Matcha Madness

The other green plant with health benefits

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After an extended sabbatical to complete my graduate studies, I have returned to my normal blogging duties where I ponder important questions related to acceptance. And this week we shall contemplate matcha, a powder made from green tea, and whether it should be welcomed into the already crowded pantheon of healthy beverages.

A Brief History of Matcha

Well, the former sentence was a bit misleading because matcha has enjoyed incredible renown since at least the eighth century (or is it the fourteen century…?) of the common era. Let’s hedge our bets for now and say that matcha has been imbibed for a long time. (More on this later.)

Just like marijuana, green tea—or Camellia sinensis (C. sinensis) for the botanically inclined—belonged (and still does) to the early part of humanity’s medical armamentarium gifted to the Chinese people—and eventually humanity—by none other than the legendary Emperor Shen-Nung. According to the legend, it is said that the divine farmer experimented with various herbs, serendipitously stumbled across green tea and its medicinal properties (after sampling 200 poisonous herbs, no less), and subsequently taught people how to carefully harvest and brew it. Historically, the first recorded instance of green tea consumption dates back to 59 BCE.

What is matcha, again?

Matcha is just green tea, gently pulverized until it becomes a powder. A tad bit anticlimactic, I know. At this point, one may come to ask astute questions such as:

  • What is the difference between powdered green tea and matcha?
  • What makes matcha unique?

It is here where the internet fails to provide an authoritative distinction. Even the “References” section of matcha’s Wikipedia page is painfully exiguous. Indeed, the most frustrating part about doing research on matcha was the stultifying dearth of primary sources. At least in English, I presume. Trust me, I’d love to regale all with the tale of how green tea made it from China to Japan, how someone came up with the idea to dry it and grind it up, and how it became such a celebrated beverage. Alas, I cannot because I do not wholeheartedly trust the internet sources I used to cobble this post together. And I don’t speak Japanese. Even the sources I consulted couldn’t agree upon a date when the first green tea leaves were transformed into matcha.

Beneath a throng of smiling testimonials lauding the tasty and salubrious properties of matcha, Daily MatchaEpic MatchaBreakaway Matcha, and Hibiki-An stress the growing process (low sunlight environment), the quality of tea leaves (the youngest), the color, and gentle grinding in a stone mortar as being the defining characteristics of matcha. The latter vender (Hibiki-An) affords the most comprehensive and thorough exploration of matcha (and green tea) from a non-primary source without reference material.

High-quality matcha powders are a bright green color, sold in bags or tins affixed with pornographic nomenclature such as “ceremonial,” “premium,” “authentic”, and “organic.” (And one small obiter dictum. Who sells non-organic matcha? Please let me know. It’s like trying to find a unicorn.) Aside from hot water, ceremonial matcha is only intended to be consumed au naturale, without pollutants—milk or sweeteners—which would mask the subtleties of the matcha’s flavor profile.

Lower-quality culinary matcha powders, though designated premium or authentic are seldom used for sipping à la carte. These types of matcha powders tend to be more bitter and are reserved for lattes, smoothies, pancakes, and other sugar-laden edibles. As much as I enjoy the taste of green tea, I’ll pass on the matcha tiramisu.

——————

Matcha isn’t a new product within the borders of Japan, vegandom, and the burgeoning population of Japanophiles—pejoratively referred to as weeaboos, although the term is often reserved for obnoxious and cultural ignoramuses typically obsessed with anime and manga. In 2014, MatchaBar, a specialty matcha cafe, opened in Williamsburg, New York, giving the hipsters a headstart with matcha over the rest of us.

I think I may know why matcha has become so popular in recent years. Here are some facts for us to consider:

  • In a report published in December, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) affirmed that average life expectancy in the United States dropped for the second consecutive year to 78.6 years.
  • According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, the average life expectancies in Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong are 85.3, 85.2, and 83.0 years respectively.
  • Asian-Americans have a longer life expectancy than all racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
  • The ten leading causes of death in the United States are heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, accidents, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide.

Taking these facts in tandem with health benefits of matcha, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Asian and Pacific Island cultural, culinary, and behavioral practices have been emulated, usurped, and bastardized by Westerners, and Americans especially. We, as a species, have been in search for an elixir of immortality, or at least longevity, for quite some time. And it may perhaps be found in this particular frothy green brew.

However, therein lies the danger.

Given the tendency to adopt fad diets, buzzwords, quack science, casuistic bullshit, and the teachings of pseudo-intellectual celebrities, a commodity like matcha promises to flourish under the auspices of guttersnipe opportunists. Tea consumption generally is associated with many positive health outcomes such as a reduced risk of liver disease, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and a reduced risk of depression, which makes brewing a cup or two of matcha all the more appealing. Associations with good health outcomes notwithstanding, consumers need to be wary of specious claims and nauseatingly hackneyed book titles like Matcha Tea: How this Super-Tea will make you UnstoppableThe Book of Matcha: Superfood Recipes for Green Tea Powder, and The Matcha Miracle.

Absent ceremonial choreography and drinking vessels, I tried matcha for the first time about two weeks ago and I was rather impressed by the rapid onset of energy.  Doubly impressive was the fact that I didn’t need to supplement liters of coffee throughout the day to satisfy my caffeine addiction. More like one liter. This could have been due to the placebo effect. Or due to some other recent development in my life such as healthier eating habits. Or regular sleeping patterns. Or regular exercise. Or all of the above. Who knows?

I find that I enjoy matcha’s taste better than its unground counterpart. I’m surprised that the Tide-Pod-eating condom-snorting community hasn’t taken to insufflating this green powder. Yet. Aye, but the year is still young.

Despite these final misgivings, I welcome this powder with open arms. And an open mouth. I accept matcha.

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