Perhaps you’ve noticed a tea merchant at a stall in the farmers’ market giving samples of something wonderfully fruity, or maybe an inviting teashop has opened in your neighborhood. Could you have walked by a store in the mall dedicated to distributing seemingly endless varieties of tea, with a window of teapots and cups in an assortment from lovely to wild? And what about all those accoutrements to enhance tea’s preparation and enjoyment?
Black tea is the ubiquitous morning and afternoon drink of the British, just as coffee is the go-to American beverage for get-up-and-go. Lately, these mainstays of English-speaking nations are seeing a lot more competition as health-minded people set aside sugary drinks and take up others—like Asian teas and herbal tisanes—that are also natural and low-calorie, or even calorie-free.
Teas and herbal tisanes (often called “herbal teas,” though they do not originate from tea leaves) come in a multitude of types and flavors that have been gaining more fans amid a growing awareness of their benefits on the mind and body. Three of the most notable varieties are maca, matcha and yerba mate, all of which have been important in traditional cultures for centuries.
Maca (Lepidium peruvianum)
Maca is a small root vegetable native to the Andes of South America that grows at altitudes up to 15,000 feet where little else will flourish. A member of the Brassica family (like cabbage, broccoli and kale), maca is an adaptogen, a natural product that increases the body’s resistance to physical and mental stressors, potentially useful in preventing a number of diseases. Maca’s nutrients include fatty acids, fiber, proteins, carbohydrates and minerals.
The thin, frilly leaves and short stems that protrude from the bulbous root of the maca plant can be made into tea (ground and dried maca root is another option). Cooked by the Andean peoples for millennia, maca bolsters athletic stamina and strength, and enhances clarity, though it contains no caffeine. It also has a number of medical uses, including contributing to the sexual health of men and women without altering serum hormone levels.
Maca tea can be prepared by using the leaves much like other teas, but the steeping period is quite short, just 2-3 minutes in hot water. Or add a teaspoon of maca powder to any prepared hot tea after waiting a minute or two after removing from heat to preserve heat-sensitive nutrients. Adding milk (preferably non-dairy) and/or sweetener is optional.
Matcha (Camellia sinensis)
Matcha is the revered tea used in the highly ritualized Japanese tea ceremony. The first tea seeds were brought to Japan during China’s Tang Dynasty to be used as a medicine by priests and noblemen.
Cultivation for religious use began in the late 12th century by a Japanese Zen Buddhist priest who ground the tea leaves. The second innovation that became integral to the formal tea ceremony was using a bamboo whisk to combine the ground leaves with hot water. The priest’s treatise, translated roughly as Tea Drinking is Good for Health, maintained that tea was a virtual cure-all.
The delicate silky stone-ground green powder contains the nutrients from unfermented C. sinensis green tea. Various studies have shown that green tea boosts metabolism, decreases inflammation, inhibits growth and replication of cancer cells, lowers cholesterol and slows bacterial growth that leads to plaque build-up on teeth.
In the Kyoto district, specific cultivars have been propagated to produce plants for the highest-quality shade-grown tea. The nutrients are many times more concentrated compared to those of lesser-quality green tea commonly found in tea bags. The slow growth of plants cultivated for matcha also increases the content of theanine, an amino acid whose calming effects counterbalance the tea’s caffeine.
The Japanese use matcha in cooking and baking, and in lattes and smoothie-type drinks. To make matcha with a bit of traditional panache, put a teaspoon in a preheated bowl, add a third cup of hot (not boiling) water and agitate with a bamboo whisk. Enjoy the grassy taste and complementary health benefits.
Yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis)
For centuries before Europeans arrived, the native Guarani and Tupi people of what became southern Brazil and Paraguay consumed mate (pronounced MAH-tay). Within 100 years of colonization, Jesuit priests had domesticated the plant and established plantations in South America. Then, as now, the drink fostered social interaction, and its popularity has extended to other South American countries and far beyond.
Mate has medicinal uses. Because of the link between oxygen (free) radicals and various diseases, it is likely that those who regularly consume yerba mate benefit from a heightened level of antioxidants. Coffee drinkers who crave caffeine but want to avoid coffee’s acidity have found yerba mate a satisfying alternative.
The invigorating drink promotes social interaction much as coffee does in America. When friends meet in Brazil, their custom is to fill the cuia (gourd) over and over as each friend empties the mate-infused hot water with a bomba (metal straw). The host repeatedly takes the empty gourd and refills it with hot water until no one cares for more.Mate is best prepared by moistening the leaves with unheated water, then pouring hot water over it to steep. Boiling water causes a bitter taste.
Yerba mate has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers; green tea poses a threat to those with an autoimmune condition or hypothyroidism; and maca is a pituitary stimulator that may be unsafe for some people. Do some research before diving into these drinks.
The world is increasingly becoming a smaller place. International influences are reflected everywhere, including fitness classes: the Latin and reggae music and energetic dance options like capoeira and salsa. Why not try a South American or Japanese tea? A sampling of maca, matcha or yerba mate connects far-away-and-long-ago with here-and-now, perhaps starting new traditions of your own.