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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org