Nicole Wong • September 29, 2020

Balancing Matcha's Bitterness

Matcha is notoriously a polarizing taste. Sometimes, it’s deservedly so when it’s served without keeping in mind how delicate it is. A burnt/strong matcha can taste like curly kale, old vegetables, and other unpleasant adjectives that precede its reputation. Though matcha lattes have become increasingly popular, and help temper the bitterness through milkfat or nutty creaminess, we suggest the traditional way it’s served in Japan to contextualize and complement its flavors: azuki, sweet red bean, served in tiny tea cakes, buns, jellies, and candies change the experience of drinking matcha (and other Japanese greens) entirely. 

matcha bitter

"The World's Most Dangerous Flavor,"
Bitter (2014), chef/author Jennifer McLagen


Due to decades of grocery store brands not specifying green tea’s extra steps, many think it’s an acquired taste, or something that has to be tolerated rather than enjoyed. 


matcha bitterness trigeminal nerve
"The World's Most Dangerous Flavor,"
Bitter (2014), chef/author Jennifer McLagen

Green tea, in particular Japanese green tea leaves, have increased catechin content (EGC and EGCg among them, the unique plant compound that gives green tea a lot of its health hype) likely due to their terroir and processing. What this means is astringency and bitterness are expected flavors—and typically, not the top flavors or sensations that American palates would like most out of their tea. 

McLagen suggested balancing bitter with salt and fat in savory dishes, but what about something as unique as matcha?

We suggest on our tea playing cards to pair it with a red bean cake (found in some Chinese/Japanese grocery stores) or dark chocolate to balance matcha's unique flavor profile. 

From left to right:

matcha treats!
Cape Gooseberry 
This berry has the tang and texture of a tomato, but the tropicality of pineapple and coconut. Luckily, this was found in Rogers Park’ Morse Market. 

Kinako Mochi 
A gelatinous rice cake covered in roasted soybean powder (kinako), found at Arlington Heights’ Mitsuwa and other Japanese eateries. 

Azuki Cake 
This classic Japanese confection is a soft pastry dough stuffed with sweet red bean paste--we encountered this pairing the most often in Japan when served tea. This was also found in a Mitsuwa. Other azuki treats can be found at Fugetsu-Do Bakery Shop in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. 

We know it might be difficult to find these items out and about (and during a pandemic, no less), but if you are fortunate to find yourself such sweets, it escalates your ritual into something divine--an unparalleled gesture of a host’s (whether for just yourself or shared with others)  humility and exaltation of the simple. Even better, it creates an opportunity for creative flavor pairings. Candied citrus peel, sesame sweets, strawberry daifuku, persimmons, cream-based pastries...experiment and steep slowly, appreciating matcha’s marvelous array of flavors.