A matcha tea in Japan (and proportions for a good matcha)
In September 2019, I was spending a couple of weeks in Japan with Hsiao.
Among a few visits and activities, one afternoon tea touched me particularly. It was one of these ordinary moments that unexpectedly turn into memorable ones, perhaps because of the combination of a few random parameters.
From the notes I took at that time to remember the moment, I wrote this short story for you…
In front of me, behind the pane windows that fill the whole wall, a strange tortuous silhouette stares at me. A tree.
Angular and rounded at the same time, tilted, it looks like an old man distorted by the torments of life. It sits in the middle of a sandy area precisely racked in circles. Besides, a few rocks surround a pond partially covered with lotus flowers. Further, a waterfall, and ducks playing. An interesting surreal scene, not completely artificial, not really natural either.
Standing in this scene, the poor tree seems to have undergone a hard trimming, leading to such a peculiar silhouette.
In front of a Japanese zen garden like this one, I always feel half fascinated and half puzzled. Fascinated by the precision in tree sculpting, puzzled by this mysterious obsession of wanting to correct natural shapes. As far as I can see in front of me, it is not easy for trees to meet Japanese expectations!
I wonder what the tree thinks of this. He stares at me, expressionless.
In general, I also feel frustrated to be limited to observation in such gardens. I love when a garden is at the same time, beautiful, a food-forest, wildlife-friendly. Instead of observing gardens like in a museum — “Do not step on the grass” —, instead of sitting beside lotus lakes — “Swimming forbidden” —, I like lying on the grass and diving into the waters.
After all, am I not just a piece of nature?
But my thoughts are interrupted by the smiling waitress. Leaving the outdoor scenery, I focus back in this old-style wooden Japanese cafe. From the large pane windows, the sunlight baths the room and draws complex shadows on the chairs, tables, and floor.
I feel cozy, on my chair, in Sunpu Park, in the heart of Shizuoka city, Japan.
Still smiling, the waitress deposits a tray in front of me. On it, a large handmade ceramic bowl and a very small pink flower — a small cake called wagashi. Lost at the bottom of the bowl sit a few sips of a foamy bright green potion. The matcha tea I ordered, grown in the mountains around.
Matcha tea is a specific kind of tea from East Asia, grown under shade sails. Shade-grown tea leaves end up less bitter and richer in caffeine and theanine. Handpicked, the leaves are dried and ground into powder using granite stone grinders. Unlike other teas, just infused, one dilutes the matcha powder into hot water and then swallows everything. Consequently, drinking a bowl of matcha is ingesting much more caffeine than when drinking a bowl of infused tea, more antioxidants, and also absorbing a lot of theanine, an amino acid partly responsible for the umami flavor of matcha. Theanine also has another interesting effect, as we will discover later.
I show my gratitude to my kind waitress, with a smile and a thank you. She expresses her appreciation with a gentle bow.
In this beautiful and quiet environment, I feel my mind slowly drifting into another state of consciousness. Calmer, more aware, more sensitive to the innumerable craftsmen’s works that surround me: on this tray, in the cafe, in the garden.
Okay, so, what about this matcha? Let’s try a first sip.
I have already tried matcha tea a couple of times, from supermarkets, and dosed it by myself. I have to admit, here, the experience is completely different! It does not feel watery, nor does it feel bitter. It feels very fine. It does feel “green”, but with a complex succession of subtle aromas, embedded in an overall creamy texture. It feels a bit bitter, actually, but definitely not too bitter. It is just right.
A thought crosses my mind: proportions are key.
I notice how this matcha has already started to influence my thoughts. I would say, I feel inspired. Excited, yes, but not anxious. Completely different from after a coffee or even a strong black tea. A kind of powerful energy, but that would come from deep and that expresses softly. Feminine energy. I feel optimistic, peaceful, and creative.
Is that the effect of theanine?
Interestingly, just one year before this sip, in 2018, right here at the University of Shizuoka, scientists found that matcha indeed has a stress-reducing effect due to its high theanine content. But, they say, for stress reduction, the matcha needs to contain enough theanine to counteract caffeine. This balance depends on the quality of the matcha.
Proportions are key!
At this moment, I realize why this small pink flower sits beside the bowl. In addition to softening the bitterness with sweetness, starting by eating something sweet and fatty before drinking may reduce the delivery speed of active molecules in my body. Like when having peanuts before drinking alcohol, or having a meal before drinking coffee.
Convinced by this nice feeling, quite different from my previous trials, I ask my kind waitress if I can buy a box of this matcha. It is 2610 yens, 17 euros, for 40 g (1.4 ounces), that is, 425 euros per kilogram (193 euros/pound).
She brings me the matcha in a small metal box. I smile and thank my kind waitress. She expresses her appreciation with a gentle bow. Here, every piece of social interaction seems punctuated by these repeated gestures of politeness. In a way, it is soothing, calming. As a hypersensitive, I often experience social interactions like overwhelming torrents of emotions. But in Japan, these repeated signs of patience and politeness bring instead a feeling of security, stability.
A customer, who was drinking his tea at a nearby table, asks me: “But, do you know how to prepare matcha?”. Oh yes, I think, that’s right, proportions are key. I need to know the proportions.
Thus, my new friend, accompanied by my smiling waitress, instantly start to explain to me how to make good matcha:
- “Poor hot water in a large bowl, then empty it.” — I see, we want to warm up the bowl first.
- “Add 1 teaspoon of matcha (1 g) in the bowl.” — okay, so, I can drink 40 bowls from my small box, that is, 43 cents per matcha. Not so expensive, after all.
- “Add 125 ml (125 ccs) of hot water at 60°C (140°F).” — I see, we don’t want boiling water, it may destroy the fragile refined molecules.
- “Whisk in swirling movements, using a chasen like this.”
She shows me a chasen, a bamboo tea whisk specifically designed for matcha preparation. While explaining, her wrist is slowly drawing elegant vortices. It is this mixing which makes sure that no clumps remain, and which creates the soft foam.
After discussing a little bit about my trip, what I do, from where I come, I get ready to leave.
I thank my kind waitress. She expresses her appreciation with a gentle bow. I mimic her bow, showing my appreciation for her appreciation. I walk towards the door, but she adds a new bow. I make another one. She adds another, I make another one, and then another…
Eventually, I reach the door. I close it gently behind me, and find myself standing in the garden.
At this very moment, I look at the tree. With his tortuous silhouette, still staring at me, he laughs, and I hear: “Ha ha, what a funny humanity you are, buddies”.
Huh…, I wonder, is this another effect of theanine?
PS: If you like bamboo craftsmanship, there are nice videos online, like this one, that show how chasens are made!