With matcha becoming a big health trend and many venturing to make matcha in a more traditional manner, I thought it might be good to give some general tips on the tools needed to whisk matcha.
Matcha is a fine powder made from tea leaves that are grown in the shade. The leaves are processed, de-veined, de-stemmed, and slowly ground on a stone mill. By nature, it is very perishable and tends to clump, so the first steps in a nicely whisked matcha are to make sure that you have fresh matcha and to prepare the matcha before use. If the matcha you have is not a vibrant, almost lime green, it’s most likely old. In addition, old matcha will not only be more difficult to whisk, but will also taste like a combination of dried seaweed and cobwebs. Any retailer should be able to tell you when the matcha was produced and when it was packaged.
A quick note on matcha storage: while keeping it at a cooler temperature (read: in the fridge) can help retain its freshness, it will also tend to cause the matcha to clump more readily and absorb any odors that it comes in contact with. It’s best to buy only what you can use in a month or two from a reputable supplier. Next, you’ll want to sift the matcha. This can be accomplished by a contraption called a matchakan, which is a can with a little sieve and a flat ladle to push around the matcha. You can also simply push the matcha through a bone dry, fine mesh strainer. I’ve never tried using a flour sift for matcha, but I’m guessing that you would not only make a big mess, but also burn the matcha a bit with all the friction.
Next, you’ll need to bring together all your tea tools. You can certainly buy everything you need off the shelf, but you’ll save money and increase your tea room credibility if you know what you need and repurpose regular bowls and the like.
A chasen or tea whisk is still the best thing for the task. Since most of them are considered disposable and made in China, they aren’t too expensive. The big difference here will be in the number of tines that are cut into the whisk, with a greater number of tines creating a thicker foam, but also being more fragile (since the tines tend to be thinner). One hundred tines is the best all-around recommendation, but 140 is great for special occasions. Since the staff at your local Japanese supermarket / dollar store most likely know nothing about whisking matcha, it might be best to look up the Chinese characters for 80, 100, and 140 so that you’ll know what you’re purchasing. If you’re looking for an easier alternative, a milk frother or small hand blender might do well in a pinch.
A chashaku, or bamboo scoop, can easily be replaced by a small spoon. I find that a half-a-teaspoon-sized spoon usually works pretty well, but its utility may vary depending on the guest, amount of water, and qualities of the matcha. If you have a chashaku, a standard measurement for usucha, or light tea, is one-and-a-half chashaku. However, like many things in the tea ceremony, amounts are measured by eye and experience. During a tea gathering, you’ll place the matcha in a natsume, or tea caddy, to hold the tea as you bring it into the tea room, but this won’t be necessary if you’re whisking tea for yourself at home.
Next, and perhaps most important, is the chawan or tea bowl. Some of these can go for thousands of dollars. They come in all shapes and sizes. First off, you’ll want one that is pleasing to your eye. Some are colorful, some are rustic, and some look like they were spawned in a junkyard, but any bowl you use should be something you find pleasing. Next, you’ll want to look at the interior of the bowl to find one that matches the profile of a chasen. The closer the match, the easier it will be to whisk and produce fine foam. You’ll also be looking for a bowl with a relatively flat bottom, so that you’ll have space to push the whisk back and forth. Most of the bowls you have in your cupboard likely have a curved bottom, which will make whisking matcha a very challenging endeavor. A nice touch to a matcha bowl will be a chadamari, or small place at the bottom of the bowl where leftover matcha can pool after you’re done drinking.
Other characteristics you’ll find in bowls specifically made for the tea ceremony will be a subtle lip about halfway up the interior of the bowl which helps keep the matcha and froth in the bowl and a sturdy base so that the bowl is more stable during whisking. Truth be told, the kodai, or base, of the bowl is often where an artist shows his / her true soul and intention in the bowl and should always be viewed and appreciated before purchase. One last little recommendation: always handle a bowl before purchase. If the bowl is at an exhibition and they won’t let you touch it, walk away. Why? Not only should a bowl be visually interesting, but it should also have an interesting heft and balance when held. For example, a thick, rustic black raku chawan looks very heavy and, because of the way it’s cold shocked out of a kiln, often needs to be very solid in build. However, if the base and interior of the bowl are carved just so, the bowl becomes top-heavy and feels very light in the hand. Because bowls built in this way have a tendency to tip over, when raising the bowl to your mouth, they will feel as if they are practically floating in your hand.
This article was originally posted to TChing in October of 2011.