Green tea is the indispensible beverage of Japan. It is produced by steaming newly harvested tea leaves before they are dried. The process inhibits the action of an enzyme which causes fermentation and darkening. Naturally fermented black tea is enjoyed in China, India and the Western world. Tea leaves are harvested from May through September. The quality varies depending on the area of production, how early the leaves are picked, the size of the leaves and even the position of the leaves on the bushes.
Tea leaves contain a type of amino acid which is a flavor enhancer. It adds a distinct sweetness to the tea. Perhaps this explains the popularity of the dish called ocha-zuke, which in its simplest form is hot green tea poured over cooked rice.
Green tea is processed into leaf form and powdered form. Top-quality, premium tea, called gyokuro (jewel dew) comes from the first summer picking of protected young leaves from the tops of the bushes. It is grown in the shade, which helps prevent bitterness. These leaves will be steamed and dried into long thin tightly curled rolls. Gyokuro is expensive and is sipped for appreciation and not to quench thirst.
Shin-cha is new, freshly-harvested tea. Sencha is also of excellent quality, picked after the first trim. This excellent tea is served in most homes and often in sushi bars.
Hojicha is roasted green tea leaves. The tea is brownish and mild.
Matcha is powdered green tea made from the same leaves as gyokuro. The tea leaves are steamed until emerald green, and dried to preserve the pretty color and flavor. This expensive powdered tea is used mainly for the traditional tea ceremony. I think of it as the “espresso” of the tea world. A cup of matcha may be thick or thin, but I still think it resembles a frothy, emerald green pea soup. The taste is slightly astringent with a grassy finish that is very pleasant. Your first sip may be a bit of an eye-opener, but you will quickly learn to appreciate its fresh flavor. Just think of all those antioxidants! I use matcha frequently to make ice cream, mousse, chocolates, sponge rolls, in cold beverages and to dust sugar cookies (mixed with confectioners’ sugar.) The best Matcha is grown in a mountainous area south of Kyoto. Different leaves may be blended to capture the best qualities of each one.
Bancha is a popular lower-quality, informal tea made from older leaves picked later in the season. You may be served bancha without charge in Japanese restauants as a thirst-quenching beverage. It is refreshing chilled with lemon or orange slices. Bancha can be roasted.
Kukicha, ‘twig-tea,’ is the next grade after bancha and is made from the oldest leaves along with the stems and twigs of the bush. It is often roasted for a nutty flavor. This tea has a lower caffeine content.
Genmai-cha is sometimes called ‘popcorn tea’ because it is a combination of bancha and partially popped brown rice. This tea is sometimes served in inexpensive restaurants. It is quite popular.
Other teas include cold barley tea (mugi-cha) and a festive tea made by pouring hot water over salted cherry blossoms. Medicinal teas, including those made fom lotus root, mugwort, dried mushrooms and burdock root, are also used.
Drinking green tea may help prevent heart disease and even cancer, according to research reports from Tufts nutrition experts. According to Jeffrey Blumberg, chief of Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts’ Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, “tea should be put in the same category as fruits and vegetables; foods that experts recommend in order to help cut risk of disease.
Natural occuring compounds in tea are responsible for its health benefits.” Studies are not yet conclusive but the research looks promising.
Two cups of tea contain as many flavonoids (antioxidents) as a serving of vegetables. Some researchers say that a cup of green tea each day has enough flouride to prevent tooth decay. It is also said to strengthen the bones. Green tea has half the caffeine of coffee. Japanese green tea contains many components including: Catechins (polyphenols), Flavonoids, Vitamins C, B1, B2, Niacin, Caffeine, Amino Acids and a variety of minerals.
Look for the freshest geen tea available. Supermarket tea may be past its prime. Check in Asian markets and tea specialty shops for quality green tea.
Japanese Sencha Tea
The amount of water can vary to taste. Begin with the lesser amount; have a pot of hot water on the side to dilute the tea, if necessary.
1 generous tablespoon loose green tea leaves (good quality sencha)
1 to 2 cups hot water (about 185 to 190 degrees)
Put tea leaves into a small tea pot. Pour water over tea leaves. Steep 1-1/2 to 2 minutes. Steeping times can vary; refer to directions on package of tea leaves. Pour tea into 4 small Japanese tea cups. Drink at once. Tea leaves can be used again.
For bancha tea, use 2 tablespoons tea leaves to 1-1/2 cups boiling water.
Read Allison Askin’s article, Tasty Teas Becoming Boiling Hot in Popularity, posted on Wed, Mar. 22, 2006