The Zen of Tea

Just thinking about green tea soothes the mind and soul. In today’s fast-paced life on the go, green tea is like a return to a simpler time. In fact, it can be said that green tea possesses Zen-like qualities of calmness, harmony and revitalization. So shake the coffee habit and dump that sugary soda and look to something healthy, relaxing and natural. Try green tea.

History of Tea and the Tea Ceremony

Green tea was introduced to Japan in the 9th century from China. Initially tea was consumed for its medicinal properties. The Kissa Yojoki (Book of Tea), written by Zen priest Eisai in 1191, listed the benefits of drinking green tea including: easing the effects of alcohol, curing blotchiness, eliminating indigestion, curing beriberi disease, and improving urinary and brain function. Buddhist monks were the first to use tea in rituals and it was only a matter of time before the noble and warrior classes adopted tea for a ritual of their own—the tea ceremony. Today, the tea ceremony is an expression of refined culture still practiced the same way it was hundreds of years ago.

The Japanese tea ceremony is a preparation of tea for guests, but in actuality, it is a complex ritual of details based on Zen Buddhist principals. The ideal setting is usually a teahouse surrounded by natural beauty such as a garden. A person wearing a kimono prepares the tea and serves it to each guest with a feeling of respect and appreciation. Each movement is carefully orchestrated and each item carefully placed in a display of order and balance.

The tea used in the ceremony is a green powder called matcha. The powder is added to a cup and hot water is poured in. Then the mixture is whisked together until a light foam bubbles on the top. Matcha tea is bitter and so it is served with sweets. The guest expresses appreciation for the tea and in doing so, returns the feeling of respect to the hostess. Harmony has been achieved.

It takes many years of practice to master the “way of tea” called chado or sado. This means training under a master with emphasis placed on correct form. A good student must also learn to appreciate beauty, harmony and other virtues. In this way, the spirit of the person preparing the tea is passed on with every cup.

Variety of Tea

White, green, black and oolong teas all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. The difference comes from the way the tea leaves are processed. For Japanese green tea, the leaves are steamed to stop the oxidation process and keep the green color.

Matcha is the powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony, but the most popular kind of Japanese green tea is called sencha. To make sencha, the tea leaves are steamed right after picking, then rolled, shaped and dried. Next they are lightly roasted to bring out the aroma and flavor of the tea. Sencha tea is light in color and slightly bitter with a pleasant aftertaste.

There are many types of sencha that vary by the type of tea leaf, the grade of the tea plant, and the blend of tea with other ingredients. Genmaicha, for example, is made from sencha combined with roasted rice. Darker in color, genmaicha has a rich flavor that is roasty and saltier than straight sencha.

Healthy Tea

Would you like to look younger? Lower your cholesterol and lose weight? How about build up your body’s defense against cancer? No, you won’t find these health benefits in a new wonder drug. Just drink a cup of hot green tea.

While tea has been around for thousands of years and has long been purported to contain medicinal qualities, only recently have researchers looked into their microscopes to unlock the secrets of tea.

Epigallocatechin gallate, more commonly known as EGCG, is a natural chemical found in tea that researchers have proven to be the source of tea’s disease preventing properties. EGCG is an antioxidant. It has the ability to neutralize free radicals—compounds produced by the normal metabolic activity of the cell that are potentially harmful if allowed to build up. Simply put, antioxidants are good for you. And tea, along with fruits and vegetables, is rich in antioxidants.

The health benefits, along with the popularity of Japanese foods such as sushi, have led to increasing awareness and consumption of green tea in the United States and around the world. Although it has been available in the Japanese American communities since the earliest immigrants first arrived, it is now also available in mainstream markets.

So next time you have a cup of green tea, take a pause, look inside the cup and think about the tea before taking a sip. Relaxing, isn’t it?

August 2008

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