Friday, January 22, 2016

Matcha Steeped in Tradition and Modernization...

To continue celebrating National Hot Tea Month, how could we not consider the celebrated tea used in the most disciplined ceremonial ritual of all teas-- matcha. No one can dispute the influence of cha do, the 'way of tea' or 'water in hot tea' on Japan's spiritual, artistic and cultural heritage. Born from Zen Buddhist meditative precepts, and popularized among the noble and warrior class, the point of the ritual in which a light meal and whipped powder (matcha) are served by a host to a few invited guests, is summed up by the notion "one lifetime, one meeting"-- ichigo (my nephew's middle name by the way :)). In other words, this is a unique moment to be treasured. 

If you've ever had the pleasure of experiencing a tea ceremony in Japan, especially in a Kyoto teahouse, complex etiquette and zen ideals makes for a well-orchestrated series of events over the course of the day; the ritual involves meeting fellow guests clad in kimonos, walking the grounds of the teahouse, performing ablutions (washing of the hands and face), entering a cell-like room, meeting your host, admiring the features of the room and utensils, observing the tea being prepared, bowing and consuming food-- a wagashi (sweet) to offset the bitterness of the thick green matcha tea to follow. Each part of the ritual is symbolic and ultimately it is your appreciation of the moment that counts. 

The influence of matcha-- bitter, smooth jade-green powder loaded with potent antioxidants has taken the world by storm. Originally, only reserved for Japanese tea ceremonies, today matcha has been popularized in casual everyday drinks spreading to North American cafés. Starbucks introduced "Green Tea Lattes" and other matcha-flavoured bevies such as iced drinks, milkshakes and smoothies after matcha became successful in their Japanese store locations. And we haven't even begun talking about matcha-infused desserts-- just walk into an Asian dessert house and bakery. Flavour trend?-- I think not. As more people are looking for ways to better their health, a simple dose of antioxidant powerhouse matcha will prove its staying power for a long time to come.

FUN FACT: Did you know matcha has 60 times more antioxidants than spinach?

A traditional Ryokan Inn in Kyoto 2004

From sencha to matcha, Japanese tea is delicious and healthy-- it has been proven to prevent disease, boost the immune system and soothes your mind-- no wonder it's a beverage that is increasingly enjoyed world-wide. Read on these pages about its revered health benefits and interesting green tea & sweet/snack pairings.

Bento Box Magazine Oct. 2015-- Japanese Tea pp.6-7 by Momo Yoshida

Japanese tea display and sampling at a Japanese cultural event in Toronto.

My lovely assortment of decorative tea containers brought back from my Japan travels. 
Each one contains a different type of green tea. 

Wide mouth bowl cups are traditionally used in tea ceremonies.

A traditional tea ceremony must be infused with wakeiseijaku-- harmony, respect, quiet and solitude. Traditional tea making is an art and making it properly requires skill, the right tools and years of practice. However, a tea ceremony can, in fact, be an informal affair among friends.

The tea ceremony (Cha do) performed at the Haru Matsuri (Spring) Festival in Toronto's Japanese Cultural Centre. 
To watch the step-by-step stages of traditional tea preparation, here is a zen ten-minute video.

The  master of the ceremony brings the equipment needed to prepare the tea and purifies it symbolically with the fukusa, a small square of silk. He serves the cakes that is eaten before drinking the tea to coat the palate in sugar and prepare it for bitterness and smoothness of the whisked tea. He then prepares the matcha, which has been blended into the hot water, and serves it. When drinking strong tea, which is only lightly mixed producing a very dense foamless emulsion, the cake (omogashi) is fresh and creamy. When drinking light tea, which is aerated and foamy, the cake (higashi) is dry and very sugary. The aim of the ceremony is to enter into communion with oneself and with the other persons present.

I was so excited to see my most beloved favourite Japanese sweet (wagashi) at Toronto's J-Town. Sakura mochi is pink, just like the sakura (cherry blossom flowers) and is made of sweet glutinous rice filled with a sweetened red bean paste and wrapped in a pickled sakura leaf. The sweetness counters the matcha tea's bitterness and potency and compliments making it a palate-pleasurable experience. Traditionally, this beloved dessert is enjoyed during Haru Matsuri (Japanese Girls' Day) to celebrate the beginning of spring, as well as to wish good luck and good health for all of the little girls in the family. 

Sakura Mochi

As for matcha in desserts, they are being popularized in many different categories such as cakes, cookies, macarons, flans, pies, puddings, ice cream, soufflés-- you name it! Sharing with you Matcha Red Bean Cheesecake Bars recipe contributed to my Asian Gourmet Magazine's spring 2008 article "Japanese Spring Brunch". Just as the caption says, matcha's flavour intensity is mellowed with the cream cheese,  and red beans add colour contrast and texture.

Asian Gourmet Magazine's spring 2008 article "Japanese Spring Brunch"

Last but not least, should I be surprised that someone came up with a technology to brew matcha from a machine? Check out Tea-Ceré which merges tradition and precision as a simple cup of matcha is really not that simple to prepare. Sharp's innovative machine designed with leading Japanese tea experts grinds any green tea in powder (turn any green tea to matcha), correctly boils removing traces of chlorine as well as perform the process of whisking to create a balance of broth and liquid. Consuming the entire leaf optimizes the health benefits as 70% of nutrients in tea are discarded when steeping tea leaves in boiled water. Interesting to know-- powdered tea for me from now on please! Read on for more details...

Bento Box Magazine Jan. 2016 pp.12-13

NOTE: This post is dedicated to my fAbuLous friend who has gone from drinking coffee everyday to devout daily cups of matcha-- all in the name of health! Although java will likely remain my go-to morning bevy, I am inspired by you to make the switch on occasion. However, Hojicha (roasted green tea) in the evening all the way ;) ! Kanpai!

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