Japan’s Matcha Takes Root in Penang

Komichi Tea House's co-owner Chuah Joe Yin.

Matcha, the quintessential tea of Japanese hospitality past and present, was introduced by the Zen monk Eisai to Japanese society in 1191. Soon, tea drinking parties became fashionable among the upper echelons, and participants would show off their exquisite tea bowls and display their knowledge about tea.1

In the Zen monasteries, matcha was lauded for its ability to produce a state of calm alertness. It became the basis for a more refined version of the Japanese tea ceremony or “chado”, developed with Zen-inspired simplicity and a greater emphasis on spirituality.2

Buoyed by the clean-eating movement of today, matcha is once again trending, this time as a superfood for the health conscious. The tea is rich in polyphenol antioxidants, which have been tied to protection against heart disease and cancer, as well as better blood sugar regulation, blood pressure reduction and anti-ageing. Another polyphenol, EGCG, has been shown to boost metabolism, and slows or halts the growth of cancer cells.3

Despite its myriad benefits, our knowledge of green tea is unfortunately limited to the refillable kind found at sushi restaurants, observes Chuah Joe Yin, cofounder of Komichi Tea House. “Locals have a stereotypical idea of how Japanese green tea, especially matcha, ought to taste like – bitter, to be consumed with milk and sugar. But as a whole, green tea has a lot of varieties; they are processed differently and so, taste rather distinct from each other.”

The idea of the tea house was to reintroduce Japanese green tea to the Penang public. “My Japanese friend’s family owns a tea farm in Toyota City, Japan and their speciality happens to be matcha, so we thought why not take the plunge and set up Komichi since we now have a direct source from farm to cup, plus we’re doing direct trading with the tea farmers.”

The matcha powder is whisked with a third of a cup of hot water until it froths before serving.

Each tea type has its own brewing method to enhance the flavours.

Matcha chiffon cake topped with adzuki beans.

Matcha dorayaki (Japanese pancake).

Komichi offers tea tasting of matcha, gyokuro, kabusecha, hojicha and genmaicha to interested customers. “We occasionally offer Japanese black tea as well; it’s not as popular in Japan, but it’s been gaining a fair bit of interest lately. The flavour is mellow yet fragrant, unlike Ceylon black tea. We use this in our Japanese milk tea and in our limau wakocha, which is basically the Japanese equivalent of our the limau ais. Just like coffee, each tea type has its respective brewing method to fully augment the flavours.”

Japanese and Chinese Teas

No doubt locals are more familiar with the different types of Chinese teas – oolong, long jin, tieguanyin, pu er and liu bao are some of the more common ones. But Japanese green tea like matcha, gyokuro, kabusecha and fukamushicha are lighter in flavour, greener in colour and overall, more refreshing by comparison, says Chuah. “Personally, what’s special about these teas is the slightly salty-savoury aftertaste, the umami. Of course, Chinese teas have this too, but it’s not as common.”

Matcha tea plants are grown in the shade to improve the texture of the resulting matcha. The lack of full exposure to the sun forces the plants to alter their leaf structure to try to absorb more sunlight – the leaves broaden and become thinner, allowing the harvested leaves to be easily ground into fine powder. The plants also increase their production of chlorophyll, giving matcha its vibrant green colour.

Shade-growing the tea plants not only intensifies the taste and vegetal aroma, it also helps maintain the amino acid content, giving the matcha a naturally sweet flavor and little to no bitterness. On the other hand, non-shaded green teas like sencha have a lower amino acid content and higher concentration of catechins, resulting in a pronounced bitterness.4

“The difference between drinking matcha and drinking normal green tea is like eating spinach and drinking spinach water,” says Chuah. The caffeine contained in a bowl of matcha is significant as the shade-growing process boosts the nutritional content of the tea. One key amino acid protected by shade-growing is L-theanine, which helps improve cognitive function, increase focus and relieve stress. It also slows the absorption of caffeine by the body while simultaneously providing a sustained energy boost, without the crash and jitters expected from other caffeinated drinks.5 “But what I find weirdly amusing is that a lot of our cafes list matcha as a non-caffeinated beverage. Every time I see this, I think, ‘Uh-oh, someone’s not going to be able to sleep tonight!’”

Telling Quality Matcha Apart from the Bad

“The quality of matcha really depends on which farm or tea seller you buy from, and its price must reflect the work and care that goes into it. We always recommend that customers buy from reliable sources because then you know you’re getting your money’s worth.

“Another indicator to watch out for is its colour. Some so-called premium matcha have been mixed with sencha powder, hence the slight yellowish colour, or sugar has been added to it. The third and most important criterion is the texture. Matcha should not have a sandy aftertaste when consumed; that would mean the leaves were machine-ground. It’s very cheering to see that customers now know how to tell premium-grade matcha apart from the lesser quality ones. Hopefully this will encourage local cafes to serve better quality matcha in the future.”

As for Komichi, its focus still remains on introducing Japanese teas to Penangites. “Probably in the future, we will try to bring in more tea varieties from different Japanese regions. But for the meantime, we have created a small matcha-themed dessert menu to accompany the tea selections. We aim to be as authentic as possible with our wagashi (traditional Japanese confections); and to keep things interesting, only one wagashi type is offered daily. On Mondays, we have the dorayaki (red-bean pancake) while dango (Japanese dumpling and sweet) is usually served on Fridays – this is paired with black sesame paste or mitarashi (sweet soy sauce), which some locals find really strange,” she laughs. “But we also understand that in our hot climate, some ice cream and cakes wouldbe nice too.”

Komichi Tea House is located at 20, Lorong Toh Aka and opens on Thursdays to Mondays from 12-6pm.


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