By Yuka Matsumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterUJI, Kyoto — I was at a teahouse near the main gate of Byodoin temple in the heart of Uji, a city famous for green tea production. I ordered a glass of beer, but the item delivered to me did not seem to be quite right. It was light green.
For this beverage, a small amount of water is added to matcha green tea powder and mixed with a bamboo whisk in the same way this type of tea is usually made. Draft beer is then poured into the glass.
I found that the frothy foam and the drink’s bitterness created a very refreshing flavor. The beer was quite satisfying and went well with an accompanying snack that mixed tea leaves with small dried fish.
Although I was drinking the beer, it felt like I was eating it.
“Yes, green tea is even more beneficial for your health if you eat whole leaves,” said Kuniko Irie, the owner of the teahouse Akamon-Chaya. The establishment has been running for about 60 years since splitting from a green tea wholesaler that was founded in 1781.
While selling specialty local tea products, her shop has been a pioneer in providing matcha-flavored items such as ice cream and zenzai sweet red-bean soup. The matcha beer starts at ¥1,100, and the teahouse also sells a product for making the beverage at home.
“I’ve introduced something new from green tea in the hope that more and more customers will enjoy it,” Irie said.
Matcha is now seeing an unprecedented boom, with sweets and drinks flavored with the powdered tea quite popular, while the word is becoming better known outside Japan.
In particular, matcha from Uji, a city south of the ancient capital of Kyoto, is a high-end product. Its cultivation of green tea leaves to produce these powdered products dates back to the Kamakura period (late 12th century to 1333), and enjoyed the patronage of the Imperial family and shogunate clans. In the Sengoku (warring states) period (late 15th to late 16th century), military commanders, who were known for having a deep appreciation of the tea ceremony, used matcha from Uji. During the Edo period (1603-1867), newly harvested leaves in this area were presented to the shogunate.
Today in this center of green tea, dishes for “eating matcha” are now evolving, with the powder even making inroads into gyoza dumplings and takoyaki octopus dumplings. When kneaded into dough and cooked with oil, matcha can create a mild umami flavor. About 20 restaurants are now taking part in an initiative to promote a new local specialty called “Uji-chazuke” in which an infusion featuring local tea — whether matcha, sencha regular green tea or hojicha roasted tea — is poured over the restaurant’s specialty dish. Chazuke usually involves rice, but some restaurants offer their own versions based on sweets.
“We want to have more repeat customers,” said Kenji Negoro, a leader of the initiative and the owner of one of the participating restaurants.
Moreover, new kinds of sweets have appeared, such as matcha fondue in which the green tea powder is mixed with white bean paste and warmed as a dip for shiratama rice-flour dumplings.
A pioneering establishment in terms of developing matcha-flavored dishes is Tatsumiya, which specializes in Kyoto-style cuisine. Its matcha courses, which start at ¥4,860, include matcha tofu, which has a rich flavor, and green tea powder mixed with yuba tofu skin and crab meat, a dish with an excellent balance of umami and bitterness. All these dishes have delicate flavors while also being feasts for the eyes.
“These dishes have been passed down from my grandfather’s days,” said Soichiro Hidari, the eighth-generation owner of the restaurant. “However, we’ve constantly been improving them.”
Meanwhile, I wondered if the green tea industry, which has a long tradition, would consider the current boom of eating matcha something bothersome. However, Koji Totsuka, deputy secretary general of a prefectural chamber comprised of green tea producers and dealers, rejected such a notion.
“We have faced those in power at any given time and responded with top-selling products,” Totsuka said. “That is why we can respond to a wide range of needs that various consumers have.”
While upholding tradition, Uji has never become idle by relying on it. This is apparently why it remains the producer of the nation’s top green tea.
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