal are served. Calligraphy and meticulously arranged flowers are placed in a niche in the sukiya to be admired, and even a particular kind of charcoal is used to complete the experience. Tea bowls are especially prized and bear names such as Miyamaji 深山路, ‘Path Deep in the Mountain’ and Fuyuki 冬木, ‘Tree in Winter’ to accompany them through their centuries of use. The ‘front’ of the chawan often sports a flaw or irregularity deemed to be exceptionally pleasing and the bowl is carefully rotated twice to present its best side to the guest.

Just as there is no apparent clash (or indeed, irony) in the kimono / Hello Kitty iPhone combination in 21st century Nippon, matcha is very much a part of (post) modern culture. You’ll find matcha in Starbucks as well as the sukiya, and in elegant fusion cuisine and Häagen Dazs alike. Muffins and body scrubs come laced with it and marketeers tout it as a panacea for everything from ageing and tooth decay to kidney stones and cardiovascular disease. Some even claim it for the fight against cancer and HIV. China and Korea, those other strongholds of Teaism, come pre-soaked in green and matcha is fast becoming a fact of life for everyone from the McQueen clad mallrats of Moscow to the beach bronzed beauties of Búzios. Yoga types swear by it for vigour with inbuilt eastern mystique, besieged business types laud its ‘slow release’ caffeine kick and Harajuku girls slurp it up and wolf it down as they moon over the latest idoru (idol) and apply another set of fake lashes. Sadou has evolved too, with a new breed of exquisite tea houses like Yokohama’s Shuhally (www.shuhally.jp) combining tradition with innovation, and artists such as animé inspired ceramicist Kim Ryu and self-proclaimed ‘skull artist’ Maruoka Kazumichi give matcha making equipment a fine art twist.

Matcha has the ubiquity of coffee, the kudos of Shakespeare, the mystique of saffron and the virtue of a walk in Constable country. It straddles society from top to bottom and side to side. In short, a cultural equivalence for matcha that covers all bases simply doesn’t exist. But this matters not, for it thunders west (and south, north and eastwards) as unstoppably as Genghis and will shortly be at your door.

What’s in a name?
While some teas, such as gyokuro, ‘jade dew’ or oolong 烏竜, ‘bird dragon’, have poetic names, matcha 抹茶 simply means ‘powdered tea’. The first character 抹 is pronounced ma or mo in the original Chinese and matsu in Japanese, with the added effect of doubling any following consonant. It has the basic meaning of ‘grind’ or ‘pulverise’. It also appears in massatsu 抹殺, ‘erasure’, ‘denial’ or ‘obliteration’, in masshou 抹消, ‘delete’ and in makkou 抹香, ‘(ground) incense’ and a sperm whale is makkoukujira 抹香鯨, ‘incense whale’. 抹 is also the first element in the rather spectacular compound masshoutourokushoumeisho 抹消登録証明書, ‘certificate of proof of vehicle scrappage’. The second character 茶 is pronounced cha (or sa in sadou 茶道, which also has the alternate pronunciation chadou) and simply means ‘tea’. In Japanese, one rarely talks about cha alone, adding an honourific prefix resulting in o-cha 御茶. The word comes from northern Chinese Mandarin ch’a, and then journeyed overland along the Spice Road. It is pronounced almost identically in Portuguese, Persian, Russian and British military slang (cup of cha, anyone?) while the Arabic shay, Turkish çay and Greek tsai are all closely related. English ‘tea’, French thé, Spanish and German tee, however, all came over the waves from the southern Chinese Amoy pronunciation of the same character, t’e, via the Dutch thee.

Many thanks to Asai Hiroki 浅井 裕樹 and Fukuba Yuko 福場 祐子 for their help and insight.

The Way of Matcha
The Way of Matcha
The Way of Matcha
The Way of Matcha
The Way of Matcha
The Way of Matcha
The Way of Matcha

Further reading