If green tea is healthy, then its close cousin, vibrantly green matcha, must be even more so, right? If Gwyneth Paltrow is drinking it, then surely it has to be good for us? Or perhaps it’s the colour that’s making it one of the hot food trends of 2015 – food blogs and Pinterest feeds are full of everything from matcha doughnuts to matcha chia pudding (why have one superfood when you can have two?) in various shades of green.
Green tea has been steaming Australian teacups up for years, but matcha, a tea powder, is a relatively recent introduction – and it’s a popular one. Cool city cafes and their crunchier cousins (and even Starbucks) have matcha lattes on offer. You can also order a cool matcha frappe, or play it straight with a bowl of matcha tea. Gwyneth Paltrow is a fan, along with other celebrities. We’re not just drinking it, though; we’re cooking with it, too. Restaurant dishes made using matcha, such as the much-talked-about green tea soft-serve at Cho Cho San in Sydney, have developed something akin to a cult following. It’s a similar story at some of the world’s most iconic restaurants. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s matcha tiramisu is a standout on the dessert menu at Nobu New York, and Heston Blumenthal favours matcha as an ingredient in the palate-cleansing dishes he serves at The Fat Duck, his three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Berkshire, just outside London. Back in Australia, those with a passion for this distinctively green ingredient can head to Cre Asion, a small café tucked in an alley in Sydney, where owner Yu Sasaki’s menu boasts matcha cookies, a matcha-chocolate fondant with matcha sauce, matcha, mascarpone and red bean muffins, and matcha macarons, along with hot matcha lattes and iced green tea lattes.
A powdered green tea that’s been the hero of tea ceremonies in Japan since the 13th century, matcha is made from ground tea leaves that are grown to a much more exacting standard than other varieties of green tea. The tea plants destined to become matcha are grown in near-darkness before they’re harvested to bump up chlorophyll production, which is why matcha is so vibrantly green.
Renee Creer, a certified tea master and owner of Sydney-based tea company Perfect South, says the distinctive colour is one of the reasons matcha has made such a splash recently.
“Matcha is such an unusual thing – a bright green, powdery tea that’s incredibly versatile and has a strangely appealing flavour that’s earthy and vegetal up front, with a soft sweetness that ends on a mild, pleasant bitter note.”
It also provides a hit of caffeine, but one that’s released more slowly than the variety found in coffee, thanks to the presence of an amino acid called L-theanine. And then there are the vitamins and minerals and the concentrated dose of antioxidants that matcha delivers. There’s a lot of talk that matcha may have a range of health benefits, from boosting metabolism to supporting immunity or lowering cholesterol, but it’s early days. While there’s plenty of research on green tea, there’s not much on matcha yet. The signs are promising: we do know that it has levels of an antioxidant compound called epigallocatechin gallate at least three times higher than the average cup of green tea. And what’s not in doubt is that it’s a product with an intriguing flavour and rich history.
“It’s exciting to discover unique products or to experience a new take on something familiar. And matcha certainly ticks these boxes. It’s got a lot of things going for it,” says Creer.
There are a few different grades to choose from and you will sometimes see the words ‘single estate’ and ‘first harvest’ doing the rounds. But if you’re planning to drink matcha on its own, Creer says the most important thing to look for is ‘ceremonial grade’ matcha. “And make sure it’s from Japan, not anywhere else. The price will be higher and the colour more vibrantly emerald than other grades, to reflect the calibre of the tea. My advice is not to skimp on your matcha if you want to drink it straight. Buy the best you can afford and indulge yourself.”
When you’re cooking with matcha, use a culinary or ingredient-grade tea. “The colour will be more of an army, dull green and the price will be lower. But it’s perfect for cooking or adding to drinks like smoothies and matcha lattes,” suggests.
Chase Kojima, executive chef at Japanese restaurants Sokyo in Sydney and and Kiyomi on the Gold Coast, enjoys putting that sort of matcha to work in his kitchen, and not just in his sweet creations – he serves matcha salt with tempura and likes eating matcha buckwheat noodles. “I do love green tea ice-cream, though, and think it’s something that goes very well with chocolate desserts.”
So what’s the next hot thing in tea to follow matcha? Another variety called houjicha is starting to muscle in. “Powdered houjicha is a dry-roasted tea with an amber-brown colour and it’s beginning to appear in pastries, chocolates, cakes and soft serve ice-cream,” says Creer. “Its flavour has delicious roasted, nutty and caramel notes that suits drinks and desserts. But will it reach matcha’s heights? No. You really can’t compare the two; houjicha is an every day tea made from leaves picked later in the harvest, that’s low in caffeine and nutrients. In comparison, Matcha is a culturally and historically significant tea that’s highly prized.” Which is just one more reason why it’s so special.
Cook with matcha
Photography by Leanne Kitchen. Styling by Sarah O’Brien. Food preparation by Dixie Elliott.