We consider it an off day if we haven’t seen at least one matcha-flavored food on Instagram that day. Whether it’s a top-down shot of a matcha tea latte or a food blogger’s successful matcha-lemon Swiss roll, the Japanese powdered tea has officially earned a spot in our daily dose of food porn.
It wasn’t too long ago, though, that modern food culture was barely remembering to put matcha on the map. And even now, although we can no longer escape matcha drinks in cafés, some may still be asking “what is matcha, anyway?” Here’s what you need to know about this very trendy ingredient.
Matcha is a powdered tea made from a green tea plant, similar to the one used to make more common forms of green tea. But, these teas aren’t the same. Green tea grows commonly across the globe and doesn’t require special care while tending the plant or making the tea. Matcha, however, is made from a specific green tea plant called tencha. This plant must be grown in the shade for about three weeks before it’s harvested.
When it comes to matcha, grades matter. Tea producers are extremely particular about the leaves used to make matcha. The location of the leaves on the tencha plant play a huge role in determining the grade, or the quality, of matcha powder. Leaves at the very top of the plant are the most soft and supple, and give the matcha a finer texture — and therefore a higher grade. The lower the leaves are on the plant, the lower the grade of matcha they produce. These older leaves are harder and yield a sandier powder.
Where’s matcha from?
The short answer: Japan. Matcha was central to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony practiced in the Song Dynasty (10th-13th centuries). The practice of drinking green tea started in the Tang Dynasty (7th to 10th centuries), but it was only in the 12th century that the Japanese people began grinding their steam-prepared, dried green tea leaves into a powder form.
During the second half of the 12th century, Zen Buddhists introduced into one of their rituals the practice of preparing matcha tea by gently “whipping” the powder with hot water. They discovered that drinking matcha tea provided them greater levels of clarity and allowed them to better focus their energy during meditation.
For many centuries, matcha was incredibly rare. It was produced in small quantities, limiting its availability and making it fairly pricey. In 1738, a new method of processing green tea came into practice, allowing matcha to be produced more efficiently. This practice, called “uji,” is still in use today, and has helped matcha spread from Japan, across the world.
Is matcha healthy?
As the Zen Buddhists discovered long ago, matcha offers many benefits to our physical health, like its ability to detoxify and relax our bodies, calm our minds, and hone our focus. The tencha plant is packed with a very high concentration of antioxidants, all of which help prevent chronic diseases.
The most unique of these antioxidants is catechins, which helps fight cancer by reducing the number of free radicals in the body. (Free radicals are caused by general pollution, UV rays, chemicals, radiation, and other external effects that can damage your cells and DNA.)
When you drink matcha, you’re also consuming the entire leaf of the tencha plant — not just the flavored water from brewing a tea bag, as is often the case with common green tea. You’ll get all the nutrients including vitamin C, selenium, chromium, zinc, magnesium, and fiber. Of course, just know that the matcha trend has inspired brands to matcha-fy anything…including Oreo cookies.
How’d matcha become a trend?
Over the past 25 years, matcha sales in the U.S. have increased by 500%, creating a $10 billion dollar industry. Some argue that matcha earned its claim to fame by giving drinkers the same caffeine kick as coffee, but more health benefits than your standard cup of Joe.
This is what inspired Graham and Max Fortgang, owners of MatchaBar in New York, to open their café. MatchaBar sells a wide variety of matcha-flavored beverages and foods. It thrives in the bustling New York food scene because matcha’s natural ability to calm and provide energy attracts a growing number of customers. MatchaBar opened in late 2014, marking the beginning of what many food experts say was the beginning of the matcha trend in the U.S.
Kathy YL Chan, a tea critic based in New York, has also suggested that matcha may have caught on more quickly than other food trends because of its #aesthetic appeal. The shade-grown tencha leaves boast a brilliantly green shade that simply can’t be beat.
How can you use matcha?
These days, there are so many ways to get your matcha fix. You can, of course, brew a very traditional Japanese matcha tea. Other Eastern cultures serve matcha on shaved ice, add it to milk-based drinks, and even use it in tempura. Matcha has a subtle earthy taste that works especially well with sweet ingredients.
In Western dishes, you’ll find matcha in drinks and desserts — think green tea lattes, milkshakes, and smoothies. Food bloggers have created recipes for everything from matcha-flavored chocolates, cakes, and mousse to cheesecake, cookies, and chia pudding. Go ahead and make your own matcha-flavored concoctions if you’re feeling inspired!
Ready to start on your own matcha journey? Stock up on quality matcha first, but don’t just visit the nearest Starbucks, Peets, or Teavana. Take the time to find a specialized tea store or go online (check out Adagio Teas or Matcha Source.) They sell high-quality matcha so you can get fancy with your #basic matcha by selecting a higher grade.
Congrats! You now know more about matcha than meets the basic eye (or Instagram feed). Join the party and share your matcha creation using #confettikitchen on Instagram !