Matcha ("ground tea") is a Japanese tea made from powdered green tea leaves. The leaves are grown and dried in specially designed processes, after which they are ground to create a fine powder. Matcha is traditionally used in the Japanese tea ceremony and to flavor food. It is considered highly nutritious, containing antioxidants, amino acids, fiber, chlorophyll and vitamins.
Other than being drunk as tea, matcha is used in desserts such as cakes, ice cream, cookies, puddings, candies, cheesecakes and mousse; in noodles, dumplings and savory sauces; and in drinks such as smoothies, milkshakes and lattes. It is also sometimes mixed with other teas and in alcohol.
The proper kind of tea leaf for making matcha is called tencha. To make tencha, a few weeks before harvesting the tea leaf bushes are covered with mats or tarps to keep them out of direct sunlight. The bushes respond to this by growing more slowly, producing amino acids (which make the tea sweeter tasting) and darkening their leaves. Leaves are harvested and dried flat (traditionally in indirect sunlight, but commonly dried indoors). The tencha is then de-stemmed, de-veined and ground (higher quality matcha is stone ground, lower quality is machine ground). This is matcha.
During the Tang Dynasty, powdered tea was made from steamed tea leaves shaped into bricks and drunk with salt. Later, in the Song Dynasty, whipped tea from powdered steam-readied dried tea leaves and hot water was popular.
The first tea ritual was invented by Chan Buddhists. The first code on the etiquette of ritualized tea drinking was written in 1103 AD by the Chan Buddhists. In 1191, powdered tea was introduced to Japan, along with Zen Buddhism. In the 1500s, Sen no Rikyu perfected the tea ceremony.
Because matcha is a green tea, it contains several antioxidants including catechins and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which can inhibit cancer cells. Matcha also can reduce triglyceride and cholesterol levels, acts as an anti-inflammatory and is an anti-androgenic. Due to the leaves actually being ingested, more nutrition is obtained from matcha than from steeped loose-leaf green tea. Matcha also contains L-Theanine, an amino acid with relaxing properties.
Matcha comes in grades of quality. The highest quality matcha comes from leaves picked on the top of the tea bush, where leaves are still developing. Three main grades are ingredient grade (which comes from below the top leaf and bud set of the tea bush), usucha (which comes from bushes younger than 30 years old) and koicha (which comes from bushes at least 30 years old). Most of the high-quality matcha tea is grown in the Uji Tawara vicinity. Matcha ground outside of Japan will sometimes be exploded instead of ground, which changes the flavor. Matcha is brewed with hot, not boiling water. Powdered teas not made using tencha are not matcha, but konacha (powder tea.)