The Tea Leaves and Tweed Tea Primer: Bonus Levels (Matcha and Masala Chai)

Hello, again! While I ended the main tea primer with Level Three’s superficial introduction to gong fu brewing, I thought I’d return with two “bonus level” techniques. While I’m not a tea expert by any means, I have had first-hand teaching in two specific traditional preparations of tea: Japanese matcha and Indian masala chai. So I thought I’d share a little bit about how I incorporate these techniques into my own tea practices when I want something a little different than just leaves steeped in water.

Matcha:

Matcha is a type of ground green tea powder that is used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The most authentic forms of matcha are made from tencha tea leaves that have been shaded for at least a few weeks to force the tea to concentrate some of its chemical constituents to produce a brighter green color and a richer umami flavor. It is made from a variety of green tea known as tencha. For more about traditional matcha production, I really like this overview from Ippodo.

Because the processing leads to high concentrations of certain chemical constituents, matcha has gained a reputation as a health superfood in recent years. Unfortunately, that means that there is a lot of subpar matcha on the market being sold as a supplement. Matcha is also used in baking, lattes, and other recipes, which mutes subtle flavors, so typically “culinary grade” matcha is used for these purposes. While good culinary grade matcha is absolutely drinkable on its own, it does not compare to the experience of a really nice bowl of matcha, prepared traditionally.

Personally, my favorite matcha comes from Ippodo. Since their products ship from Japan, the international shipping can be a bit steep, but if you buy a few different things, the value is still pretty good for the quality you’re getting. I tend to mention which specific matcha I’m drinking on my Instagram profile, usually for Matcha Monday. And I will use a good-quality matcha in a latte, mostly because I tend not to add much sweetener, so as to let the flavor of the matcha come through.

But matcha is primarily known for being the tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony. I’m fortunate enough to live in a city where there is an active society for the preservation and teaching of the Japanese tea ceremony. I visited the Washington DC Chado Urasenke Tankokai last year and chronicled my experience of a private demonstration and lesson in the Japanese tea ceremony, and I thought I’d share how this experience has informed my preparation of matcha.

When I make a bowl of matcha at home, I don’t follow the whole tea ceremony. Obviously, the ceremony is an inherently social, service-oriented practice, so making a bowl of matcha for myself is not the same. But I do observe some of the procedures.

First, I make sure to set out all my tools carefully before I begin. I heat my water, usually to 180 F because it will cool upon being poured out into another vessel. My first step is to pour some water into my chawan (or matcha bowl) and whisk it with my chasen (matcha whisk) a few times to moisten the whisk. Then, I empty the water from my bowl and wipe it with a cloth I use only for preparing and cleaning up after matcha. The next step is to measure out my matcha. Because I only sift matcha as needed, I place my sifter over my chawan and measure out two scoops of matcha with my chashaku (matcha scoop) and use the chashaku to gently push the matcha through the sifter. I remove the sifter and measure out two ounces of hot water in a separate cup. This, I pour over the matcha in the chawan and whisk. I whisk with a back-and-forth motion for about 15-30 seconds, until a nice froth has appeared. Then, I make a few slow circles to help break up larger bubbles.

Now it is time to savor my matcha. I like to sit in silence and enjoy my matcha, focusing on it entirely. It is a small amount, so it doesn’t take a long time, but I do roll it around in my mouth and appreciate the complex flavors. Some matchas are quite umami, or savory, in flavor, while others have varying degrees of floral, tart, or vegetal flavors.

Once I’ve finished my bowl of matcha, I clean up. This comes from my past Zen practice and the koan “Wash Your Bowl”. I take my empty matcha bowl back to the kettle, pour in some hot water, swish the whisk around in it to wash off the matcha, and then put it on the whisk stand to dry with the tines facing down so that water doesn’t run into the handle and mold. The stand also helps to keep the shape of the whisk. I empty out the chawan and wipe it with my cloth. I also wipe off the chashaku and sifter, after tapping off excess powder. Then, everything goes back into the tea cabinet. I never leave my matcha tools out, even though I’m rather bad about leaving out my other tea tools.

In this way, making a bowl of matcha becomes a meditative activity as well as a morning beverage. I don’t know if it is the theanine in matcha that makes my mornings feel brighter and calmer, or if this small meditation puts me in a good frame of mind, but my mornings that start with matcha are almost always calmer and more productive.

If you’re interested in learning more about traditional matcha, I highly recommend looking for a Chado society near you. And I give a list of matcha tools that I use on a regular basis in the information box below this video (which also shows my matcha preparation).

Masala Chai:

When I was fresh out of graduate school and freshly divorced, I moved around a lot, often living in shared houses. In one of these houses, I lived with an Indian woman and her husband. Every morning, one of them would wake up early and make masala chai. Masala chai means “mixed-spice tea” (fun fact: “chai” just means “tea,” so the Western habit of referring to spiced tea as just “chai” is somewhat like the habit of calling a caffe latte a “latte,” which in Italy just refers to plain milk) and is a blend of black tea with various spices. According to my housemate, it is made and served at all hours of the day and her family is always up for tea.

Traditionally, masala chai is often made by boiling spices and tea in milk, but my method involves preparing the tea with only water, since my housemate was lactose intolerant and would let everyone choose their own form of milk or milk substitute. So this is her method, which I quite enjoy.

First, she would put a cinnamon stick, some cardamom pods, some black peppercorns, and maybe a couple cloves or allspice berries (I prefer allspice because cloves can easily overwhelm the other spices) in a mortar and pestle and hit them a few times just to crack the pepper, break up the cinnamon, and open the cardamom pods. These would go into a small saucepan, along with a few slices of fresh ginger. This would be covered with water and brought to a boil, and then simmered for at least fifteen minutes (sometimes it would simmer for longer, as the did other things to get ready for the day). Then, she would turn off the heat and add a couple spoonfuls of loose-leaf black tea. She used loose-leaf Tetley that her family would send her from India, but I generally recreate this with a loose-leaf Assam tea. This would steep for about five minutes, and then get strained into mugs. Each person can add milk and sweetener as desired. She liked almond milk and stevia, while I usually used whole milk and honey. A very traditional way to sweeten it would be to add jaggery, which is an Indian unrefined sugar, but as it comes in lumps, it generally has to be boiled with the spices to fully dissolve.

The nice thing about masala chai is that it doesn’t require much in the way of fancy ingredients. I can get all the spices I use in the grocery store, and it generally works out well with any strong black tea. Inexpensive “English breakfast” tea blends often use strong Indian teas, so if you can’t find Assam, any English breakfast tea should work. While the tools may seem daunting, I have made this tea by smashing my spices on a cutting board with a heavy jar (it remains my favorite use for coconut oil), rather than using a mortar and pestle, and if you have a tea infuser mug, you can use the infuser to strain the tea if you don’t have a small strainer.

I will say that I’m not a fan of pre-blended loose-leaf masala chai. If I had to choose one, I would probably go with Rishi’s, because they use the most cardamom, which is my favorite, but I find that with pre-blended masala chai, you don’t get enough spice flavor before the tea is oversteeped and unpleasant. They’re nice in a pinch, but if I’m going to indulge, I do it properly by boiling the spices separately.

So those are my two “bonus levels” of tea. Perhaps in the future, I’ll expand this primer, so let me know in the comments if there are more tea topics you’d like me to cover!

NB: I have not been provided any incentive to mention any of the shops or products mentioned in this post.

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