Much Ado About Matcha
Grace Lim 

It may surprise you to know that matcha, or green tea in powdered form, is actually a dying tradition in the country that it originated from. This was revealed to me by Syun Hattori and Izzat Iskandar of Niko Neko Matcha.

Hattori, who is half Malaysian, grew up in Ichionomiya, a suburb near Nagoya, before finishing his secondary school education in Malaysia. He was exposed to matcha traditions from a young age as both his mother and grandfather conducted tea ceremonies on special occasions.

“Serving matcha was a way for the host to show his or her appreciation to the guests. However, it is not practised that much anymore in Japan because people mostly drink green tea out of a teabag, which is more convenient,” Hattori explains.

As a half-Japanese living in Malaysia, Hattori was constantly finding ways to introduce this slice of Japanese culture here. He then convinced Izzat, a friend from college in the US, to join him on his journey to introduce matcha.

Opened in 2015, Niko Neko’s biggest challenge was overcoming the relatively alien concept of matcha here.

Hattori explains that the tea comes from the Camellia Sinensis plant, which is also the source of the green tea leaves in teabags.

Hattori (left) and Izzat

The tea is differentiated according to the level of fermentation. Black tea is fermented at 50% - 80%, and white tea at 1% - 5%. Green tea, on the other hand, is not fermented at all. Instead, the leaves are air-steamed to maintain the natural green colour.

“Green tea is further separated into two categories, shaded and non-shaded,” elaborates Hattori. “The non-shaded variety is further divided into different types such as sencha, which is the one used in teabags with no additional processes. There are also genmaicha, which is sencha with roasted brown rice, and hojicha, which is essentially roasted sencha.

“For shaded tea, the entire tea farm is shaded with a bamboo tarp just before harvest. The roots of the plant contain an amino acid called L-theanine that converts into catechins when exposed to sunlight. Catechins are responsible for the astringent, bitter taste in tea, whereas L-theanine gives off a sweet umami taste. When you cover the plant, it conserves more L-theanine in the leaves, maintaining more of the umami flavour.”

He adds that the shaded leaf variety also has many types, the most prominent being kabusecha, which is shaded for less than 20 days before harvest, and gyokuro, which is hidden from the sun for more than 20 days before harvest. The latter is considered to be the highest quality of green tea in Japan. In between is matcha, which is shaded for exactly 20 days before harvest.

Matcha is highly valued due to its unique processing methods. Made from the meat of the leaf minus the veins, stalk and stems, this plump part of the leaf is ground into powder. It is the only green tea in powdered form.

Niko Neko gets its matcha from family-owned farms in Kyoto. “This is how we ensure quality. Harvesting is done in the old way, with each leaf picked by hand. To crush the leaves into powder, we also stick to the traditional method with a grinding stone,” says Izzat.

At the moment, Niko Neko offers three types of matcha: Yuri, Kiku and Ren. Yuri has a more intense flavour with a prominent aftertaste, which is good for making cakes and matcha latte.

Kiku is well-suited for the health conscious, as it is balanced in terms of its L-theanine and catechin content. The former is rich in antioxidants while the latter reduces cholesterol.

Meanwhile, Ren possesses a rich umami flavour and contains almost zero catechins. Hattori points out that this is favoured by matcha enthusiasts for its superior quality and taste.

The business partners have since been supplying matcha to various cafes in town such as Piu Piu Piu, Rinse KL Café and Strangers at 47.

“We portray Niko Neko as a lifestyle brand. We cannot just take something in a traditional form and ‘force’ people to accept it so what we’re trying to do is collaborate with bakers and cafés. We also conduct educational workshops,” Hattori says.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 276.