When it comes to tea there are some accessories one can’t live without. One in particular being the tea whisk. With the rising popularity of matcha around the world, having a whisk for your matcha is mandatory. But what the devil are they? And how the devil do you use them?
To start, what the devil is matcha? Matcha is green tea that has pulverized into a fine, thick powder. The powder itself is somewhat bitter in it’s initial taste and can be applied to food as a seasoning on it’s own. The origins of matcha can be traced back to the Tang dynasty of China. The Tang era, which lasted from around the 7th to the 10th centuries A.D. were a Golden Age in terms of trade, culture, the arts and religion. Around the time of the incumbent Song dynasty, which ruled from the 10th to the 13th centuries A.D. there is evidence of some of the first preparations of matcha as we know it today.
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During the Song dynasty, the Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, Isaiah returned from studying Buddhism in China with some tea seeds and preparation methods. Eisai’s home temple in Kyoto cultivated the plants, which were then served to the Kamakura Shogun, the sovereign ruler at that time. The tea produced by the monks was a luxurious status symbol and enjoyed mainly by the upper class including the samurai. Over time, through the stoic resolve and diligent patience of various Japanese Zen Buddhist masters, a thorough ritual for proper matcha preparation was created. The Chado or Sado has precedents in Chinese and Korean Buddhism as well, and means, “The Way of Tea”. The ritual of tea preparation following the “Way of Tea” is the Chanoyu.
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But where does this leave the tea whisk, or chasen? My first experience with the whisk was when my wife and I had paid a visit to Fukuoka, Japan. It was here where, after visiting the fabulous and futuristic Toto Toilet Museum (a must visit if one is in Fukuoka in Kitakyushu) that we ran across the city on foot to attend a very abridged chanoyu. It was pouring rain in the late summer. We had checked off everything on our "to do" list on our visit with the exception of the chanoyu. The ritual was being hosted next to Kokura castle, an impressive structure surrounded by an emerald moat filled with fat koi fish. Next door is a serene garden with reflecting pools in a similar shade of deep green, not unlike the matcha, and every type of maple tree one could imagine. The sky was an apathetic shade of gray, but we made it to the entrance, mostly soaked and not sure what to expect. A middle aged woman in a kimono emerged to give us the whole history of the beverage she was about to make us. My wife luckily is quite fluent in Japanese. I, however, am certainly not. The woman performed a very quick ceremony, and to be honest the only real distinct parts seemed to be when she flicked a small, fluffy looking object around the top of the bright green liquid. The mixture frothed and foamed into a pleasant shade of light jade.
She then handed me an earthenware bowl, not a cup, but a bowl. It was hefty in my grip and deep obsidian in color. It was rough to the touch and I tipped it to my lips. The drink was still hot, but the taste of the matcha was like a symbol crash on my tongue. I had never tasted green tea in this way before. The deep, bitter, earthy flavor slapped me in the mouth and sparked its way down my throat. I felt my eyes jolt open and a lift in my step. The rest of the garden took on a vibrant hue after downing the thick, verdant colored beverage. After that experience I knew I had to get myself some more matcha.
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Luckily I currently live in Korea and was able to track down some powdered green tea. This is where my trouble began. At first I tried to drink the powder simply prepared with just hot water. After some absurdly bland attempts I learned one must crush up the big lumps of the powder first. Attempt number 2. Still not the same. This time the crushed lumps would just stick to the bottom of my cups or bowls. Next, I learned one must whip the mixture up. I tried spoons, forks, chopsticks. Even just swishing the cup. Still. All wastes of powder and hot water.
That’s when I figured out what I was missing. A tea whisk. After some thorough searching I finally tracked one down a shop that sold them. They are deceptively simple. Each whisk is made of bamboo. They are relatively light and the end is a radius of small, flexible rays. This is the part that is used for the whisking. Now that we have learned what the devil a tea whisk is, how do we use it? To follow the proper chanoyu methods takes years to master but to prepare a simple bowl of the green frothy drink is much easier.
First, pour some of the matcha powder into a bowl. To properly measure the appropriate amount of powder one must acquire a special bamboo scoop. Lacking this item, one could feasibly use a spoon. One can use a cup as well, but the bowl is easier to whisk. Next, crush up all the lumps with a spoon again. There is an additional tool used specifically for this task, but sans that item as well one could feasibly use a spoon for both steps. Now, pour in some hot water, not too much. For the proper taste the matcha must be thick in the bowl with a decent amount of foam. With too much water this will be a real challenge. Trust me. I have done this too many times myself.
Now is the fun part. Take your bamboo whisk and flick your wrist in a back and forth and side to side motion until the water starts to froth and be covered with light green foam. From here some may choose to use their matcha for lattes or other confections. I, however, prefer to drink it straight. The thick, bitter taste is a great way to wake up, especially after a night of drinking or before a particularly tough day of work ahead. Make sure to rinse and take good care of your whisk! Bamboo is a hardy wood but to prolong the use of your whisk, make sure to rinse the bristled end with some warm water and bend back into place any distorted spokes that may get beat up during whisking.
But this begs the next question, why matcha? According to a Grand View Research report, the global matcha market is expected to reach a value of $5.07 Billion USD by 2025 with projected growth rate of 7.6% from 2017 to 2025. These are fancy numbers, but the health benefits are what really help to drive the sale and consumption of the green tea powder. The plants used to make matcha are shaded, which helps the leaves develop more theanine and caffeine. Theanine is the amino acid in the camellia sinensis or green tea plant that boosts metabolism and also can give a nice energy boost without the jitters that normally come from the caffeine found in coffee. Consuming the whole camellia sinensis plant also provides a nice dose of antioxidants, which can help reduce some of the effects of aging. If one is trying to reduce caffeine dependency, or would just like an alternative from coffee, matcha is a very prudent choice.
This is but an introduction to the world of both matcha and tea whisks. To serve matcha the proper honors there is a whole catalogue of tools with specific uses. But perhaps for the interested neophyte, the whisk is a good start. So, grab one and some matcha powder and give it a good whisk. You may find your new favorite morning pick-me-up.
You may also wonder:
What are the Tea Ceremony utensils to practice Chanoyu?