Breakaway Cook

Matcha and Radiation Fears


This photo is one of the tea fields from Nishio, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, where our top matcha, Breakaway Blend 100, is produced. The bamboo scaffolding and black netting on top are there to shade the leaves during the last eight weeks or so of new growth, so that the leaves can retain all of their umami-laden amino acids when they get steamed, dried, and ground into matcha. Direct sunlight would turn the leaves quite dark, and would cause these amino acids, notably L-theanine, to get converted into catechins and thus make the tea less sweet and more astringent, like other green teas.

I’m sure that many of you, like me, have been worried about the effect of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on this matcha. Thankfully, all three of my suppliers (one in Nishio and two in Uji/Kyoto) have not only assured me that no radiation whatsoever has been detected in their areas, they’ve been sending weekly and sometimes daily reports from third-party labs. They are monitoring the situation as one would expect hyperthorough Japanese scientists and engineers to measure and monitor it.

Although radioactivity can in rare instances get airborne and form “plumes” that can travel thousands of miles, the fact is that radioactivity weakens in inverse proportion to the square of the distance between two points.

Again, there has been NO radioactivity reported in either Nishio or Kyoto, which are roughly 600 and 800 km, respectively, southwest from the Fukushima reactors. Moreover, prevailing winds in Japan tend to blow eastward. Tiny amounts of radiation, under 0.0001 msv (millisieverts), have been detected in parts of Tokyo, but what does that number mean? For comparison, an x-ray of the stomach radiates at about 0.6 msv, and a CT breast scan clocks in at around 6.9 msv. One report said that humans are on average exposed to roughly 1.5 msv per year, just in the form of cell phones, plane rides, and other aspects of normal daily life.

Japanese and IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors are rigorously testing all foods and banning export of all products that show unusually high readings. This is how Joshua Kaiser, the founder of Rishi Tea (which has truly excellent Japanese sencha and other stellar teas) put it recently:

“It is important to support Japanese farmers and, so far, there is no evidence that Japanese tea is at risk of radiation contamination, especially tea harvested or stocked before the disasters. The tea harvested and stocked before the disasters is already in the market and available for purchase. Avoiding Japanese tea for fear of radiation would be an overreaction at this point in time because what you are buying now has already been harvested, sealed, and exported well before the earthquake hit.”

This is the case with Breakaway Matcha, and all other matcha as well. All Breakaway Matcha in stock is from the 2010 harvest, and was sitting in the Breakaway Matcha freezers long before the earthquake hit.

The 2011 harvest will take place in late May, and you can bet I will be monitoring events extremely closely. We wouldn’t dream of buying matcha that hasn’t been thoroughly tested and examined for traces of radiation, and the ethical farmers I work with wouldn’t sell it in any case.

So please — don’t worry! If anything, there’s never been a better time to drink matcha: our bodies can use the maximum immunity boost that it gives! Please do show your support to these incredible farmers who have, through no fault of their own, been hard hit not only by the many aftereffects of this horrific disaster but also by fear, however misplaced.

Plenty more at


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A Cookbook To Help Japan


The project I mentioned the other day, an e-cookbook focusing on Japanese-inspired dishes, is finally live at I’ve contributed a bunch of recipes, as has Mark Bittman, Morimoto, Anita Lo, Amander Hesser, and Miyoko Nishimura (Madonna’s personal chef), among others. It’s a pretty cool way to painlessly give something toward Japan’s reconstruction AND liven up your weeknight meal repertoire. Thanks for giving as generously as you can!

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Japan Will Be Back

(my favorite artisanal pickle store in Kamakura)

Like everyone else in the world, I’ve been following the events in Japan closely. As a 16-year resident of Japan, I’m beyond sad for the people affected by this insane tragedy. It’s a resilient place though; Japan as a nation can unite, regroup, and rebuild like no other.

The behavior of Japanese during and after this calamity makes me really proud to have such long-standing association with the country. Is there any other place on earth — upon being upended by one of the most violent earthquakes on record in any country (it was Japan’s worst, at 9.0), followed by a tsunami that carried away entire towns as if they were doll sets, followed by the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl — that wouldn’t freak, wouldn’t loot, wouldn’t revert back to the nasty, survivalist selves that exist, somewhere deep in our genes, in all of us?

Part of that ability to maintain discipline and human decency in the wake of a disaster of this scale is due to the Japanese character itself, but it’s also a testament to how the society has structured itself:

* Japan has a legal system that, despite its many flaws, reinforces and rewards honesty

* the spirit of “otegai ni” (“we’re in this together”) pervades

* police are generally ubiquitous and very visible

* yakuza (organized crime) tend to step in during humanitarian crises, and are often much more effective (and quicker) than government relief agencies, AND they tend to keep close watch over neighborhoods to prevent looting and general antisocial behavior (note that these guys are as far from benevolent as it gets for 99+% of the time — I just note their behavior during crises)

Japanese seem better at “being together” than others. It’s nothing short of miraculous that a group of people could rise from a decimated/firebombed/atomic bombed rubble into the second-most powerful economy on earth in a few short decades, and we have every reason to think that the very same spirit of recovery and “can do” national purpose will rally again, so I have some faith.

People have been asking me the best ways to give/donate/help. Aside from the sane advice of giving as generously as you possibly can directly to the Red Cross, you’ll also have the chance to donate via the purchase of a special cookbook with recipes from me, Morimoto, Bittman, Hesser, and many others. It’ll be available on Wednesday at a cool new site called¬† — I’ll have more info and a direct link in a few days, so please check back.

In another, more lasting, sense, however, I think the most anyone can do help the people of Japan right now is to keep artisanal Japanese products alive and well by adopting them into your daily lives. Maybe make a habit of visiting Japanese markets, and regularly pick up some miso, yuzu, matcha, umeboshi, sake, etc., and make a permanent spot in your fridge for these wonderful ingredients. The artisans who produce them, many of whom come from Tohoku, the afflicted area, will certainly appreciate it.

Many people have also asked me whether matcha is safe to drink in the wake of the nuclear crisis. The answer is YES, absolutely — my suppliers have sent me detailed analyses that they are updating daily on possible contamination due to radiation. Rest assured, there is none, zero. Luckily, the tea fields are in western Honshu, very far from the afflicted area.¬† But more detail on that in the next post.

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