Food for Thought: The journey of matcha

Matcha from 2700 BCE to present day

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A spoonful of matcha powder on a wooden board alongside a matcha whisk and cup of green tea.
PHOTO: Matcha & Co. / Unsplash

By: Kaja Antic, Staff Writer

With summer weather right around the corner, many are turning away from cozy winter mochas and are looking for a new caffeinated option. Some tend to prefer classic iced coffees, while others may look to try the more colourful options on the menu.

An option that has become increasingly popular over the years is the iced matcha. Yes, these also come in hot varieties, but its vibrant green colour is usually only seen through the clear containers of cold drinks. This powdered tea offers around 70mg of caffeine per cup, making it a more moderate option compared to brewed coffee, which can yield between 100mg to 140mg per cup. With its earthy taste and thicker texture, this drink has been introduced in many North American cafés in recent decades, though its origin dates back centuries.

The plant that green teas come from — camellia sinensis — is thought to have been cultivated in China over 2700 years ago for medicinal and consumption purposes. Tea preparation methods evolved over the following centuries, with the origin of powdered green tea first coming up during the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from the 7th to 10th centuries. Steamed tea leaves were compacted into bricks for ease during transportation. The tea itself was prepared by pulverizing the leaves within these tea bricks into a fine powder, which was then mixed with salt and water. 

“Consuming matcha was seen as a way of attaining enlightenment, and ceremonies continue today with the purpose of intellectual exchange and care for continuing traditions.”

In the Song Dynasty, which lasted from the 10th to 13th centuries, the focus shifted to whisking this tea powder with hot water, similar to how matcha is often prepared today in cafés around the world. The term matcha stems from the combination of Japanese words “matsu,” which means to rub, and “cha,” which means tea. This tea mixture was introduced to Japan in the late 12th century by Zen Buddhist monk Myouan Eisai

After returning to Japan from his Zen studies in 1191, Eisai also brought back green tea seeds with him, having learned the whisking methods that were used to create the caffeinated drink. Eisai noted the tea improved his Zen meditations, with the drink eventually becoming a staple in the Japanese tea ceremony — an art known as “chado.” Consuming matcha was seen as a way of attaining enlightenment, and ceremonies continue today with the purpose of intellectual exchange and care for continuing traditions. 

The movement of these tea seeds would revolutionize the powdered drink, creating the difference between matcha and other powdered green teas. Matcha comes from tencha tea leaves that are grown in the shade, whereas other green powder teas come from the same tea leaves grown in the sun. The shading process adds the amino acid theanine which interacts with caffeine to create the sense of “calm alertness” that Eisai described

Today, there are two common grades of matcha. Ceremonial is the more refined grade that is used to make traditional matcha tea when whisked with hot water, while culinary grade is more coarse and bitter, and is often used in baking as well as matcha lattes. 

Iced or not, matcha lattes are my personal favourite, and I highly suggest trying it if you never have. Renaissance Cafe on SFU’s Burnaby campus is my usual go-to for matcha lattes (I particularly like them made with oat milk). Whether you are looking for a new iced caffeine source for the summer, or a calming energy boost for the winter, matcha is perfect for any season — and there are centuries of history to back up its popularity. 

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