Food & Drink | KANPAI CULTURE

Californian flavor conference explores green tea's versatility

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

Making the perfect cup of matcha — the frothy green tea served during Japanese tea ceremonies — requires skill. The trick is to use a bamboo whisk to whip the brew swiftly with a smooth back-and-forth motion of the wrist.

“Work quickly and keep whisking until the tea reaches the consistency of a meringue,” instructed master green tea blender Ryozo Taniguchi, speaking at a Japanese tea workshop that I moderated recently at the Culinary Institute of America in California’s Napa Valley.

The session was part of the cooking school’s annual Worlds of Flavor conference that took place in late April and was focused on Asian cuisine.

Taniguchi presented four kinds of tea — matcha, genmaicha (roasted brown rice tea), cold-brewed sencha (green tea) and ice-brewed tencha (a premium variety of green tea) — alongside desserts prepared by Tokyo chefs Shinobu Namae and Zaiyu Hasegawa.

“Are we looking for soft peaks or hard peaks?” asked a bespectacled woman in the front row.

Taniguchi thought for a moment before answering, “When you see white foam on the surface, you can stop.”

The whirring sound of whisking filled the room as the 34 participants concentrated on preparing their own matcha in large ceramic tea bowls. After a few seconds, Taniguchi invited the audience to sample the tea, which was paired with a chocolate bonbon made with blue cheese and cocoa powder from Shinobu Namae. The astringency of the green tea matched the bitterness of the chocolate and cut through the savory richness of the blue cheese.

Green tea, the chef explained, could accompany Western-style dishes as well as Japanese cuisine.

“There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to tea pairing,” Hasegawa said, as he presented a dessert of simmered kuromame (black soybeans) flavored with whisky, which was served with the refreshing sencha. The final pairing combined the umami-dense tencha with an herb-scented mochi (pounded rice) cake made with kuzu (arrowroot) and wrapped in a bamboo leaf. In contrast to the French-accented sweets prepared by Namae, Hasegawa had chosen to make traditional Japanese confections with a modern twist in order to demonstrate green tea’s versatility.

“We want to introduce the possibilities of various kinds of Japanese tea,” said Takeshi Niinami, president of beverage giant Suntory Holdings, Ltd., which sponsored the tea workshop and several other activities at the Worlds of Flavor event. Although the company currently has no plans to bring new tea products into the North American market, Niinami said that Suntory hopes to expand in the future, musing that the drinks group could one day develop a line of Japanese teas to suit local tastes. The main reason for participating in the event, he said, was to deepen the understanding of Japanese food culture abroad.

At the end of the green tea workshop, attendants were encouraged to take home their bamboo whisks, along with notes on how to steep the different varieties of tea.

“I’m totally going to use this,” one guest declared, stopping to greet tea master Taniguchi.

“Back and forth, not clockwise, right?” he asked, flicking his wrist in the air.

Taniguchi just gave a nod and smiled.