Combining something delicious with something shockingly versatile is a consumption coup for any serious eater or drinker. Matcha, the powdered green tea, is both theatrical as a drink and dynamic as an ingredient.
From its traditional, performative hot preparation—powdered matcha is frothed with hot-but-not-boiling water in a tea bowl with a bamboo whisk, or chasen—to its myriad tasty and bizarre food applications (shortbread! salt! ice cream! savory dinner rolls!), matcha's uniqueness in the tea world comes not only from its flavor but its composition. Unlike loose tea that we steep and discard, matcha consists of finely milled entire tea leaves—so we consume the whole thing, and receive all the attendant benefit and nuance. (In fact, most tea was prepared from compressed powder cakes until the popularity of loose tea skyrocketed in the Ming dynasty.)
Produced only in Japan, matcha starts out similar to gyokuro (green tea). Shade-grown to darken the tea leaves, only the highest quality buds are harvested. The tea leaves are then dried flat, as tencha tea, and then deveined and stone-milled to become matcha.
Matcha is also at the heart of the Japanese tea ceremony, where it may appear in both thick and thin forms. Matcha is marketed in a variety of grades (which some tea connoisseurs debate the validity of), from an ingredient and food-grade powder to higher-quality matchas that are generally distinguished by color, flavor, and aroma. Matcha is also divided between koicha (more tender leaves picked from older plants, and used to prepare thicker, milder matcha) and usucha (used to prepare a thinner tea with a more bright and bitter flavor). Tea drinkers sourcing matcha may find it hard to know which grade they're buying unless they can read Japanese!
Though matcha is popping up everywhere these days (including Jamba Juice), matcha first-timers should seek out teahouses or Japanese neighborhoods near them, if any exist, suggests Alissa White, who runs matchasource.com, an online-only matcha importer based in Los Angeles. (White also ran a matcha pop-up shop, Matcha Box, this summer in New York's Soho neighborhood to great success.)
And though teahouses have faced a tough go of it in the recession, matcha's almost bizarre flexibility has it showing up in many forms: several places around New York serve "iced matcha," matcha that's shaken with ice and water in a cocktail shaker and served over ice: it's tongue-trippingly smooth and refreshing. Pastry chefs are into it too—White has sold matcha to Nobu Miami for their panna cotta, and to The French Laundry for matcha truffles.
For those who wish to experiment at home, you'll need a tea bowl, or chawan, and a bamboo whisk known as a chasen. (Some preparations also involve a sieve for de-clumping your matcha powder.) You saturate the matcha with hot water (below boiling) and whisk it to a froth. The steps may be easy to explain, but they're hard to perfect.
"You can learn to play a scale in a week, but mastery is another issue," says White, "kind of like learning cello!"
"It's so funny, I whisk matcha tea all the time and think I know how to do it, then I'll sit down with someone who's a teamaster and it won't even come close to what they can do. To really get the right froth, it takes a little finesse. It's a daunting act, because if the water's hotter, it froths better, but if it's too hot, it imparts a bitter taste to the tea," says White, who finds that sweet spot hovers around 180°F.
"These are ancient utensils, made from bamboo, no batteries required—it's not complicated, it just takes a little tiny bit of practice."
Each cup of matcha reveals itself uniquely, from the easy-drinking smooth starts to the sweet finishes, from the bitter thinner cups to the downright creamy, green taste (there is no way to describe this tea without its synaesthetic connection between color and flavor) that carries from the bowl's aroma through each tiny bubble of froth.
And, well, it also apparently cheers you up.
"You're ingesting the whole leaf, which is so rich in chlorophyll, you get the health benefits, you absorb 100% of the nutrients, as well as the mood enhancing component," says White. "They weren't talking about antioxidants 1,000 years ago, but I'm sure they were experiencing this mood-enhancing component," White adds. "Any human body will respond to the tea in that way. it's something that supercedes time or place."