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How to unlock umami from matcha

The nicest matcha is sweet and vegetal but balanced by a bit of bitterness and that hit of umami that is so characteristic of Japanese tea

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

Mr Hamada, will you tell me a matcha story?" I ask, now accustomed to a story accompanying every new tea I try.

Shuhei Hamada, the young managing director of Hamada Tea, looks a bit nonplussed, and opens a PowerPoint presentation instead. There’s a photograph of a farm that shows flatlands with straight lines of tea bushes, with wispy mountains in the backdrop. It’s beautiful, with not a leaf out of place. It is the Hamada farm that was started by Shuhei’s grandfather in the Kagoshima prefecture, an area second only to Shizuoka in tea production in Japan.

I am at a Japanese café in Bengaluru. Steeping before me is a lovely sencha, a nutty and toasty genmaicha, and that hard-to-dislike hōjicha...but it’s the matcha, and its widespread fame, I am curious about.

In traditional Japanese culture, it is a ceremonial drink, not an everyday one. Consequently, the best matcha is very expensive (going as high as 10,000 for 200g).

What makes the matcha special is how it’s grown and made. The tea bushes are covered with black sheets, or the “tana tarp", for anywhere between two-six weeks before plucking. This impacts the amount of light that hits the plant, which in turn triggers a different chemistry in the leaves; among other things, it gives the matcha that striking green colour.

At harvest—the choicest matcha is made in spring—the youngest leaves are plucked, steamed, dried, deveined and destemmed before being ground. Matcha refers to ground green tea and the leaves are traditionally ground in a stone mill to a baby-powder consistency.

Because it’s ground, the matcha is the one tea where the leaf is actually consumed and not merely steeped. This is the matcha’s claim to superfood status, as it’s thought to provide dietary fibre, improve metabolism and fight inflammation, among other benefits.

There are two broad grades to the matcha: ceremonial and culinary. The ceremonial grade is preferred for drinking, and is more expensive and of finer quality. The culinary grade is less vibrant green, more astringent, less sweet...but works as an ingredient to create matcha-infused dishes. The best ceremonial matcha comes from the Uji or Shizuoka regions in Japan.

To make the matcha, you don’t need the ceremonial kit, although the matcha bowl (chawan), bamboo whisk (chasen) and spoon (chashaku) are available easily. Hamada starts his morning with a matcha made easily. Add some matcha and hot/cold water in a bottle, give it a nice shake to create a suspension, and it’s ready to drink.

Yes, it’s an acquired taste—but it grows on you quickly. The nicest matcha is sweet and vegetal but balanced by a bit of bitterness and that hit of umami that is so characteristic of Japanese tea.


Hamada Teas are available in Bengaluru at the Azuki Japan Travel Bistro and Sake. Japanese ceremonial grade matcha from Shizuoka is available at Midori from the Chota Tingrai Tea Estate, Assam, produces a culinary grade matcha made from Assam tea.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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