When one thinks of matcha powder, the first country that comes to mind is usually Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun. However, today we are going to give some special attention to Korea, the Land of Morning Calm. This is because Korea’s tea and tea culture have lots of special and unique things to offer the world, too.
Table of Contents
What is Matcha?
Let’s begin by discussing what exactly matcha is. Matcha powder is made from green tea leaves that have all their twigs and veins removed before being dried and withered until they are so brittle that they can be pulverized into a fine powder. For all intents and purposes, matcha is green tea, but because it is in a powdered form, it can be used in more versatile ways, such as an ingredient in confectionery treats or even integrated into cosmetics.
Matcha also packs an increased health-boost because you are consuming the whole green tea leaf rather than just the brewed tea liquor. Other differences do exist, such as the leaves used for matcha being shade grown. But for today it is enough to know that it is simply finely-ground green tea leaves.
Though matcha is nearly inseparable from Japanese tea culture, the practice of pulverizing tea and whisking it in a bowl goes back to China’s Tang and Song eras. This is because, during these times, tea was still packed into bricks that had to be concocted in a special manner in order to be properly brewed.
However, some tea lovers found the extra steps of decoction to be tedious and so they would simply break off small pieces of the bricks over a bowl of hot water instead. Then they would use a bamboo whisk or brush to whisk the leaves until they were properly infused. This practice would be imported into Japan where it was refined and perfected into the tea ceremony as we know it today.
Now that we have taken a closer look at what matcha is, let’s see the many great ways Korean matcha differs from its Japanese counterpart.
Similar, Yet Different
Certainly, Korean tea culture has many similarities with Japanese tea culture. However, some small differences are what make these two types of tea uniquely special. Some key differences have to do with geography, the processing method, and the goal of preparing matcha.
In Korea, matcha goes by a few different names. It can be called garu nokcha (ground or powdered green tea) or malcha (powdered tea), but just for simplicity, we will refer to it as “matcha”.
Some key differences between Korean and Japanese matcha include where tea plants are typically grown.
In Korea, most tea production takes place around Jirisan and the surrounding region.
Jirisan is a mountain in south-central Korea and hosts a few different keen tea areas near its base or closer to the coastline. There is green tea at Jirisan itself but also in Hadong and Boseong. All these areas sport high elevation, nutritious soil, and plenty of cloud coverage and rain for tea plants to thrive in.
Another superb spot for Korean tea cultivation is Jeju island. Jeju is particularly special because it is volcanic, features high elevation, regular cloud coverage, a good climate, plenty of moisture, and ocean winds and currents which help to nourish tea plants.
The flavor profile of Korean tea is unique as a result. While Japanese matcha is deliberately shade grown usually by covering plants with tarps and other sun-blocking methods, Korean tea plants are naturally shade-grown. This means tea cultivators will allow the surrounding forests, mountains, and clouds to shade the plants. Sometimes artificial shading is used but typically for shorter periods compared to Japanese tea plants.
This all impacts the flavor and aroma. Korean matcha tends to come out as a bit bitter, robust, striking, vegetal, herbaceous, and full-bodied. Though Japanese matcha is usually greener in color, sweeter, and smoother, Korean matcha can be thought of as a more robust style of matcha.
Korean matcha is easy to whisk and will yield a light greenish-yellow foam with a deep, verdant green tea liquor. Korean matcha is particularly great when drank with richer or heavier foods, but it is also used in the culinary arts. Korean matcha is perfect for confections, baked goods, and even seasoning meats.
In fact, in Boseong, one of Korea’s famous tea-growing regions, one can enjoy matcha seasoned pork belly at the tea farm’s restaurant! Not only that, but as Korea is a country very fixated on beauty, physical health, and appearance, Korean matcha is sometimes used in cosmetics, mainly in the form of facial masks and scrubs.
What Makes Korea Matcha Unique?
Many things! Natural and stunning growing regions, a strong yet innervating flavor and aroma profile, its use as a beauty and skincare treatment option, and certainly Korean matcha’s key use in the culinary arts all make Korean matcha unique and more than worthy of a whisking or two!