ASHLAND — Concocting a cup of her native country's tea, Etsuko Jensen sees so much more than green.
Matcha's vivid emerald hue rivals the beauty of precious stones. Its aroma and flavor evoke dewy spring shoots and fresh-cut summer grass.
"It amazed me," Jensen said. "Matcha powder is alive."
Matcha's concentrated form makes it possible to ingest green tea directly instead of drinking an infusion of it. But daily doses of liquid matcha weren't enough for Jensen, 59. She started cooking with matcha powder even before the practice became more prevalent in Japan.
Because matcha traditionally is enjoyed with sweets, it's a natural addition to desserts and breads, Jensen said. At Ashland's Chozu Bath and Tea Gardens, the macrobiotic chef prepares Japanese specialties like youkan, a jellied confection often made with red beans but when combined with matcha, contains limas.
Mushi pan, a steamed bread resembling a scone, takes its pistachio-green color from matcha. And the tea house, located at 832 A St., couldn't omit green-tea ice cream, made with real matcha instead of the food coloring seen in many restaurants, Jensen said.
"That's all fake," she said.
The sweets complement Chozu's extensive tea menu, comprising five varieties of green tea ranging in price from $4.25 for a single serving of matcha to $3.50 for a small pot of sencha, genmaicha or hojicha.
Now is the prime season to enjoy green tea, Jensen said, when its color echoes growth in the natural world. Chozu patrons can expect to find more incarnations of green tea than in cooler months, she said.
"Spring to summer, many more people are using green tea," she said.
Although Jensen has seen the popularity of green tea explode in the United States since she arrived in 1979, many Americans still aren't acquainted with the true tea of Japan, she said.
Most varieties of matcha linger too long on store shelves, Jensen said. The powder must be fresh, she added, or it becomes bitter. For service at Chozu, Jensen only uses matcha from reputable companies like Muzi Tea, of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Matcha is made from hand-picked Gyokuro tea leaves, shaded for about 20 days before harvest so that new shoots develop large, thin leaves with better texture and flavor. Then farmers steam the freshly picked leaves briefly, to stop fermentation, dry them and pack them in bales for cold storage. Aging improves and intensifies the tea's flavor, which becomes optimum after six months. Finally, it is ground.
Rich in antioxidants, green tea is thought to inhibit cancer, lower cholesterol, promote weight loss, have beneficial effects on allergies and lessen the growth of germs in the mouth, preventing periodontal disease and halitosis. It's also high in Vitamin C. And matcha, Jensen said, has even more health benefits than those ascribed to green tea in general.
"It's funny ... skin products, they're putting green tea in," she said.
Albeit an elaborate undertaking in Japan, matcha preparation is actually very simple. The most important factor is water temperature. Never pour boiling water over matcha, which could make it bitter, Jensen said.
After boiling water for matcha, Jensen does a two-step cooling, pouring the water into one cup and then into another for just a few seconds. A traditional Japanese whisk isn't absolutely neccessary, Jensen said, but it does disperse matcha powder more evenly, bringing out the tea's sweeter notes and creating an attractive foam.
Try the following recipes using matcha.
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this story.