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March 30, 2010: Japanese Teas

March 30, 2010

Considering that almost all of these teas (with the exceptions of Dattan and Mugicha, which are made from buckwheat and barley respectively) are from one plant: “Camellia Sinensis” (the Latin name for the tea plant) it is remarkable that the Japanese have made so many pleasing variations:

Matcha (sometimes “Macha”) also called “rubbed tea” is a finely ground tea powder. Matcha is used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. It is made from the top leaves of shade-grown tea. Because the tea is not filtered or strained, one is drinking the tea powder mixed with hot water, so the level of caffeine is very high and tends to make the tea bitter. Because of this, it is usually served with a sweet-bean paste to mellow the bitterness. Matcha is also used in cooking, usually desserts like Matcha ice cream or Matcha pastries.

Genmai Cha often called “popcorn tea” or “people’s tea” is tea leaves mixed with toasted rice. The rice sometimes “pops” like popcorn. The tea has a pleasant warm flavor (“…a little like a Cheerio…” says Chef Saito) from the toasted rice. Because the rice is considered a filler and is generally less expensive than other teas.

Sencha (or shincha, literally “new tea”) Sencha has a very pleasant sharp and fresh; robust and “grassy” flavor. It is considered a “daily” tea, but a higher grade than most teas. The first months harvest is available for only a limited time after harvesting (April through May in southern Japan) in Japan and rarely outside of Japan.

Gyokuro is considered the highest grade of tea. It is made from only the best part of the tea leaves with none of the lower branches that most teas are made from. it is specially processed from older shade-grown tea plants and may cost up to $1000 a pound! Gyokuo has been described as “History, Philosophy, and Art in a single cup.”

Hojicha Is a roasted tea made from bancha (or “common” tea, made from mostly the twigs of the tea plant) but can also be made from sencha. The roasting makes the tea a reddish-brown color and is lower in caffeine and so is a good tea for after an evening meal or for those who want a lower caffeine tea.

Dattan is a healthy, decaffeinated “new” tea made from roasted buckwheat. Also called “soba tea” as “soba” is Japanese for buckwheat and is often found in the form of noodles in Japanese cooking. It is high in “rutin” which is an antioxidant found in buckwheat and is also high in vitamin B. Dattan has a “nutty” flavor.

Not shown is Mugicha which is a roasted barley tea that Japanese serve cold in hot months and is also decaffeinated.

Preparing tea correctly can be fairly complex depending on the tea. A couple of rules from Chef Saito: “the higher the grade of tea, the lower the temperature” and “let boiling water settle first before adding tea” and “never boil a good soup or a good tea.”

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