Matcha and Cherry Blossoms in Japan

 

Ooh La La has been really busy of late. We have just returned from exhibiting at an international food show in Japan called Foodex. Yip,  Angelique and I set up a gorgeous little confectionery stand among the very, very best of Japanese culinary excellence and other international gourmet companies. This is  us in our Ooh La La outfits   with our names written in Japanese! The Japanese loved Ooh Ooh La, from the confectionery to the branding. Each time they tasted our samples, we were spoilt with a flurry of arigatou gozaimasus  (thank-yous) and kawaii (adorable, lovely, cute). What a way to arrive.

Karen and Angie Hit Japan

As some of you know, travel is my drug and I’ve been waiting for many years to go to Japan. It did not disappoint. We arrived as spring was kissing goodbye to winter and the cherry blossoms (called sakura in Japanese) were starting to bud on every street and in every park. Everywhere you walked, pretty, ice-pink popped up as a greeting and a welcome. And I was amazed to see how the Japanese integrated this aromatic leaf and flower into their spring-time food.

Cherry blossom
The cherry blossoms come into bloom.
cherry bossom leaf
This wagashi is  a cherry blossom green leaf enfolding a cherry blossom  mochi. Wagashi is a ceremonial confectionery  accompanying matcha green tea at a tea ceremony.
cherry blossom cookies
Another variation of cherry blossom mochi

 

cherry blossom swiss roll
Introducing the beloved Japanese cake roll. Move over Swiss-Roll!

 

cherry fizz macdonalds
Even Macdonalds is riding the cherry blossom express.

 

The reason I was dying to go to Japan was because of the time I had spent with a famous Japanese Patissier living in Paris called Sadaharu Aoki. This was many years ago. During my time in Paris, I noticed a love affair between Japanese chefs and French cuisine. Aoki was part of a wave of Japanese chefs who made a food pilgrimage to France to learn from the masters and the great French traditions of French patisserie. Most of them would return to Japan with their French training, setting up patisseries in Tokyo and beyond.   But Aoki stayed in Paris, creating all kinds of French-Japanese fusions. One of the things Aoki was doing, was integrating the golden-green offspring of green tea, called ‘matcha’ into his patisserie. Matcha is the finest extract of a meticulously cultivated green tea and it is making waves in the West. When I first tasted it, I was smitten.  The flavour was multi-layered and complex. It pulled me in so many directions. Matcha is bitter, yet subtly sweet, fresh and utterly unique. For me it was a taste sensation, one of the best things I’ve ever sampled (you will learn as we go that I tend to exclaim that lots of things are ‘the best things I’ve ever tasted’ but it’s true for each and every category). When I surfaced from my first taste of matcha, I knew that I would soon be sharing this flavour with the Ooh La La world and beyond.

Matcha poweder1
Matcha Powder from the Nishio Region, Japan.

 

After this first encounter, I came back to Johannesburg determined to explore this Japanese-French fusion. In the last few years, I have developed matcha infused white chocolate sprinkled with yuzu (Japanese citrus), a bergamot marshmallow smothered in matcha chocolate, a matcha callison and a matcha and orange blossom nougat. And I’ve already made a matcha ice cream which is just to die for. As you can see, my love affair with matcha had already begun,   but on this, my first trip to Japan, I was determined to get to the source of matcha’s magic.

Matcha roll
Matcha Roll. The swiss roll is officially done.

 

kit kat
Even Kit Kat has a matcha flavour.

 

Japan is a foodie’s paradise. At three am I trawled the famous Tsukiji fish market to see valuable tuna being auctioned off to the highest bidder. I visited every single depachika (the basement floor food mecca of every luxury department store in Japan) and saw food beauty that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.  But I was in a matcha state of mind. And so in between the sushi and the sake, I searched to find the best matcha producer in Japan. Eventually, I was drawn to the matcha from a wonderful farm in the beautiful  Nishio region of Japan. Their way of farming and the quality of the soil and local environment as well as the ethics of their agriculture drew me to choose this as the ultimate matcha supplier for Ooh La La.  There are many different grades of matcha depending on the purpose and occasion. From matcha that you would use  for your patisserie to daily matcha drinking to royal ceremonial use.

That night Angelique and I were joined for dinner by our new friend from the matcha farm, Yasuko, and an old friend of mine from Japan called Mariko.  At a tiny Japanese restaurant,  the locals  shared their sake with us and I sampled the fins of Japanese caramelised stingray (up there with the best sting rays I’ve ever tasted). The focus of the conversation was matcha.  Matcha is the lifeblood of Japanese culture. I saw this myself when I saw that matcha is even in your local Kit Kat in Tokyo. Let me share some matcha facts.

  • you get 137 times more antioxidants in matcha than regular green tea.
  • it helps to burn fat
  • it  fights cancer
  • it’s a natural anti-depressant
  • it’s anti-ageing

With all these health benefits, it is no wonder that matcha is also cherished as the key ingredient of the thousand year old Japanese tea ceremony. Called Chanoyu (hot water for tea), Sadu or Ocha (which means ‘the way of tea’), the Japanese tea ceremony is a choreographic tea ritual, where a host takes his guests through the most sublime, delicate steps. First the guest receives a sweet confection called wagashi and then the host prepares and serves the matcha tea. The wagashi confection offsets the wonderful, bitter yet smooth flavour of the tea. As a whole the ‘Way of Tea’ can be a healing, calming experience for host and guest alike. It is such a refined art, that in Japan, you go to  ceremonial tea schools where you learn the art, spiritual discipline and exquisite simplicity of matcha tea making and serving. This training is especially advisable if you want to take up being a Geisha as a profession 🙂 (all Geishas were schooled in the art of tea making).

matcha and wagashi
A matcha tea ceremony tray served, here with wagashi (actually this is a miniature tea set which I brought home for my children).
Matcha powder
Matcha tea is prepared with a bamboo whisk, called a chasen.

But it was the deeper meaning of ‘the way of tea ceremony’ that really spoke to me. Through this careful, beautiful ritual, the host and guests are invited to commune with nature and to connect more quietly and closely with their friends. Matcha’s health benefits all point to the way it energises you and gives you an organic pick-up in daily life. Yet, it also offers a soothing for the soul. I experienced this first hand the other day. Like lots of us, I am an incredibly busy working mama with very little time for Zen like moments. I’m the only student in my yoga class searching an idea on the Internet in downward dog. But the other day I took out the matcha I had bought from Japan to show a friend. On the spur of the moment, we decided to create a ceremony. Using the correct bamboo spoon we heaped the powder into a special ceramic bowl given to me by Yasuko as a gift. We added a small amount of hot water and then whisked it with a bamboo whisk called a chasen (the better quality whisks have more prongs and create a more frothy matcha). We whisked the matcha into a gentle froth and then added a little more hot water to make the tea which we poured into two small white ceramic cups. We sat, we inhaled, we sipped. For a good ten minutes, a calm and quiet filled the space as we spoke about all good things and matcha. It was a little Zen moment in a busy week.

I took all this and more from my ten days in Japan and now I am excited that Ooh La La will be bringing this matcha experience to you. I can’t wait to share the taste and talents of this little power-leaf. The combination of the bitter with the sweet in our confections will echo the balance of wagashi and matcha at the tea ceremonies.  Who knew that my search for a precious ingredient that I use in my confectionery, would lead to me supplying matcha in its purest form to our Ooh La La customers. It will be available for  you to buy  so that you can make ‘the Way of Tea’ your  way of life and take in all the health and soul benefits of this incredible green super-food. Arigatou gozaimasu.

macha mix 2
Ooh La La’s Matcha Collection

 

 

 

 

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