Monday August 6, 2012
Tea-sing your senses
By MAJORIE CHIEW
Macrobiotic teas from Japan have a distinct flavour and aroma. They are finer, rich in nutrients and supposedly enhance health and relaxation.
SOME cultures believe that drinking tea promotes longevity. For the Japanese, drinking the brew made from tea leaves harvested on the 88th day after the first day of spring will result in perfect health and a longer life.
The new crop or “the first flush” of green tea is harvested around this time of the year. The crop, referred to as Shincha or Ichi-ban-cha, is appreciated more than the second or third crop for its less bitter and sweeter taste. By drinking this “new” tea, they are absorbing the “new and strong energy” into their bodies to promote health throughout the year.
Hachijyu Hachiya (which literally means 88 nights) is the day (on May 2; May 1 in a leap year) that marks the season of harvesting the first green tea of the year. Some Japanese regard it as good luck to drink green tea on this day. It is such a big part of Japanese culture and posters announcing Shincha can be seen in the windows of tea stores around this time.
“Tea leaves gathered on this day are of the best quality. They are mature and have a rich aroma and flavour,” explains June Ka Lim, macrobiotic counsellor of the Macrobiotic Cooking Academy of South-East Asia. She is also the founder of Woods Macrobiotics restaurants, which specialise in vegan macrobiotics organic food.
In major production regions, tea harvesting events are held and folks dress up in traditional outfits decorated with a red cord and an apron.
Tea leaves are harvested several times a year. In Japan, tea production starts from mid-April to May, with tea leaves being harvested and brought to the factory.
“The first harvested tea is the best and is called Ichi-ban-cha (No.1 tea), followed by Ni-ban-cha (No.2 tea) and San-ban-cha (No.3 tea). Tea harvested in the later part of the season is called Bancha (which means autumn in Japanese) or Aki-Bancha. Usually, Bancha is made with roasted tea leaves,” says Lim.
Tea is divided into three basic types: Japanese tea, oolong tea and black tea.
“These three types of tea come from the same tea plants as unfermented, half-fermented and fermented teas respectively. However, each type of tea has a plant best-suited for its production,” Lim says in an interview on macrobiotic tea appreciation at Woods Bio March, a cafe which is part of Woods Macrobiotics in SS2, Petaling Jaya.
About 50% of all Japanese teas are produced in Shizuoka prefecture in the central part of Japan. Tea from here is often steamed at a high temperature of about 80°C to 90°C, which decreases its original bitterness and astringency.
The heat for the sterilisation of the tea leaves must also be high enough to remove the “fishy” smell of the leaves so that when they are later roasted, the roasted aroma remains.
Macrobiotic teas (from Japan) have a distinct flavour and aroma. They do not require high temperature to sterilise and provide a finer tea. Rich in nutrients, macrobiotic teas enhance health and relaxation.
These teas are produced both in the eastern and western mountainous areas of Japan.
The tea leaves in the eastern region maintain their original aroma, bitterness and astringency. There is no need to steam them at a high temperature as the tea produced in Shizuoka.
In the western part of Japan, macrobiotic tea is produced in places such as Shiga, Nara, Kyoto and Okayama, which have ideal climates for high-quality teas.
According to 8th century literature, tea leaves came from China to Japan along with Buddhism. The mountainous regions of southern China are believed to be the birth place of tea, beginning about 4,000 years ago.
However, the biggest revolution in Japanese tea culture was in the 16th century when the original Chinese tea manufacturing method was brought to Japan. Thereafter, tea fields began to crop up all over the country and tea became the traditional Japanese drink.
Other than as a popular drink, Japanese tea has many other uses.
Tea powder and extract are used for cakes, cookies and ice-creams, as well as blended with other drinks to add the tea flavour. Tea is also a common ingredient in soaps and various processed non-food products.
Kaori Nakamura, macrobiotic chef at Woods Bio Marche introduced various macrobiotic teas to use and made the brews for our tea appreciation session.
The macrobiotic teas that we tasted were: Sencha (caffeinated), Genmaicha (caffeinated), Kukicha (non-caffeinated), Hira Bancha tea (minimal caffeine) and Akachan bancha or Baby Bancha (non-caffeinated).
Sencha (Japanese green tea) is made from dried tea leaves. It is the most popular Japanese tea and represents about 80% of tea produced in Japan.
Generally, Japanese green tea is first steamed for between 15 and 20 seconds to prevent oxidisation of the leaves. Then, the leaves are rolled, shaped and dried. This creates the customary thin cylindrical shape of the tea. The leaves are then sorted and divided into different quality groups.
Initial steaming imparts a difference in the flavour between Chinese and Japanese green tea. The latter has a more vegetal, almost grassy taste.
Infusions from sencha and other green teas that are steamed (like most common Japanese green teas) are also greener in colour and slightly more bitter than Chinese-style green teas.
However, the most delicious Sencha is from the first flush of the year; this “new tea” or Shincha is harvested from early April to late May but depends on the region of the plantation.
The ideal colour of Sencha is a greenish golden colour. Depending on the temperature of the water in which it is decocted, the flavour will be different.
With hot water, it is astringent; with water that is relatively not too hot, it is quite mellow.
“Sencha tea leaves have a vivid deep green colour, refreshing aroma and a light bitterness in its sweet flavour. “It has the most protein and dietary fibre among all kinds of tea,” says Lim.“This tea helps to balance a warm body constitution.”
Sencha in Japan is drunk hot in the cooler months and usually chilled in the summer months.
Genmaicha (brown rice tea) is made by mixing equal parts roasted brown rice and Bancha (green tea). The roasted smell of brown rice and its sweetness give Genmaicha a rich flavour, says Lim.
It is sometimes referred to as “popcorn tea” because a few grains of the rice pop during the roasting process and resemble popcorn. This type of tea was originally drunk by poor Japanese. It was also used by people fasting for religious purposes or who found themselves to be between meals for long periods of time.
Genmaicha has a light yellow hue. Its mild flavour combines the fresh grassy flavour of green tea with the aroma of roasted rice.
Macrobiotic Kukicha (or twig tea) is made from stems, stalks and twigs separated during the refining process of Sencha.
It is roasted, as opposed to commercial Kukicha, which is not. This gives macrobiotic Kukicha a roasted aroma and mild flavour. During summer, it is best enjoyed as a cold tea.
“Macrobiotic Kukicha is the most popular kind of tea because it has less caffeine and can be enjoyed by the sick, children and all other tea drinkers. It is also good for liver cleansing and the obese. It has a bit of a coffee taste and a liquorice after taste,” says Lim.
Macrobiotic Mugicha (roasted barley tea) is made from 100% domestically produced barley which is roasted twice with infrared rays. Barley (mugi in Japanese) contains twice as much dietary fibre as wheat flour and four times as much dietary fibre as rice. Also, barley contains four times as much iron as brown rice.
Barley also has vitamin B2 and minerals, as well as the highest amount of amino acid in protein of all the grains. Barley is said to be effective for warts and corns, to remove blots and freckles, and to smooth and moisturise skin.
Originally, roasted barley seeds were stewed in hot water (this is still the method generally used in Korea), but tea bags containing ground barley became more popular during the early 1980s; this is now the norm in Japan.
Roasted barley tea, sold in ground form and sometimes combined with chicory or other ingredients, is also sold as a coffee substitute.
Mugicha does not contain the bitter substance of catechin or caffeine as in coffee or black tea. It can be enjoyed by both young (even children) and old. The tea’s roasted aroma and natural flavour can be enjoyed as a cold tea during summer.
Bancha is a Japanese green tea harvested from the second flush of Sencha between summer and autumn. Bancha is harvested from the same plant as Sencha-grade tea.
As it is plucked later than Sencha, it has a lower market grade. Bancha has a stronger organic straw smell. It has very little caffeine and tastes totally different from Sencha. It has a bit of mineral taste, says Lim.
Akachan bancha or Baby Bancha is from the third harvest and is very mild.
This non-caffeine tea is so mild, Lim says, that even babies (more than one year old) can drink it. “Japanese mothers would feed the tea to their crying babies or those who throw temper tantrums to calm them or to supplement calcium levels. The tea is also good for colicky babies.
Matcha is fine powdered Japanese green tea. It is claimed that matcha delivers a much higher potency of catechins, chlorophyll and antioxidants.
Drinking it regularly is said to boost metabolism and help reduce cholesterol levels.
This is because the whole tea leaf is ingested, not just the steeped tea (of “bagged” green teas). Drinking Japanese green teas may help to reduce or moderate mental stress responses due to the presence of theanine.
A tea bowl or chawan and a tea whisk are used to make matcha. A whisk is needed because it is difficult to bind green tea powder with water and lumps may form. As matcha has a bitter taste, it should be drunk with sweet Japanese biscuits.