It seems like the word “matcha” has not only entered the English lexicon, but it’s now hard to walk around San Francisco or LA and not stumble upon it. And in Japan, where all the good stuff is grown, stone-ground, and has been around for nearly a millennium (we call it a 900-year fad), it really is ubiquitous.
It’s traditionally served warm, but lately it’s become popular as a healthful icy drink in Japan’s humid warmer weather. I personally love cold brew matcha; there is nothing better when you’re hot and thirsty. And it’s entered the culinary world both in Japan and globally in a big way, showing up in the imaginations of pastry chefs everywhere in the form of pot de créme, croissants, pound cakes, cookies, greenies (matcha brownies), tarts, mousse, layer cakes …and, of course, in green tea ice cream.
It helps to think of matcha more as a food than as a tea. Unlike other teas, which are steeped for a few minutes and then tossed, leaving us to drink only an extract (the hot water pulls what it can from the leaves), matcha is taken whole. You simply add water (hot or cold) and shake it/whisk it/blend it so that the finely ground tea becomes suspended in water long enough to actually drink it. It has a full mouthfeel, not unlike espresso. The good stuff tastes amazing with lots of umami, and almost meaty with notes of grilled mushrooms and blended baby vegetables. The bad stuff, alas, is bad; it can taste pondy, muddy, and almost froggy. Avoid it! You can usually tell just by looking. Great matcha is crazily and vibrantly green, almost hallucinogenically green. It almost looks fake. The more vividly green, the better. Bad matcha is brownish or yellowish and needs fat and sugar to become palatable (then again, everything tastes good as a milk shake).
If you skip all the fat, flour, and sugar that the pastry chefs like, and drink it straight up, water only, matcha is a supremely healthy food. It’s chock full of antioxidants, delivering a whopping 1450 ORAC units per gram (The Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity scale that measures how well foods assist the body in absorbing oxidized free radicals). By comparison, a gram each of the best-performing superfoods like pomegranate, acai, wild blueberries, fresh tumeric, and fresh ginger COMBINED are far less. There’s much more to say about matcha’s truly remarkable health properties, but here are eight good reasons to drink it for optimal health.
The tools needed to make a good cup of matcha are simple, yet important. You don’t want to scoop some powder into a cup, add boiling water,, and stir it with a fork. PLEASE do not do this. You will scald and ruin the matcha and hate it as a result.
What you want to do is get yourself a small sieve, place it over a tumbler, add a rounded half-teaspoon or so (or a full teaspoon for a stronger cup), and gently push the matcha through the sieve so that it falls below into the bottom of the (still empty) cup. You can use a regular teaspoon but the traditional bamboo scoop (chashaku) is a cool little piece of art shaped like a hockey stick. It is perfect for getting the matcha out (you’ll quickly get a feel for how much to pull out for a serving) and for pushing the matcha through the sieve.
You’re now ready to add water, but you’ll need two more tools first: a kettle to heat the water and a battery-operated handheld milk foamer found in any kitchen store. You can use the beautiful traditional chasen, a bamboo whisk hand-carved out of a single piece of bamboo, but there’s a learning curve to it. Its shape makes it’s very difficult to dry properly, so it tends to mold. Lovely as art, less useful as a matcha tool (the purists will surely disagree, I might add).
Water temperature is hugely important. Anything over 175°F will scald the matcha and make it taste really weird and awful. Something happens to it, and it isn’t pleasant. This is where a good kettle comes in. Nothing, and I mean nothing, beats the Stagg EKG kettle here. You can dial in the desired temperature (173°F!), and the water very rapidly heats. The Stagg EKG then holds that temp for an hour! Fricking perfect because I often want a second one within the hour. And it’s an utter joy to use; perfectly balanced in the hand, and feather-light. The gooseneck means precision pouring, and I do mean precision. Precision pouring is important for matcha because you want to add just a light stream of water, slowly and carefully. This is impossible with most kettles, but the Stagg EKG executes the perfect tumbler of matcha.
The last tool is the frother. At this point, you’ve got sifted matcha and a few ounces of 173°F water. Tilt the tumbler so when you turn on the frother, you froth just the liquid and avoid hitting the ceramic sides or bottom (you’ll hear it if you do). After 10 seconds or so you’ll get an unbelievably creamy and rich crema, similar to espresso crema. It takes some practice, but you’ll soon have it down. Here’s a video of the process.
So where’s the mindfulness? In the whole thing. You can definitely hurry through the process and just get on with your day (and sometimes this is all any of us can muster), but you’ll soon see the value in pausing to do this right. Allow yourself the five minutes it takes to heat the water, sieve the matcha, and work the frother. Take another few minutes to sip it. It will set the tone for…something. Who knows what? But the process, and the tea itself, has a way of making you notice things. If you find value in noticing more, noticing your environment and your place in it, noticing your internal and external conversations, noticing your emotions in real time…then now you have an excellent way to do that. All while sipping something that drinks like great wine and happens to be really good for your brain, body, and biome. Not bad for a couple of bucks and a decision to exert a tiny degree of control over your health and happiness!