There are few edibles that are as strongly associated to Japan as green tea. And it is true, green tea is everywhere. Since tea is traditionally only drunk in its green form in Japan, it is usually just referred to as tea, お茶 (o-cha, where the o shows respect).
Since green tea is sensitive to high temperatures (the better the tea leaf, the lower the temperature must be), you can set Japanese “tea kettles” (they are actually rather hot water dispensers that keep the water at a prescribed temperature for an indefinite time) to 60, 80, 90 and 100 degrees Celsius.
Green tea is consumed in masses as ice tea (but unsweetened) sold at the innumerable vending machines located at every street corner. For common use, it is prepared from tea bags, which in general are also suitable for cold preparation. The connoisseur of course brews it in varying degrees of sophistication from tea leaves. Here are some of the most common varieties:
- 番茶 Bancha, common tea comes from third or fourth flush tea.
- 煎茶 Sencha, broiled tea is first and second flush tea from leaves that were exposed directly to the sun.
- 玉露, Gyokuro, Jade Dew is the highest grade tea made from leaves grown in the shade.
The crown of Japanese tea is definitely matcha (抹茶, rubbed tea), a green powder made from the finest, shade grown buds, which is beaten into a foamy liquid with a bamboo tea whisk during tea ceremony. Its taste is a matter of opinion since it is rather strong and bitter.
Inspired by Western coffee culture, many cafes also serve matcha latte, a sweet milky green tea drink (one of my favourites at lunch).
Apart from the beverage itself, green tea also finds many other applications, especially in flavoring sweets. Cakes, mochi, and other more gelatinous Japanese sweets come in the characteristic green hue and flavor. Any sweet conceivable to the Japanese mind is also suited for green tea flavor.
We have grown especially fond of green tea soft cream (called soft ice in Europe) and ice cream. All these sweets are actually much less sweet than Western ones, and the matcha flavor is maybe an acquired taste. We hope in any case that the health benefits of green tea also carry over to the ice cream preparations….
Even big multinationals have adjusted to the Japanese taste. Starbucks serves “Matcha Frappucino” (a viciously sweet frappé drink which gave me the first brain freeze of my life), while Häagen Dasz has several matcha ice creams on sale in Japan.