My First Taste of Matcha

I first tasted matcha on the evening of November 2, 1959 in a home in Urawa City, a suburb of Tokyo. I was 17, a student in an experimental school, the International School of America, that took 22 students and six faculty around the world for eight-and-a half months to live with native families in many countries. Japan was our first overseas destination, and this was my second night in a Japanese home. Our host families had sons majoring in English at Keio University, but then as now Japanese learned literary English in school and could not speak it unless they worked with private tutors. Communication with my Japanese hosts was limited.

Nonetheless I understood that the mother planned to take me to her next-door neighbor’s house for a tea ceremony; the neighbor was a practitioner of chanoyu (“the way of tea”) and wanted to demonstrate her art to an American visitor. One of the books I had read in preparation for my stay in Japan was The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura, written (in English) in 1906 and considered a classic introduction to Japanese culture. It was my introduction to the tea ceremony.

Growing up in a middle-class home in Philadelphia, I thought of tea as the drink of old folks and sick people. Aside from the low-grade oolong served in Chinese restaurants, the only tea I knew was the mass-market bagged variety that my parents and I made into iced tea in summer, heavily sweetened and flavored with lemon. As soon as I arrived in my Japanese home, I was served cups of sencha, the everyday brewed green tea that is ubiquitous in Japan. I had never had tea with such an agreeable color and flavor. But I knew next to nothing about matcha, the powdered green tea that is the heart of the tea ceremony.

Japan in 1959 still showed signs of recovering from the devastation of the war. The buildings of Urawa City were shabby, the streets dirty. Homes were unheated and cold in November, but inside they were tidy. That night my host mother walked me to the home of her neighbor, who greeted us dressed in kimono. She ushered us into a dimly lit tatami room with cushions to sit on in front of a low table that held a small flower arrangement and an array of tea utensils: a kettle on a charcoal burner, a bamboo dipper, tea bowls, a tea whisk, a bamboo tea scoop, and a small lacquerware container. The neighbor lady sat across from us on one side of the table. We had no common language.

I did my best to sit on my knees, Japanese style, while my hostess began the slow and elaborate ritual of cleansing the utensils and preparing the first bowl of ceremonial tea for me. After warming the ceramic bowl and carefully drying it, she opened the lacquerware container and measured out several scoops of matcha into the bowl.

The color of this powdered tea made a strong impression on me: a brilliant, vibrant green — easily the most eye-catching element in the room. What next caught my eye and captivated me was the tea whisk (chasen), a beautiful utensil and marvel of Japanese craftsmanship carved from a single piece of bamboo. After pouring a small amount of hot water into the bowl, my hostess picked up the whisk, held it with great focus of attention, then used it to agitate the powdered tea and water into a froth.

She had previously placed a small sweet on a square of paper in front of me and now gestured that I should eat it. She then handed me the bowl of matcha and invited me to drink. I have since learned the correct form of accepting the bowl, admiring it, turning it three times, raising it and consuming the tea in three noisy slurps, before turning it back to its original position and handing it to the one conducting the ceremony. I doubt that I did it correctly that night, but as a foreign visitor, I was given plenty of latitude. The rich flavor of the frothy green tea stayed with me: an initial bitter note followed by a lingering sweetness.

I had occasion to drink matcha in several other tea ceremonies during that first visit to Japan and came to love it. When I returned to the States the following year, I tried to get powdered tea but could not find a source. Americans in 1960 were not very knowledgeable about Japanese cuisine. Most big cities had one Japanese restaurant (usually called “Ginza” or “Sakura”) that served clear soup, miso soup, sukiyaki, tempura, teriyaki glazed salmon, Japanese beer and sencha, but that was about it. No sashimi. No sushi. (I had felt very adventurous eating raw fish when I was in Japan.) Had anyone tried to tell me that Americans — including cowboys in Arizona where I have lived for the past 40-some years — would one day be mad for sushi, I would never have believed it. Nor would I have believed that matcha would be the most fashionable beverage of 2016, widely available in stores and online, served in hip matcha bars in New York and San Francisco, and lauded by celebrities for its health benefits.

Sadly, the matcha Americans are drinking so much of is often of poor quality. Japan exports only a small percentage of the matcha it produces, mostly the lower grades that are less vivid in color and more bitter. Also, the finely powdered tea deteriorates quickly on exposure to air, light, and heat. Unless it is fresh and has been stored properly, it will yield a beverage with an unattractive yellow- or muddy-green color, lacking the distinctive, complex flavor it should have.

In Japan, matcha is equally popular, although not so much as the focus of the tea ceremony, which draws few young people these days. Often, you can order it at shrines, museums, and cultural centers by kimono-clad women who will whisk a bowl for you and present it with a sweet. A number of my Japanese friends say they start their day with matcha instead of coffee. You can now get iced matcha and matcha lattes in coffee shops in Japan and enjoy cookies, cakes, and frozen desserts made with it. Once I got from a vending machine in the countryside a Häagen-Dazs matcha ice cream bar — bright green inside a brown sugar coating — delicious! — much better than the mostly flavorless “green tea ice cream” offered by Japanese restaurants here. Most of these products are made with “food-grade” matcha, much below the best quality (“ceremonial grade”). Superior matcha is pricey — as much as $70 for 30 grams (just over an ounce).

Matcha is expensive because production is labor intensive. It comes from special tea bushes that are covered with shade cloth for several weeks before the spring harvest. Deprived of direct sun, the new leaves grow larger and thinner with more chlorophyll to take advantage of the lower light. This gives them a more intense green color than other firms of tea. Shading also increases their content of compounds responsible for matcha’s distinctive aroma and flavor, as well of amino acids, in particular theanine, a natural calming agent that balances the stimulant effect of caffeine. The bud and top three leaves of the plants are hand picked, steamed, and dried (but not rolled as are leaves for ordinary green tea). The dried leaves are sorted; stems and veins are removed; then they are ground between grooved stones to a powder as fine as flour.

Little has changed about this process since powdered tea was brought to Japan from China by a Zen monk 900 years ago. The main innovations are synthetic shade cloth, which has replaced straw to cover the tea bushes, and machines to turn the grinding stones instead of human hands. Matcha quickly became popular in Zen Buddhist monasteries in Japan; it helped monks stay awake during long meditations. Later, it was taken up by the nobility, who esteemed it as the finest form of tea. Japanese perfected the cultivation and production of matcha. With increasing worldwide demand today for powdered tea, China is now exporting a lot of matcha, but its quality is far below that of the best from Japan. Chinese matcha lacks the electric green color and deep flavor of the Japanese product; its texture is often grainy; and test results for heavy metals and pesticide residues are not reassuring.

I keep a supply of ceremonial-grade matcha from the Kyoto region in my freezer. For regular use I sieve enough for a week (to prevent lumps from forming when I mix it with water) and store it in a traditional lacquerware container. Throughout East Asia, preparing and drinking tea in general and matcha in particular are strongly associated with the contemplative life. I find the act of making a bowl of matcha to be meditative. I take pleasure in holding the rough ceramic tea bowl I got in Japan years ago, handling the bamboo whisk, admiring the intense color of the frothy liquid, and finally savoring its complex taste. The stimulation I get from my bowl of matcha is more of a relaxed alertness than the jangling effect I experience from coffee, perhaps because of the theanine. In hot weather, I use a freeze-dried matcha powder that dissolves readily in cold water to make a refreshing, deep-green iced drink that I sometimes add a bit of maple syrup to but more often take unsweetened. The health benefits of regular consumption of green tea have been well documented; matcha has more of green tea’s antioxidants, and when you drink it, you are ingesting the whole leaf, not just a water extract.

I find the booming popularity of matcha in North America both surprising and welcome. I don’t expect many people here to learn the archaic form of the tea ceremony. It’s fine with me if they use a mini immersion blender instead of a whisk to prepare it, drink it from a glass or cup rather than a Japanese tea bowl, sweeten it, or turn it into a shot or a latte. I do hope, however, that they will make an effort to get really good, fresh matcha and not settle for products that are dull, yellowish, bitter or otherwise fail to convey the experience that has made this special form of tea so appreciated and valued over the centuries.

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