Among Japanese-inspired sensations of 2016, it is rivaled only by “Pokémon Go.”
Matcha, the finely ground powder made from baby green-tea leaves and identifiable by its vibrant, almost iridescent green color and earthy flavor, has moved from teas to lattes to desserts and savory dishes.
At Sacramento’s Fluid Espresso Bar, croissants with a matcha-vanilla filling are hard to keep in stock. At the high-profile new Sacramento restaurants Skool and Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining, matcha plays important roles in desserts.
Like so many food-and-drink trends emeritus (kale, quinoa, coconut water), this one involves potential health benefits. Matcha holds a higher concentration of catechins, or strong antioxidant compounds, than regular green tea, that “superfood”-list habitué.
Unlike so many other food-and-drink trends, matcha’s history involves a 12th-century Japanese Buddhist monk and Starbucks.
Legend has it that the monk, Eisai, introduced powdered tea from China to Japan, where it became an integral part of tea ceremonies, and the culture. What’s certain is Eisai wrote a book titled “Kissa Yojoki,” that extolled the health benefits of tea and helped popularize the drinking of it in Japan. Starbucks introduced matcha to the American masses in 2006, via pre-sweetened green-tea lattes.
Now a decade into being acclimated to the idea of bright-green substances as desirable rather than frightening, and having seen countless other coffeehouses, local and chain, put matcha on their own menus, consumers have graduated from lattes to more solid matcha attractions, such as the cream in Fluid Espresso’s croissants.
“People ask all the time, ‘When are you going to have the croissants?’ ” Fluid Espresso baker Sophia Barrios said. “And they’ll come in that day just to get two croissants.”
Fluid received its first matcha powder sample from a supplier in 2014. But the cafe did not use the powder until about a year later, when Barrios noticed customers asked for matcha more often.
“We started with (lattes), and that became really popular,” Barrios said. “We were already doing the vanilla custard, so we decided to take a little bit of the powder and mix it in,” in early 2016.
At Mahoroba Japanese Bakery, on Freeport Boulevard, matcha is not new, but it is newly popular with American customers.
“When we started in the United States (in 2009), I wanted to let Americans know that Japanese love matcha,” bakery owner Narusuke Monguchi said. So Monguchi, who also had run a bakery in his native Japan, sold buns with matcha from the start.
But it was mostly Japanese Americans buying those buns until the national PBS show “A Few Great Bakeries” profiled the bakery in August 2015. “After the show, many American people became interested in the green tea sunrise bun,” Monguchi said. The shop’s green tea Kobe cream buns also increased wildly in popularity.
Skool and Binchoyaki, new restaurants with ambitious menus that sometimes fuse Japanese and European cuisines, pay homage to their respective pastry chefs’ Japanese roots with desserts incorporating matcha.
Skool co-owner and pastry chef Hiroko Nagano puts matcha on center stage in her matcha white chocolate cake. The cake sits at the bottom of a Mason jar, below lemon custard ice cream, sake-soaked golden raisins and sprinkled, unsweetened matcha powder.
“Last summer, many articles about the benefits of matcha started to catch my eye, and (this past) winter I saw more ads for matcha products almost every day,” said Nagano, a Tokyo native. “More people know about matcha and are becoming familiar with the flavors.”
Though Nagano would like to make seasonal changes to the dessert menu, customers “won’t let her” remove the matcha cake, Skool co-owner Andy Mirabell said.
At Binchoyaki, restaurant co-owner, pastry chef and Osaka native Tokiko Sawada evokes a Japanese dessert staple with her parfait of house-made matcha soy ice cream, red bean paste and mochi.
Sawada starts with “true matcha,” without sweeteners. Pure matcha carries its own naturally sweet element, along with bitterness and woodsiness, said Sawada and her husband, Binchoyaki chef Craig Takehara.
Matcha is “exactly the epitome of Japanese flavor,” Takehara said. “It is utilizing the smells, the flavors … and all in one, it creates that umami (effect). That’s the allure of matcha.”
Takehara sometimes also uses matcha for savory dishes such as tempura, mixing the matcha with salt as a soy substitute.
Traditionally, matcha powder is used during Japanese tea ceremonies. The process involves using a bamboo whisk to combine the matcha powder with water in a special bowl from which it’s consumed immediately, Nagano said.
Unlike regular green tea, which can contain branches as well as leaves, matcha comes only from leaves, and “from the best, the youngest, the nicest tea leaves,” Takehara said. “It is the most prized tea there is in Japan.”
But is it really good for you?
“The health benefits are similar to that of green tea in general,” said Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr, specialist in cooperative extension for UC Davis Department of Nutrition. Proposed benefits of green tea include lower risk of cardiovascular disease and some types of cancers, and bone-density improvement. Though “the studies are pretty inconclusive,” she said, some have been promising.
“Some have shown a benefit of maybe three cups a day in terms of reduced risk of cardiovascular disease especially,” she said.
Matcha is getting so much attention these days, she said, because “it’s got a higher concentration” of catechins than regular green tea. But those catechins’ effectiveness can depend on how the matcha is used.
“It’s important that you don’t add any cow’s milk to it,” Zidenberg-Cherr said. “There is a protein in cow’s milk that will bind to those important catechins and reduce how much you actually get in your body.”
Some people swear by matcha as cure for an acute ailment: the alcohol flu. Elite Daily, among other outlets, has touted its liver-protecting capacity and other anti-hangover effects.
Whether matcha works on antioxidant effect on hangovers is “hard to say,” Zidenberg-Cherr said. “A lot of the time, a hangover involves dehydration. Drinking green tea, you are drinking water and a whole lot of caffeine.”
“So (the effect) might be very real, in that it’s waking you up.”