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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Matcha Week! My Go-To Matcha Lattes

Hello, strangers! It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, but I thought I’d make this week Matcha Week, in honor of my continuing campaign over at Volition Beauty. I only have about a month left to get the votes for my dual-targeted matcha hair mask, so I’d love it if my readers would help support me in this. I’ve talked about my hair double-masking practice in the past, and I think it would be so cool if a commercial product could be made aimed at this idea. Please head over to this link to vote for my campaign, and please feel free to share the link at your own online space. I can use all the help I can get!

So to highlight matcha today, I’m going to talk briefly about matcha lattes. While most of my matcha is consumed in bowls of traditional thin matcha, I sometimes just want a little more of a treat. Especially with the weather cooling down, a hot matcha latte is a great alternative to hot chocolate, although I still enjoy an iced matcha latte before I go to the gym sometimes.

For a hot matcha latte, I’ve started using my higher grade matcha because I find that the better quality matcha means that I can use little or no sugar in my latte. I simply mix 1 to 1.5 teaspoons of matcha powder (or 2-3 chashaku scoops) with about an ounce of hot water, and then top it with hot frothed milk. My favorite matcha for this is my Matchaeologist Meiko matcha, which is their lowest-priced ceremonial grade. This is a matcha that is lovely made just with water, but still has enough oomph to cut through the richness of the local whole milk in my latte.

For an iced latte, I could just use the same procedure as above, but use cold milk and pour it over ice. But when I’m going to the gym, I sometimes find that dairy upsets my stomach, so I’ve created a vegan iced matcha latte using high-quality unsweetened almond milk, culinary-grade matcha, and a little bit of maple syrup to make up for the lack of milk sugars. My standard recipe is to put 2-3 scoops of Matchaeologist Midori matcha in the bottom of a mason jar, and then add 2 tsp. of maple syrup and 1 oz. of hot water. I stir this together and then pour in 8 oz. of cold unsweetened almond milk (Three Trees brand is my absolute favorite, but it’s expensive, so I also like New Barn). I then cap the jar and shake it vigorously until everything is mixed together, and then pour it over ice. If I’m having it before the gym, I can add a scoop of collagen protein for an added boost. This is also quite a refreshing post-run drink during the summer.

So that’s today’s offering for Matcha Week. Join me back here on Wednesday and Friday as I share more ways I use matcha besides just mixing it with water in the traditional style!

NB: While the matchas I mentioned in this post were purchased with a discount for review, all opinions are my own. For more information about sponsorship, see this page. Links are not affiliate links.

Outing: Handmade Wagashi at the Matsukawaya DC Pop-Up Shop

I posted a few teasers on Instagram this weekend, but I thought I’d share a full recap from my weekend outing to the pop-up shop of the wagashi artisans at Matsukawaya DC at Union Market. This was a relatively spur-of-the-moment outing, as I was about to head downtown to my Saturday morning barre class when I turned to Mr. Tweed and asked if he’d be willing to meet me downtown after my class so we could go to the market for lunch and to see the confectionery.

The stand itself was somewhat unassuming among the delightful chaos of Union Market, but the stunning artistry of the sweets still caught the eye. They had a display of shaped namagashi and displays of wrapped sweets, along with samples of mochi, monaka, and other sweets. They were even making fresh strawberry mochi, which was absolutely sublime. I’d never had mochi this fresh and it was amazing. It absolutely melted in the mouth. After gathering our lunch, I stopped back at the stand and spent a while agonizing over the selections. I settled on one namagashi and a gei monaka to take home for later with my tea. The lovely young lady working at the stall included a couple other sweets as service, and the nice man who was folding origami presented me with a pink crane. With my treasures in hand, we made our way home.

I think here is a good place to pause and talk a bit about wagashi. The word “wagashi” comes from the word for sweets — originally referring to fruits and nuts, but eventually including sugared sweets — with a prefix indicating they are a Japanese art. They are made with sugar, yes, but also such typically-Japanese ingredients as sweet rice flour, red bean paste, and kanten or agar. The variety called namagashi are served with the traditional Japanese tea ceremony as a complement to the bitterness of the tea. As I was told during my tea demonstration, the sweets are served and the ceremony is timed such that the sweetness is still on your tongue when you first sip the bowl of matcha. So wagashi are not only best eaten with a nice cup of green tea, but indeed they are inextricably culturally linked to tea. So it was no surprise that this pop-up shop was hosted by one of my favorite local tea houses, Teaism.

Upon returning home, I immediately started heating my kettle and gathering my matcha supplies. I decided to use my O-Cha organic ceremonial grade matcha for the occasion, whisked up in my new bowl purchased recently from a local artist. As the water heated, I opened my bag of sweets and pulled out the beautiful chrysanthemum namagashi in its little display box. As I opened it and separated it from the protective film underneath, I was struck by how delicate the sweet was. I placed it on a small saucer and made my tea. I took both to a quiet, sunny corner of our living room and sat to enjoy my little treat.

The sweet itself was quite soft, with a flavor that surprised me, given that I thought the most care would be taken with the appearance. But of course, wagashi are meant to appeal to all five senses. While the sound of this tender sweet was silence and its visual appeal apparent, I was delighted by the other three sense as well. It was a soft and smooth texture, yielding but not mushy. As someone who takes issue with a lot of textures, I found it amazing. As I bit into it, I smelled the rice and sweetness scent and tasted the complex flavors that married into this delicious sweet. It had a smooth sweet bean paste filling. And the small size meant that I enjoyed every bite, rather than becoming overloaded as I often do with a Western pastry. Despite being against tradition, I did pause and sip some matcha in between bites of sweet, but I found they blended so well together. And when the moment was over, I was able to bask in the peace and pleasure of it.

Later on, I broke into the gei monaka, a sweet made from red bean jelly sandwiched between two crisp rice crackers. I had had one of these before on my last visit to Teaism, and I knew I enjoyed it. I still haven’t tried the service sweets I was given, but I look forward to them as well. All in all, this was a lovely outing, and I encourage everyone in the DC area to take a trip out to Union Market before the 30th of September when the pop-up shop goes away.

A final note: Please remember my campaign for a matcha-infused, dual-targeted masking system at Volition Beauty. Go here to vote.

Outing: Tea Demonstration at the Chado Urasenke Tankokai Washington D.C. Association

This is a bit of an exciting outing post. You see, when I was a child, I remember a local museum having an exhibit where they recreated a Japanese tea house inside the museum. I wondered recently if the exhibit still existed, or if it was a temporary one, so I was looking around the internet. I did not find the exhibit, but I did find out that my city has its own tea ceremony association, the Chado Urasenke Tankokai Association of Washington, D.C., which holds weekly open houses by appointment.I decided to send them an email and see if they would make an appointment for me to come by, see their tea house, and learn more about the Japanese tea ceremony. I was fortunate enough that they not only invited me by, but also allowed me to take a few pictures to share with you.

The tour began at the front door to the tea house, which is on the second floor of a rather unassuming office building downtown. My host, Mioko, opened the locking door and showed me the closet where I could trade my street shoes for house slippers and leave my purse safely out of the way. Then, she showed me into the tea lesson room. We both took off our house slippers to step up into the tea house, which consisted of two rooms: a six-tatami less formal room and an eight-tatami more formal room. The formal room had an alcove with a scroll and a small flower. Mioko explained that they can also open the divider between the two rooms to make a large formal room.

She showed me around the rooms and explained the significance of the various elements, from the recreated tea garden on the tea house’s balcony, to the particular clay color of the walls. Much of the design of the tea house comes from the preferences of the shogun at the time the Urasenke school’s master lived. After that, she showed me to the formal tea house and began the demonstration of the tea ceremony.

The ceremony began with the presentation of a tray of sweets, which I got to contemplate as Mioko returned to her preparation area to bring out the various elements of tea preparation: the tea bowl, whisk, scoop, linens, and a waste water bowl. She then performed a ritual cleansing of the tea canister and scoop with her cloth. Then, she invited me to have a sweet while she prepared the tea. I bit into the crispy biscuit on my paper, and then tried the pressed sugar confection, letting it melt on my tongue, while I watched her make the tea.

The idea behind the timing of the ceremony is to allow the guest just enough time that the sweetness of the confection is still in their mouth as the tea is served. Sure enough, just as the last bits of sugar melted, she presented me with my bowl of tea. I hadn’t mentioned that I drink matcha, so I think she was surprised that I enjoyed my tea. The matcha was very smooth, both in flavor and consistency. It was eye-opening to have a bowl prepared by a true master. It was also quite delicate and floral, with an umami flavor that melted into sweetness as an aftertaste. Truly excellent matcha.

After I finished my tea, she invited me to examine the tea canister and bamboo scoop, explaining the history and process used to make these items. The canister she used for the demonstration had a flower design that was once again a favorite of the shogun at the time of the master’s life in Kyoto.

Once she had finished the demonstration, she invited me to try making a bowl myself. Of course, by this time, my feet were starting to get very sore from the sitting! But I endeavored to try the process. She had us move to the informal room, where a small tea kettle made it easier to serve the water without the elaborate ritual of using bamboo ladles. She also helped me set up my own tea equipment on a tray, making it easier to carry in and out of the room.

I won’t pretend my attempts were anything but humorous, but she was impressed with how quickly I picked up the particular method of folding the cloth used in the ritual, and how well I was able to create froth in my tea. After I made my bowl of tea, she suggested I switch back to playing the part of the guest so I could taste my own bowl of tea. After two bowls of matcha and the satisfaction of completing the elaborate ritual, I was exhilarated.

The whole experience took just under an hour and was a wealth of information, both about tea preparation, and about the context of the tea ceremony in Japanese history. What I found particularly interesting was the strong connection to the context of the time in which the master lived. Certain elements are admittedly due to the preference of the ruling shogun, not for any supposed mystical reason. I found it down to earth and refreshing. I also found Mioko a pleasant guide. It is always awkward for me to go places with the purpose of sharing them on the blog sometimes, and she helped put me at ease. If you’re in D. C. and curious about the tea ceremony, I would definitely recommend you email the association to make an appointment.