The story of matcha tea tells how tea drinking became a meditation. TOM MICHAELSEN interviews SANDEH VON TUCHER who runs the Tushita Teahouse in Munich about matcha.
Q: Matcha tea has become increasingly popular over the past few years. They say it was once the tea of Zen Masters in Japan. Is this true?
SVT: Matcha actually comes from China, as does all tea culture. In China, tea was first regarded as a medicinal plant and was pulverized, steeped in hot water and then whisked with a bamboo whisk. But that was from normal, non-shaded tea plants, which had a somewhat bitter, medicinal taste and contained a lot of catechins. Then, in the twelfth century, Zen Master Eisai brought the tea tradition to Japan. He experimented with the tea in his monastery in Kyoto and was the first to draw up a set of rules for the preparation of tea. These rules can already be regarded as the precursors to the Japanese tea ceremony. And the monks took advantage of the effect of the tea to meditate more intensely and for longer periods of time. Through connections between monks, samurai and shoguns, tea spread to other circles of society. But initially, tea drinking was an elite affair, reserved for the wealthy.
Q: What is the basis of the effect of matcha tea?
SVT: In order to improve upon the tea’s taste, the tea plants were shaded, which caused more amino acids to be produced, giving the tea a sweeter taste. So initially it was only a question of taste. Only later did it become apparent that these amino acids were responsible for the soothing effect. And it’s the combination of amino acids and catechins that make up matcha tea’s soul. This harmonious balance of the mixture finally determines the quality and the price of highgrade matcha. The amino acids have the soothing effect and the catechins are simultaneously somewhat stimulating.
Q: Can the benefits offered by match green tea be destroyed by preparing it the wrong way?
SVT: Yes, if the water is too hot. This destroys some of the chlorophyll and extracts more catechins from the tea. From the point of view of traditional Chinese medicine, catechins have astringent and ‘lowering’ properties. But at the same time there are substances in the tea that have quite a stimulating effect, and what is important is the right balance. Therefore, it is really essential for the water temperature to be around 70° C or 158° F, and that is also the temperature of the water used in a traditional tea ceremony:
Pour some hot water into the tea bowl to warm the bowl and the whisk; empty the water after a few minutes.
Place 2 g matcha green tea powder in the bowl and steep it in 60 ml of hot water at 70°C.
Press the whisk gently against the bottom of the bowl and whisk, using at first a circular and then a zigzag motion to achieve a frothy brew.
Q: Is it true that certain ingredients in matcha tea are more effective if they do not come into contact with hot water but are used in a smoothie, for example, and not heated at all?
SVT: With a smoothie it’s like this: there are many effective ingredients you can use, which act in different ways. For example, if you use fruit, you’ll have a higher fructose content; if you use rocket it will have a different effect than spinach. When you mix a smoothie, you have many different active ingredients to deal with.
Q: Isn’t matcha tea’s antioxidant activity above all due to the fact that the tea leaf is very finely ground and also that you drink the whole leaf?
SVT: Exactly, we drink the whole leaf. And the shading is also important. Good matcha tea is fluorescent green. That’s the chlorophyll. What’s important is the combination of catechins, chlorophyll and drinking the whole leaf.
Q: Do I really need a bamboo whisk to prepare matcha tea or will an electric milk frother do as well?
SVT: Well, it’s really quite helpful to use a bamboo whisk. Bamboo whisks are very easy to use and clean. Of course, it’s also possible to use an electric milk frother, but it would be kind of a pity. I find that you can’t really separate preparing matcha tea from drinking it. And if you take half a minute or a minute to prepare it, then you actually get much more out of it than if you do it with an electric frother. Because you simply feel what kind of condition you’re in. If you’re feeling strong, you also whisk it forcefully. If you are centered, your froth will be nice. What kind of thoughts are you thinking? There are actually quite a few aspects that come together in this short time it takes to prepare matcha tea. You also give the tea some of your Chi. Which only means you take this bit of time, you center yourself, you breathe into your belly below your navel, and then you begin to whisk this tea with your body, not just with your wrist, but with your whole body. And the simple fact that you are doing this does something to the tea.
Q: Some people find traditional matcha tea bitter and prefer to drink it with milk, as matcha latte. Does this alter the effect of matcha tea?
SVT: It certainly does. Matcha has this ‘lowering’ and clarifying effect. The fog that sometimes surrounds us is gathered and sinks down. And the milk, especially if it is cow’s milk, has great moistening capacity and therefore has an almost contrary effect. You could instead add a plant milk, such as unsweetened almond milk or unsweetened rice or soy milk. These also have a fluid-enhancing quality, but they do not promote mucous formation. Because that’s what matcha also does, it can transform fluids that are unclean and expel them. Together with a plant milk would be perfectly all right, but with cow’s milk it would really be a pity.
Q: How do you know if it’s good matcha?
SVT: Matcha is not really a trademarked product, but you can tell by the color. It all depends on the color. Of course, we also have different kinds of matcha at Tushita. The matcha we use for smoothies is also green, but of course it is not as green as the matcha I use when I want to drink pure matcha and which I prepare in my Japanese tea bowl. That’s much greener.
There are more catechins in the matcha used for smoothies, which contains the coarser leaves that sometimes have been exposed to a bit of sunlight. It simply shows in the colour, and you can tell by its effect. So, high-grade matcha stimulates the senses and simultaneously soothes the heart. That means that when you meditate, for example, it refreshes your spirit and at the same time your body is nice and relaxed. You can simply observe your thoughts or your breath with good matcha tea, whereas if it’s lower grade matcha the system is simply in turmoil. Lower grade matcha doesn’t contain as much chlorophyll or as many amino acids, and it contains more catechins, so your system becomes excited and then it is very, very difficult to really observe your mind. Unless you put in a bit of vegetable or something similar, then the calming effect might come about through other substances.
Q: Is there something else we should be aware of?
SVT: Perhaps we should take a look at how the matcha has been packaged. And where it was packaged. Was it packaged on site in Japan or was it packaged here in Europe? That also makes a difference, because the extremely finely ground matcha powder is so sensitive. It oxidizes very quickly when it is exposed to air, and especially the chlorophyll is very sensitive. Thus matcha loses Chi very quickly, which means it loses energy and freshness.
Q: How long can you keep an open packet of matcha tea at home?
SVT: If you really want to have the matcha tea energy, then about four weeks.
Q: What else is necessary to brew traditional matcha tea?
SVT: The right kind of tea-making equipment. There are these wonderful ceramic tea bowls that have to be a little wider at the bottom, so that one can really whisk nicely. There are bowls that are used in winter that are a little taller to hold the warmth better, and a summer bowl with a wider mouth that lets the tea cool more quickly. Then there is the long bamboo spoon used in Japan to measure out the tea – two measures of matcha powder for one cup of tea. The tradition is to first warm the cup with hot water and then dry it again. Water quality is important, too. If you are drinking high-quality matcha, you should use water with low calcium content – it simply tastes better.
Interview by TOM MICHAELSEN
August 31, 2018
August 31, 2018
August 31, 2018