Matcha, Japanese powdered green tea; looks set to be the newest trend attracting attention from the tea-drinking world. This fine ground tea, made famous by the Japanese tea ceremony and images of Geisha performing the ceremony, is taking a whole new twist in its uses. Whether it’s being served in fashionable ice cream parlours, served in thick smoothies, baked in bread or cakes, added to espresso coffee for an extra caffeine hit (if you really need it!), used in making noodles, funky ice cubes for cocktails, green tea porridge….you imagine it, and matcha is being added to it. The health industry has gone completely stir crazy over it, with claims of health benefits which completely outweigh any substantial evidence formed, from solid professional research.
So where does the idea of powdered tea come from? And how did we get to this new trend in tea? Today we associate powdered tea with Japan and for long periods of time it was the only style of tea being consumed by the Japanese ruling classes – but it didn’t start there!
We need to go back about 3,000 years to the area of Eastern Sichuan and Western Hubei Provinces in China. This region was ruled by a people known as the Ba, who were known as brave and industrious people, contributing significantly to the regions development. It’s not known whether they were indigenous or nomadic people to the area but before their unexplained disappearance around the 4th century AD they left their mark on mankind. They cultivated rice, extracted salt, produced silk and it is recorded in the Huanyang Guozhi written by Chang Qu around the 3rd century AD, that they were producing tea, as they presented it as a gift to a Zhou King. This would make them the first people in written history to be producing and using tea.
The Ba would pick the leaves and with a little rice paste, make them into a cake. When they wished to make a brew of tea they would bake the cake until it turned a reddish colour. Which in turn would be pound in to a powder and then placed into a ceramic vessel. Boiling water would be poured over the powder and ginger, orange peel, or sweet onions would be added. It was not until the arrival of the Tang Dynasty (609-907AD), and the rise to prominence of, Lu Yu (born 733) – a poet and man who wrote one of the world’s most famous books on tea, Tsiology or “The Classic of Tea”- that this style of tea and the consumption of tea would become popular with the Chinese people.
It was also during the Tang Dynasty that Japanese Buddhist monks were visiting China in ever-increasing numbers to study the teachings of Buddhism. Two of the most famous at this time were Kukai and Saicho, who travelled to China in 804 as part of an official delegation. Saicho went to study meditation and Buddhist text at Fulong Temple on Mount Tai, where the priest was a former Tea Master. After his time at Fulong, Saicho returned to Japan with tea seeds and planted them close to Kyoto, around Mount Hiei. This was recorded as the first cultivation of tea in Japan. Meanwhile, after studying a Tibetan style of Buddhism, Kukai returned with many gifts for emperor Saga in 809 including the ceremony of drinking tea, which emperor Saga enjoyed and appreciated. Powdered tea and its preparation had now reached Japan, and particularly the highest levels of Japanese society.
Back in China, the next major dynasty was the Song Dynasty (960-1126) and then the Southern Song Dynasty (1126-1279), which was a wealthy period in China’s history and a time of academia, the arts, a new capital city in Hangzhou, and the start of tea being produced in a porcelain vessel as opposed to the iron pot of the Tang. Tea was raised to a much higher level, leading to decorative storage and equipment to make the tea as a status symbol. Tea contests called “doucha” became very popular, the aim of which was whisking the tea into the thickest, frothiest drink possible. This form of contest was also adopted by the Japanese visiting dignitaries and monks, who took this competition back to Japan. But tea wasn’t receiving the same type of interest in Japan that it was in China.
It wasn’t until one particular visitor returning from China in 1191, a Buddhist monk by the name of Myoan Eisai, that tea was to have a revival in Japan. The timing was perfect Japan was just emerging from a very dark period of disease and natural disasters, also a catastrophic fire which destroyed much of the capital, Kyoto. Eisai’s Zen style of Buddhism and tea were to be the saviour’s of the Japanese people. Eisai wrote, “Kissa Yojoki” (How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea), which he introduced to shogun Sanetomo, a powerful leader from the Samurai class of people. Sanetomo encouraged his warriors and people to adopt tea and drink it for their health. Tea and Zen Buddhism was to walk hand-in-hand in Japan, as it had done in China. Later in the 14th and 15th centuries a new form of Japanese tea competition was combining the already adopted Chinese doucha contests with tea tasting, and was known as “tocha”. These competitions helped raise tea awareness and its popularity to levels it had never before achieved in Japanese society. It wasn’t until the late 15th century that the tocha began to lose popularity, and with two wars raging the Japanese had other things on their mind.
It was during this time that Murata Shuko created the foundations for the forming of the Japanese tea ceremony chanoyu – which was later to be developed and perfected into an art form by Sen Rikyu, possibly Japans most famous Tea Master. Rikyu was to introduce more “wabi” into the chanoyu – meaning serene beauty, an expression of a mood of spiritual solitude; qualities recognised in Zen Buddhist philosophy. This is why you will hear the Japanese tea ceremony referred to as “wabicha” or “chanoyu”. It is at these Japanese Tea Ceremonies that we can still see the use of matcha powder – today. The social importance and breadth of this ceremony in Japan over the centuries is difficult to express – it has been performed by monks, tea masters and Geisha, and used to create waring alliances, in political decision making, business dealing, and, of course, as a form of romantic liaisons.
During a period of self-imposed isolation known as Sakoku (1633-1853), Japan closed or restricted almost all trade links and visiting rights, and Japanese citizens were not allowed to leave Japan. This created a period of self-experimentation and development, changing many aspects of Japanese life, culture, religion and politics. Without the influence of the Chinese, tea started to adopt a truly Japanese style of production, brewing, and serving. Japanese tea emerged from the Sakoku period as an identifiably different product to that being produced and served in China.
Powdered green teas can be made from various grades of leaf, but the finest Japanese matcha is made from tips and new leaves from the spring pick. The young leaves are shaded from the sun to encourage higher levels of chlorophyll in the leaves. These highly prized shade tea leaves are steamed and cooled, and the flesh of the leaves, known as tencha, is ground between fine stone grinding wheels, before being passed through fine sieves to create the green powdered tea.
Today in the 21st century we are looking for new and imaginative ways of using this most ancient of tea styles. Myself, I enjoy matcha incorporated in to traditional butter shortbread, or in a matcha chai latte – a spiced milky sweet green tea served warm. And who can resist a luscious green tea ice cream? Matcha is a versatile product and can be incorporated in to many recipes as an ingredient – but might I suggest, you don’t always need to use the finest shade tea matcha. Today we have cooking grades of matcha being produced in a mechanical process, which reduces your cost. This year allow your imagination take control and see what you can create from this beautiful powdered tea – matcha!
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