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“Culinary” Matcha, Anyone?

“Culinary” Matcha, Anyone?

By now, most people with even a marginal interest in food and food trends have heard of matcha. This is a good thing, and its overall popularity continues to climb.

The confusing issue is that many people consider matcha to be in essence a kind of exotic spice, to be used as an ingredient for cooking and desserts (think green tea ice cream, matcha tiramisu, matcha macaroons, matcha truffles, and all manner of smoothies and blended drinks). I love how creative many chefs are becoming with it, and its color and health benefits seem to make everyone happy.

This matcha that everyone knows about is indeed matcha, but its skyrocketing popularity means that much of the matcha that’s sold on the market today is in a “race to the bottom” for both price and quality. Much of this matcha is what I prefer to call “industrial” matcha, in that its production, harvest, processing, and distribution are oriented toward massive scale and modern machinery. As a result of that approach, this matcha may (or may not) be acceptable for 100,000-unit runs of green tea ice cream, since enough fat and sugar will cover up all but the most egregious sins, and it still adds color and “green tea” flavor. But if you simply pour hot water over it and try to drink it as a beverage, it tastes just terrible. Imagine a child’s neglected fish tank: the fish have long since died, and the stagnant water has been emptied, but the child hasn’t bothered to scrub the tank quite yet. Scrape some green stuff off the side with a razor, and make tea with it. I’m exaggerating, but just barely.

Artisanal matcha, in contrast, is all about drinking and savoring its many delightful qualities, and its production, harvest, processing, and distribution methods reflect that. Everything is done by hand, using pretty much the same simple yet ingenious methods that have been developed by green tea farmers in Japan for the past 800 years. It still takes a full hour to slowly grind 30 grams of tea. Doing it any faster — not to mention doing it in large industrial grinders –creates friction that essentially burns all the delicate amino acids inherent in the tea that give it its sweet, umami-laden flavor, and you wind up killing everything that’s special about it.

So yes, industrial matcha and artisanal matcha are both “matcha,” but in the same way that the Trader Joe’s house wine, Two-buck Chuck, and some of the most coveted wines in the world, wines Romanée-Conti and Pétrus and HarlanEstate, are all “red wines.” Yes, but, ah, no.

Which is not to say that there’s no place for industrial matcha. If you’re baking or cooking with matcha, you absolutely should not use artisanal matcha — it would be a complete waste of both money and great matcha. But, someone might ask, wouldn’t the quality of the baked goods be that much higher if an artisanal matcha were used?

No, it wouldn’t, and here’s why: heat destroys amino acid structures, so everything that’s great about your expensive matcha — its intense umami, its wonderful acid structure, its phytonutrients, and its long finish — gets annulled. Oh, you’ll still get a great green tea vegetal taste, but you can get this taste with lesser matcha. Fats and sugars make a bad matcha taste pretty good! And besides, many recipes that call for matcha do so in large-ish quantities (multiple tablespoons), so you need a cheaper, but still decent, matcha to not go broke every time you want to use matcha in your cooking.

Lots of people have been asking me for a culinary matcha, and I’m currently blind-tasting a bunch of them and doing lots of baking and smoothie-making. We have a leading candidate based on color, taste, and affordability. If you’re interested in trying some, let me know!