The Japanese tea ceremony is a thing of unquestionable intrigue, beauty, and sheer historical awesomeness. It is triply so when performed and enjoyed within the context in which it arose: in some lovely wabisabi spot in Japan, ideally at a zen temple, which is where the whole thing really started.
It was an extremely simple affair in the beginning: a homely little hut, built expressly for making and enjoying tea. Nothing fancy, no excess anything, just four and a half tatami mats, a small charcoal brazier to boil water, a kettle, some matcha, a few basic tools. That’s it. You drank the tea and it was all about being in the moment, that moment, and noticing things. Noticing the surroundings, noticing your breath and palate, noticing the beauty and simplicity of the matcha and whatever else was in view, including the good fortune of being alive at that moment.
I grew up with Red Rose tea bags, a blend of black and orange pekoe teas My mother liked to make a cup in the evenings, after dinner, and I felt sophisticated whenever I joined her for a cup. She bought the 100-bag box at our local grocery store, and couldn’t have (wouldn’t have) paid more than five dollars for it (and this was 1970s dollars). Pennies per bag was my frame.
The Japanese tea ceremony as it is practiced in Japan can be a thing of beauty. The tradition is roughly 830 years old. Like so many other traditional Japanese arts, the formal study of tea can take decades to “master” and get right, and must be done according to the many and varied rules of the particular school of tea one practices. . Practitioners are expected to learn elaborate choreographies of movement and timing, all done with as much grace as one can muster. Full-on tea sessions, all extensively choreographed, can unfold over two and three hours. One can take the practice very seriously and deeply, and benefit from participating in this ancient and rarefied art/craft form.
Plenty of people consider matcha to be a new trend. In reality it’s been a trend in Japan for roughly 830 years, started by those crazy trend-setting zen buddhist priests. But in a sense, “plenty of people” are right: It is matcha’s introduction into the American and European palate that constitutes the current trend.
Matcha is a special kind of green tea from Japan, mainly used in formal ceremonies. In the minds of most Japanese, matcha is linked to the tea ceremony.
Matcha neither looks like nor tastes like other kinds of tea. It looks like electric green cocoa, and has the mouthfeel of a well-made espresso. It tastes like baby green vegetables that might have been cooked by Ferran Adria or someone else into molecular gastronomy : perhaps blended microgreens, straight-up chlorophyll, young bamboo, and raw sugar.
We like to serve it in small cups, like espresso. When matcha is removed from its Japanese context, there is no need to replicate exact Japanese conditions of teamaking. One needn't wear a kimono, it need not be served on tatami mats, and one certainly doesn't have to study matcha for years on end to enjoy it. You could make it anywhere: at the breakfast table, at the office, at the yoga studio, on a hike (really!), or even in your car, especially if you've had a glass of wine or two.
Great matcha has many distinguishing features, but the top four are probably 1) Form of tea leaves. Unlike all other teas, including green teas, matcha is finely ground; 2) No steeping. Matcha isn't steeped, it's "eaten." You simply pour hot water over the powder, froth it (either with a special handheld bamboo whisk or an electric milk frother), and drink the thick tea; 3) Off-the-charts health properties. Matcha is full of naturally occurring antioxidants and amino acids; roughly 20 times those of regular green tea; and 4)It's A LOT like really good wine. Terroir (conditions in which it's grown) is massively important, it should have a balanced acid structure, a very long finish, and be full of umami. It should also froth up to a very fine crema, similar to espresso.