I was literally gobsmacked as I tentatively sipped on a steaming brew offered to me by the eager shop assistant.
Her hair was reminiscent of a colour-popping Cruella de Vil, half black, half blush, with eyes beaming out from behind thick, wine-coloured frames. She was a hipster, of course, a poster child of the folksy Newtownian vibe, enthusiastically chattering about her love of tea.
“Matcha!”, she proclaimed, as my eyes furrowed over a clear teapot holding a bright-coloured liquid, the same hue as Shrek. The drink, she explained, is made using matcha, a vibrant green powder created by finely grinding green tea leaves. The taste? A cranky swell of earthy, vegetal waves, before an unfurling sweetness tiptoes across the tongue. Like one’s first square of 85% dark chocolate or drop of red wine, its intensity can polarise new drinkers. However, it is a well-loved and established taste across Asia, adding its grassy tint to everything from bonbons to burgers.
During that week, I was unceasingly surprised by the presence of matcha across Sydney’s menus; a thing that had only recently come to my attention. It would seem that Sydney’s cafes had well and truly embraced the trend, and I was eager to hop on the bandwagon.
I began my matcha quest by ordering a breakfast burger from White Taro, a quaint Japanese-style cafe in Surry Hills. Lashings of chorizo and bacon smothered in homemade relish were to be served upon a matcha brioche bun. Like a dog slobbering on a bone, I devoured it in the way a burger should be eaten – with two hands and an ever-present dribble of aioli hanging off the chin. Yet, I would later discover that Sydney’s bothersome brunchers had, not for the last time, thwarted my plans. The cafe had run out of the pillowy green buns amid a mass ordering, instead anchoring my burger with black sesame brioche. My first attempt of matcha had been washed out to sea.
Instead of making matcha do about nothing, I vowed to continue the hunt for all things green the following Sunday at the Brewery Yard markets at Broadway’s Central Park. Past a jumble of stalls selling tidbits and treasures, I sought out the MaTCHA LIFE stall run by enthusiast Leanne Do. The spread is a collective effort by several Sydney-based chocolatiers and confectioners who create gorgeous matcha themed treats.
As I waltzed up to the table, my stomach rumbled, then dropped. For the table was completely barren, the many tiered cake stands hosting nought but crumbs. Sydney’s foodies had come, had seen, and had gobbled up everything before midday.
A quick glance of the @matcha.life instagram would be enough to make anyone green with envy, and owner Leanne Do attributes their online presence to the stall’s run-out success.
“The power of social media is obviously very prominent … I have been advertising on social media, educating people about matcha, and the word has spread,” she said.
“Our stall is more about celebrating life, living. Matcha is everything alive, living, growing, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Ms Do admits the visual appeal of their sweet creations is a major drawcard, selling gorgeous green tarts decorated with popular anime characters, and inviting customers to dip fresh doughnuts and fruit into a matcha white chocolate fountain.
“Everyone was coming for the fountain and asking, ‘Why is it green?’”
“People were talking about it non-stop, and then they came for it. So it’s always about something different and new.
“It’s initially about the looks, and also the taste, but at the end of the day it’s always about the health benefits… We actually use high quality matcha so they [the customers] feel a bit happier with themselves that they’re eating better stuff than just plain doughnuts.”
Although gobbling down a green croissant bursting with matcha custard won’t earn you a call from Gwyneth Paltrow in healthful praise, matcha powder has a host of health benefits.
In terms of nutritional content, one serve of matcha-powdered green tea is equal to 10 cups of regularly brewed green tea, and has 137 times more antioxidants. In a gram-per-gram comparison, matcha far outplays popular antioxidant-rich foods like goji berries, pecans, and blueberries.
For the second time that week, I felt like a child clutching at a gold coin, staring at a tolling ice cream truck receding down a suburban street. Except in my case, I was a 20-something with a tenner, always one step behind the hordes chowing through the matcha trail.
Enter trailblazer David Yip, owner of matcha institution One Tea Bar and Grill in the CBD. The restaurant amassed a huge following after their ramen burger went viral at Sydney’s night noodle markets last year. The unassuming entrance is snuggled between a corner pub and bar, with steps leading upwards towards a low-lit disco carpet dotted with bright orange chairs. Eighties love songs croon over the speakers.
It’s funky, in a cool-dad type of way.
For lunch, I order the Matcha Baoger™; juicy braised pork rib, lettuce, corn, spanish onion and tomato, with green tea mayonnaise and Sriracha chili sauce, between two cushy asian steamed bao’s infused with matcha. The light green matcha bao’s remind me of a memory foam mattress. The side of punchy matcha fries with green tea salt are indubitably scrumptious.
After a long search, I have finally reached Mecca for matcha.
After his success at the noodle markets, owner David Yip sprung upon the growing matcha trend to anchor the theme of his restaurant.
“I was looking at things to expand the theme around the restaurant, hence why I chose matcha,” he explained.
“There’s a lot of places that would have done it in desserts or they do beverages … I actually go right the way through, in savoury, desserts, cocktails, hot drinks and cold drinks, so it’s a more enveloping offer.”
Mr Yip agrees the aesthetics of his food are a major drawcard, and believes the popularity of matcha in Sydney will continue to flourish.
“In a lot of my dishes I tend to not just focus on taste, but also the visual aspect. It has got to look the part as well.
“I think it [matcha] will still keep growing. There’s only a few places that are true matcha places… There’s a lot of demand for it, there’s a lot of people saying, ‘Oh I’d love to know more about it’. I don’t see it slowing down.”
After running around Sydney searching for that elusive Pokémon (I mean matcha tartlet!), I need a break. I need a Kit-Kat. As luck would have it, the local Asian supermarket houses the ultimate entry-level matcha treat, a sweet and crisp matcha-flavoured Kit-Kat.
Story by Sinéad Fogarty
Photos by Ian Qu