Matcha Enthusiasts

You are here: Home > Matcha Enthusiasts > Eric Gower, The Breakaway Cook
Breakaway Cook, Eric Gower, Takes His with Salt not Sugar

Driving in Los Angeles, listening to Good Food on the radio (KPFK), I heard an interview with Evan Kleiman and Eric Gower talking about blenders. I took the long way home to hear the whole show and in the final moments, Eric said he loves to use his blender for smoothies with bananas and matcha! I had to call him. He graciously agreed to answer some of our questions too. - Alissa White


Why Asian food?
Why not? Asian cuisine, with all its permutations, is some of the finest food the world has to offer. Living in Japan for 15 years and traveling extensively throughout Asia during that time are obvious influences too. But the main reason why I eat so much Asian food: it’s delicious!

How and when did you discover matcha tea?
I discovered maccha/matcha in Kyoto, Japan in 1988. Kyoto’s a traditional kind of place, and lots of women (and some men, especially if runs in the family) study the art of tea, so I was often invited for formal tea. My first sip was definitely an “aha!” moment, in the same way that my first espresso was – it was the essence of tea in superconcentrated form, in all its delightful bitterness and brilliant green hue. I never took to the pieces of sugar/candy they serve at the ceremonies, meant to offset the bitterness, but I do like a nice piece of cake with my matcha! Or a cookie. Or something sweet, just not a sugar cube!

And the more I learned about matcha, the more interested I got. I love the fact that the “ceremony” has its roots in monks trying to stay awake for zazen, with them realizing that the making of the tea, and subsequent enjoyment of it, was an excellent way to practice mindfulness/awakeness to the joys of the everyday, to the small things in life that surround us. It’s also rooted in the appreciation of that peculiarly wonderful Japanese aesthetic, wabi-sabi, the trick of finding beauty in simplicity and imperfection. I’m not a big fan of the modern tea ceremony; people are so afraid of committing faux-pas that the very purpose of the tea – to celebrate the day, the moment, with a joyful, and perhaps flawed eye – has been subsumed into something akin to mistake-avoidance. Everyone’s too nervous to really enjoy it, in my experience.

How do you introduce people to unfamiliar tastes and methods?
By example, of course; by cooking for them. You can tell people about new foods and tastes till you’re blue in the face, but until they actually taste what you’re talking about, it’s all academic. It’s like reading about swimming – very different from actually being in the water. But I also do it by zeal and enthusiasm: when people see that I am genuinely excited about certain foods and tastes, it creates an anticipation of sorts and an eagerness to try them.

What recommendations do you have for novice matcha drinkers?
Just to keep an open mind, an open palate. Drinking matcha is not like drinking other teas. You don’t add milk and sugar (well, you can, and I do know someone who does; surprisingly, it’s not bad!), and what is all this froth business? And it’s bitter! It’s really like giving a rich, thick demitasse of espresso to someone who’s only drunk regular coffee-shop-style weak coffee up to that point. Will they like it? Well some will and some won’t. But, like coffee, tea has come a long way, and LOTS of people are open to new tea experiences—indeed new taste experiences of all kinds—so there’s a lot of room for growth in matcha drinking! To use a baseball metaphor, I’d say we’re in inning two of matcha. Or, to keep with the coffee metaphor, we’re in about 1985 or so in terms of mass acceptance of a new (to us) style of beverage, a complete renewal of the way to appreciate an old drink.

And one more piece of advice for novice matcha drinkers: don’t get caught up the minutiae of what you’re SUPPOSED to do/experience. If you can’t take the bitterness and need a little sweetener, go for it. If you prefer your matcha a little hotter (as I do) than the traditional barely hot temp, go for it. It’s wonderful stuff – make it yours, and don’t let someone else insist how it should be enjoyed.

What's your favorite way to prepare matcha?
What are your favorite utensils? I first set my electric kettle to boil, then select a cup or bowl. I actually prefer nice Japanese handmade cups to bowls. It feels a little like soup from the bowls, I feel, though I can certainly enjoy it in bowls on occasion. I then take a chashaku (traditional tea scoop) and scoop two of them, which equals approximately half a teaspoon or so) into the cup.

When the water boils, I’ll wait a minute or two. Tea masters will insist on waiting a long time, perhaps ten minutes, after the water has boiled, but I find it too tepid that way. I fully realize that it is accepted common consensus that the tea flavor is maximized by serving it at a lower temperature, but I don’t care; it tastes better to me, and I enjoy it more, when it’s hotter. I then pour about four or five ounces into the cup (which already has the matcha in the bottom). Here it’s traditional to use a bamboo whisk to froth it up into a nice foam, and I must say this is a nice part of the whole procedure. But I don’t know if my technique is weak, or what, but I can’t seem to get the kind of creamy foam I like—a latte-like foam—with the bamboo whisk, so I use one of those small, handheld electric whisks, which does a brilliant job of creating a supercreamy, thick, hallucinogenically green brew. I love that tool – it could become a key one in a breakaway tea ceremony!

Do you collect matcha bowls? Can you talk a bit about your collection?
Not really. As mentioned above, I have a few Japanese tea cups I really like for matcha. I do have quite a few Japanese matcha bowls, but prefer using them for soups, oatmeal, rice, and anything else that requires a beautiful, small bowl shape. I use them often, but not for matcha!

Talk about pairing matcha with sweet and savory foods.
Matcha is easy to use in desserts. It takes well to sugar (which is one reason I don’t mind if people want to add a little sweetener to the tea I’ve prepared for them), to cream (think green tea ice cream – this is made with matcha), and, believe it or not, to chocolate. In my new book I have two dessert recipes that use maccha and chocolate: matcha truffles (cream, melted Belgian dark chocolate, and maple syrup, with some matcha salt (see below) sprinkled on at the end), and soft matcha chocolate cakes. It’s a lovely combination of flavors.

Savory is more challenging, and for me it’s all about the salt. You can make a hauntingly beautiful salt by combining one teaspoon of matcha with about a quarter-cup of sel gris (gray salt) or other sea salt in a small electric coffee grinder and whirring it around for a few seconds. It creates this ethereal, green, savory salt that is magnificent on poached eggs; there’s something magical about the melding of the tea and the yolks—the sum is much greater than the parts. It’s also great with sautéed onions, especially pearl onions, strange as that might sound.

When to use ingredient, thin and thick grade?
This is a problem I wish most people had! For most people outside Japan – and even inside Japan, actually – there’s just one matcha, which is probably ingredient grade. The fancier grades are for fancy ceremonies and REALLY refined palates, palates that might be horrified at doing some of the things I suggest above! The ultimate way to test what’s what is, like all foods and wines, to do it blindly. To taste three unmarked cups and evaluate them that way. Sounds like a fun afternoon, if you ever wanna try it!

What are the plans for the Breakaway Chef in 2007?
How can our customers find out more about you? Well I have a new book out, so that’s the main event this year. It’s called The Breakaway Cook (Morrow/HarperCollins), and it launches on May 1. There are lots of public events (talks, cooking demos, discussions) happening in California, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I’ll be on the east coast this summer and fall, too. We should have an even schedule up soon on my website, www.breakawaycook.com. I also invite Matcha Source readers and customers to visit me at Yahoo’s new food section, at http://food.yahoo.com/blog/breakawaycook. It’s a great community of folks, so please be part of it!. Readers are encouraged to contact me directly as well, at eric@breakawaycook.com