The Finest Leaves of Matcha

edibleEXTRA
by Marta Madigan
Photos by Ryan Benyi, Styling by Bridget Henry

Brought to Japan from China by a Buddhist monk named Eisai, matcha has been drunk in the Land of the Rising Sun since the 12th century. This powdered green tea is made of gyokuro—tea plants shaded for the final period of growth to increase their chlorophyll content. Depending on the age of the tea bushes, harvesting techniques, and blending, matcha comes in different grades and prices.

The traditional presentation for the Japanese tea ceremony, sadō, the way of tea. The bamboo whisk whips the matcha green tea powder into a fine foam and the minature mountain of matcha is symbolic of the tea ceremony’s Buddhist origins. 

“For authentic ceremonial grade matcha, only the finest bud, or the tip of the plant is hand-plucked during an early harvest,” says Jean Wu, the owner of ZenCha tea salons. Tea leaves are steamed, dried, and deveined before being thinly ground in stone mills. Such premium quality powered tea has a glowing jade green color and silky texture.

“During the Japanese tea ceremony, the host uses hishaku—a bamboo water ladle—to measure the amount of hot water from the tea kettle.” 

Only the highest grade matcha can make a delectable bowl of koicha, a dense hot-chocolate-like beverage served during a full tea ceremony. This slightly sweet and creamy thick tea comes from plants that are at least 30 years old. Leaves of younger plants usually end up in thin tea called usucha, which has a stronger vegetal notes and more watery style of serving. Lower and significantly cheaper grades of matcha are used for culinary and everyday drinking purposes.

“The host also chooses a beautiful ceramic from which matcha is drunk. In winter a deeper bowl keeps the heat longer. In harmonious hand movements, the host whisks the tea with hot water, placing the bowl next to the guest. The guest drinks the tea, then admires the bowl.” 

Difficult to find in retail outlets in the U.S., authentic matcha can be purchased online from a Japanese provider Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms at obubutea.com.

Read more about The Way of Tea in our winter issue.