EVER SINCE LEAVES from the Camellia sinensis tree inadvertently landed in the emperor’s cup of boiling water in 2737 B.C., people have been fascinated with tea. Some of the allure is purely chemical. Tea is rich in theophylline, a chemical similar to caffeine that simultaneously increases the heart rate and lowers blood pressure. Theophylline also relaxes the muscles that surround bronchial pathways, so it’s sometimes used in treating asthma. Put simply, drinking tea makes the average user feel good.
While the leaves and flowers of any nonpoisonous plant can be infused in boiling water to make a tealike beverage, only Camellia sinensis makes real tea. But a host of influences determines how the tea will look and taste when it ends up in a cup. Depending on where and how it was grown, and even more on how it was handled after harvest, tea produces a drink that can range in color from the palest yellow green to the deepest chocolate brown. The flavor and aroma can be as delicate as summer rain or as powerful as tobacco smoke.
Most of the tea we drink in the West is subjected to a fermentation process that renders it black. The darkening comes from enzymes contained in the cells of the tea leaves; when the leaves are bruised or crushed, the enzymes go to work. Black tea produces a complex reddish-colored beverage that smells like a combination of flowers and spices, hay and wood smoke — truly one of life’s simple pleasures.
In China, a slightly different process allows the tea leaves to ferment for a shorter time before they are blasted with intense heat that halts the action of the enzymes and renders the leaves pale gray or brown. The resulting brew, known as oolong tea, is possessed of dried fruit and leather aromas.
Other Chinese producers and most Japanese processors put a halt to enzymatic action even earlier. As soon as the leaves are harvested, they are steamed to destroy the enzymes that would turn them black. The leaves are then dried to produce a tea that is perfectly green. The light, grassy beverage made from green tea leaves smells like jasmine, and dried jasmine flowers are sometimes added to the leaves to enhance this quality. (In the same way, all sorts of flavors and perfumes from other botanicals are added to black teas to make them smell and taste more intensely like fruits and flowers.)
Throughout the 1990s, green tea was in the news because it contains powerful antioxidants that might help prevent heart attacks and cancer. Green tea appears to lower bad cholesterol and prevent blood clots. Recently, green tea also has been shown to relieve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and kill the bacteria that cause tooth decay. The stuff is starting to look like a virtual panacea.
Because green tea and black tea come from the same plant, it might seem that all tea would provide the same health benefits. But the enzymes that turn leaves black render most of the antioxidants ineffective, so black tea does not provide the same benefits that green tea does. For lovers of black tea, this will come as something of a disappointment. Compared to a mellow cup of English Breakfast or bergamot-scented Earl Grey, green tea can seem bitter and astringent. But there is hope.
The very finest green tea is ground into powder to make matcha, the tea used in the elaborate tea ceremony of Japan. But matcha is not just for tea ceremonies; it also can be enjoyed on more casual occasions. My friend Hiroko Sugiyama is a devout student of the tea ceremony, but she gladly will whip up a cup of matcha without going through any elaborate ritual, and the simple whipped beverage is as delicious as it is healthful, especially when it’s served with omogashi, or sweets.
When I learned that matcha was the tea used to make the green-tea frappés and lattes served at Starbucks, I started experimenting at home. Now one of my favorite ways to enjoy green tea is to whisk 1 tablespoon of matcha with 2 tablespoons of sugar in about a cup and a half of rice milk over high heat until the mixture is steaming hot. The taste is reminiscent of Green Tea Ice Cream, a treat so incredibly delicious that any health benefits are purely incidental.
Green Tea Ice Cream
Makes about 6 cups
The essential ingredient in this unusual ice cream is the powdered Japanese green tea known as matcha. Quite different from the green tea leaves that are steeped to make ordinary green tea, matcha is the strong powdered green tea that is ritualistically offered in tea ceremonies.
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons matcha (powdered green tea)
6 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 cups heavy cream
1. Put the milk in a saucepan with the green tea powder, and stir. Cook over medium-high heat until the tea is well-combined with the milk and the milk is steaming hot, but not quite boiling.
2. While the milk is heating, put the egg yolks in a mixing bowl with the sugar, and whisk until the mixture is light and fluffy.
3. Stir about one-third of the hot milk and green tea into the egg yolk mixture, then transfer the mixture to the pan and cook, stirring until the mixture is steaming hot but not quite boiling.
4. Take the custard off the stove, and transfer it to the bowl. Chill it completely, then stir in the cream and freeze it in an ice-cream maker following the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer the ice cream to a container with a tightfitting lid, and store it in the freezer until serving time.