Matcha 101 - A Cultural Perspective
by Vickie Chin on May 19, 2021
May marks AAPI Heritage Month in Canada and the US. This month we celebrate the achievements and contributions of people of Asian and Pacific Islander decent in Canada and the US. As a company that not only provides access to but also utilizes ingredients and foods from all over the world, including those deeply rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine, we understand that it’s important for us to acknowledge this fact, credit these traditions and to also provide the cultural background of these ingredients while remembering the traditions that they belong to. Our goal is to appreciate, not appropriate. Almost all of our favourite “superfoods” belong to cultures and traditions that shouldn’t be erased or forgotten as we embrace them in new and unique ways.
If there’s one “superfood” that has become a staple in many households in North America today, it’s matcha. You can find matcha at your favourite coffee shop in the form of a matcha latte, baked into breads and trendy desserts and even listed as an ingredient in skincare. But did you know that the traditional matcha ceremony actually lasted anywhere from 3-4 hours? Do you know how many tools are traditionally used to make a cup of matcha? Are you aware that high quality matcha is made from shade-grown tea leaves and why this is the case? Below we’re breaking down a brief history of matcha and the important traditions that surround it. While matcha continues to be enjoyed in new and innovative ways, it’s vital that we learn where and who it came from in order to maintain a respectful appreciation today.
A Brief History:
- The origins of matcha can be traced all the way back to the Tang Dynasty in China - which spanned the 7th-10th centuries. During the Tang Dynasty, tea leaves were steamed and pressed into tea bricks for storage and trade.
- These bricks of tea were prepared by roasting and pulverizing the leaves, resulting in a powder which was then combined with hot water as well as salt.
- During the Song Dynasty, which reigned from the 10th-13th centuries, the method of preparing matcha that is popularly used today, whisking the tea powder and hot water together in a bowl, became popular.
- In the 11th century, the ritual was shared with the Japanese when a monk who had spent most of his life studying Buddhism in China, returned to Japan bringing with him tea seeds.
- These seeds were considered to create the highest quality tea leaves in all of Japan.
- These seeds were planted on the temple grounds in Kyoto, the home of Kamakura Shogun. During this time, matcha was produced in very limited quantities and was regarded as a luxurious status symbol.
- Although the popularity of matcha declined for some time in part of Eastern Asia, it remained a prominent part of Japanese culture.
- Eventually Zen Buddhists developed a new method for cultivating the green tea plant. Tencha green tea leaves were developed by growing the plant under shaded conditions - a method that to this day is still regarded as maximizing the health benefits of matcha.
- The word Matcha comes from Japanese “ma” which translates to rubbed or ground and “cha” which means tea
The Growing Process:
- The Matcha that is popularly enjoyed today is made from finely ground green tea leaves from the tea plant Camellia sinensis. Tea leaves which are grown specifically for Matcha are shade-grown over the course of three weeks.
- By shielding the plant from direct sunlight, you incite an overproduction of chlorophyll – this is what contributes to Matcha’s beautiful bright green colour. Shade grown matcha also results in an increase in the amino acid l-theanine, one of the most beneficial properties of matcha.
- The green tea leaves are hand-picked before they are steamed, dried, destemmed and deveined. At thie point in the process, these green tea leaves are known as “tencha”.
- Tencha refers to green tea leaves that have not yet been ground into a fine powder. Only once it is ground is this product referred to as matcha – as illustrated by the origin of the name itself.
- Traditionally, the grinding process is done with a stone mill or mortar and pestle however powdering machines are now more often used to produce a higher volume of matcha – the popularization of matcha all over the world is directly linked to this change in processes.
- The process of preparing matcha is so much more than that, it’s a traditional ritual steeped in history – one that’s often forgotten today.
- The tradition was started by Zen Bhuddist monks in the 11th century and was then passed down through the generations.
- The traditional way of preparing matcha includes:
- pure matcha powder
- a chashaku (a bamboo scoop)
- a chawan (the tea bowl)
- a chasen (the bamboo tea whisk)
- hot water
- To prepare matcha the traditional way, you first warm the chawan and chasen with hot water. Next, remove this water and wipe the chawan dry with a cloth. Two scoops of matcha are placed in the chawan using the chashaku. A small amount of hot (not boiling) water, about 60ml, is then added to the chawan. The chasen is then used to whisk quickly in a zig-zag M or W motion until you are then left with a frothy tea. Traditionally matcha is enjoyed straight from the chawan in three to five sips. How similar is this to your matcha routine? Likely very different!
- A traditional matcha ceremony is said to last 3 to 4 hours. Think about that next time you’re trying to hack your way into making matcha as quickly as possible (we’re guilty of this too!).
- Traditionally matcha was incorporated into the daily rituals of monks who found that they could meditate for longer periods of time and more dutifully with this energizing, relaxing drink.
- Matcha for the monks was a means to assist them in their spiritual practice – a tradition that shouldn’t be forgotten today.
- When matcha gained popularity in Japan in the 13th century, it was used to prepare and restore the Samurai both physically and mentally, for battle.
- This is also when the Japanese created the Chado aka “The Way of Tea” – the code of conduct for the preparation of matcha.
Today matcha is enjoyed and featured in a variety of non-traditional ways all over the world. You can find matcha incorporated into breads, desserts and even skincare all throughout the Western world. Even the way we enjoy our own instant Matcha Lattes is anything but traditional. While there isn’t much wrong with finding new and unique ways to enjoy something, it’s critical that we remember that before matcha lattes were available at every corner, it played an important part in cultures and civilizations hundreds of miles away. To this day, matcha carries with it spiritual and cultural significance that shouldn’t be washed away.