Breakaway Cook

Matcha and Chocolate Tasting at TCHO SF, September 24, 5pm

Artisanal matcha is one of those drinks that’s best imbibed on its own; most foods just interfere with and often obviate the delicate umami and acid structures of the tea. Matcha is almost like a food itself, really, with its chewy and creamy textures; it really doesn’t need much, if any, accompaniment.

But there’s one big exception to that rule: great chocolate. Artisanal chocolate and artisanal matcha play incredibly well together.  The combination is a rare one, one whose sum is far greater than its parts. Both are laden with umami, have perfectly balanced acid structures, and have long finishes. Taken together, the experience intensifies into a calm elation that must be experienced to be believed.

I’m really happy to announce that Breakaway Matcha has partnered with TCHO chocolate, the SF-based obsessive makers of some truly dreamy chocolate. It’s almost scary how well our matcha goes with their chocolates.

So come taste! It’s only $20 to sample all three matcha blends and the complete TCHO line. The event takes places at TCHO’s trippy and wonderful headquarters on Pier 17, and we’re limiting it to just 20 people so that it can be as intimate as possible. From 5 to 6 pm on Saturday, Sept 24.  Write Tyler at [email protected] to reserve a spot. It will be a perfect unique start to your Saturday evening! Check out the cool flyer they made for the event. And come join us!




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Matcha and Caffeine

One of the most common questions we get is, “how much caffeine does matcha have?”

Matcha contains roughly 25mg of caffeine, which is approximately one-third the caffeine of a cup of brewed coffee. This is by most standards a very small amount of caffeine; it is easily tolerated by many people for whom coffee makes them jittery because all of the other components that make up matcha in effect slow down the release of caffeine into the body. It typically takes a good three to six hours for this minimal amount of caffeine to be absorbed into the bloodstream, and yet the wakefulness effects are apparent almost immediately upon drinking it.

In other words, matcha doesn’t make you “wired” — it’s nothing like coffee. If you’re wary of caffeine, you can relax  (and matcha will make you relax).

By definition, all “real” teas — that is, teas that come from the plant camellia sinensis, including all black, green, and oolong teas — contain some caffeine. It’s built into the molecular structure of the plant.

Matcha is different from coffee, and from other teas, in one important aspect: the caffeine in matcha works in a synergistic manner with all the other great stuff that matcha contains, including hefty quantities of phytonutrients, antioxidants, and amino acids.

This combination of caffeine + phytonutrients + antioxidants + amino acids produces an unusual effect on matcha drinkers: an uncanny ability to focus and be productive over an extended period of a few hours (for some, the effect can last up to six hours). The effect is quite fascinating, and extremely pleasant for most people because there is none of the jitteriness associated with caffeine from coffee.

Because the caffeine molecules in matcha bind to larger and more stable molecules (especially catechins), the caffeine is, essentially, released over time, instead of all at once, as it is with espresso or brewed coffee, into the bloodstream. In contrast to coffee, this timed-release mechanism tends to inhibit any sudden insulin increases, so there is no “crash” associated with quick drops in blood sugar that so many coffee drinkers feel an hour or so after drinking a cup. Nor does matcha stimulate the production of cortisol, the stress hormone, as coffee can.

Our favorite description of the effects of caffeine in matcha comes from Dana Velden, a writer at The “The caffeine hit of an espresso can be a bit like having an express train screaming through the middle of your body: a deep, powerful, jittery roar. I find the effects of matcha to be just as stimulating but in a more delicate, refined way, as if a thousand butterflies have descended on my body, beating their wings until I’m lifted, gently but resolutely, a few inches off the ground. (Seriously.)” Love those final parentheses!

I finally got around to publishing part of the new masterclass in matcha — lots more to come!

More at Breakaway Matcha.


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What the Hell is Wabi Sabi, Anyway?

What the hell is wabi sabi?

Regular readers of this space have heard the Japanese term wabi sabi before, and it even feels like the term is headed toward that elite group of Japanese words that somehow make it into common English usage (think anime, manga, samurai, haiku, origami and of course all of the food and ingredient names, and countless others).

I’ve been trying for  a number of years now to come up with a good definition of wabi sabi, so I thought, for a change of pace, to do so in this space. Please forgive the length, and the break from our usual programming: readers interested in only food and matcha may wish to skip it.

First, I want to say that my ideas on Japanese art aren’t really very original. The entire synthesis of the view may be mine, but the components have been expressed elsewhere, and probably more eloquently. The classic, and excellent, text in English is Leonard Koren’s wonderful Wabi Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers.

To most Japanese, the term wabi sabi is a confusing one; it tends to touch rather deeply on issues of identity and what it means to be a Japanese. It quickly devolves into something known as nihonjin-ron: the seemingly endless debate in the popular Japanese press about what, exactly, it means to be a Japanese. Ask a random Japanese person to try to define wabi sabi, and you will almost always hear something like, “It’s really difficult to explain.”

I’ve never met a Japanese who can confidently articulate what it means. But, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, (who was talking about pornography) many will say something like, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

“The zen of things” might be as good a definition as any, since the first Japanese to develop the concept were priests and tea masters. And since zen is itself difficult to express/articulate, wabi sabi is too, and most Japanese have given up trying.

Along the way, wabi-sabi was reduced, simplified, and packaged by Japan’s many iemoto (heads of long family lineages that teach traditional Japanese arts), who are really entrepreneurs of a sort, into a narrow—and definitive—set of rules. This represents the morphing—one might even say death—of wabi sabi from its origins of rustic simplicity into its opposite—something packaged, decided, and even polished and sacrosanct.

Wabi-sabi images force us to think about our own mortality, and evoke a tender sadness, and maybe loneliness, but those feelings are comforted by the knowledge that ALL things in existence share the same fate. Nothing will remain in the end, if we think in evolutionary terms of billions of years.

Diffused light through washi (Japanese paper), the color and textural changes of metal as it rusts and decomposes are classic wabi sabi images. This state of going toward our eventual fate—from something to nothing—and a conscious appreciation of that very state can give rise to incredible feelings of beauty and stillness, yet evoke a feeling of being totally alive and free. It’s a nice space to be in. Playing music is another doorway into that space for me. Wabi sabi is about enjoying the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things, and the pleasure we get from the freedom of things.

Wabi-sabi is, in one sense, antiJapanese, in that true wabi-sabi diametrically opposes—hates, you might even say—hierarchy. Everyone in the tea room is the same, whether you’re the company president shacho or the garbage guy. Modern clues to discernment——brands, that is—are anti wabi-sabi, by definition.

Very few Japanese I know are comfortable making aesthetic judgments, especially concerning art. Like clothing/fashion, they want to know—from the very first—who made it. Only then will they make the calculation of a final judgment, which won’t be their own anyway; it’ll be the consensus.

When I was editor of a publication based in Tokyo, a quarterly journal on public policy worldwide, published by Japan’s largest and allegedly most prestigious “think tank,” I often got in arguments with my bosses about author submissions. I insisted on reading them blind, and making my judgments accordingly, but my bosses were unconcerned about the intrinsic quality or merit of a given work.

The same goes even more, I think, for more subjective things like painting and sculpture. If a work is well-known, it gets a thumbs-up. If not, no judgment can be “safely” made. This idea of making “safe” judgments is very problematic, and accounts, in my opinion, for the dismal state of literary criticism (or any kind of intellectual criticism, for that matter) in Japan; even to call it dismal overstates the case, as it is essentially nonexistent. Criticism is taken personally in Japan, as an attack.

When we get into something like wine—and there are more licensed sommeliers in Japan than anywhere in the world—this trend is even more exaggerated. Blind tasting makes most Japanese very nervous, because they’re forced, unwillingly, to use their own aesthetic standards, not those of someone else. Japanese sommeliers are the iemotos of wine.

The best side of Japanese art—the purest expression of wabi sabi—is the sense of quiet authority that comes across in an understated, unpretentious piece. I sometimes see this quality in Japanese artists and craftsmen. I know a potter in Bizen, and another one in Yamakita, who simply exude this sense of quiet authority. Everything they touch is done with such a sure hand. There is no need to let everyone know that they are masters—they are utterly secure in who they are and what they do. They don’t really require outside validation, because they know that it lives inside them. That, in my mind, is the real thing.

Today, lots of rich Japanese people are making an attempt to reconnect with their wabi-sabi roots. I was once invited to a weekend of relaxation (which was anything but relaxing) near Hakone, at the country home of a wealthy Tokyo businessman, a house that he attempted to recreate in the spirit of wabi-sabi. His effort was doomed from the outset, unfortunately, as he simply threw money at “the problem.” He paid, at great expense, someone to tear down a beautiful old farmhouse in Tohoku, and transport it to his land in Hakone. The problem was that he was convinced that the place must be sterilized, so he employed an army of cleaners (his wife seemed to be the main cleaner) to mop up the last traces of the very feeling he was trying to create, one of relaxed beauty amid ordinary farm objects and materials. It was more like a farmhouse museum than a farmhouse, a kind of “mansion” interpretation of a farmhouse, in which a very harried housewife nervously and meticulously swept away the remnants of our meals, literally seconds after consuming them. He was a kind of potentate, lording over his fantasy of being king of his country castle.

So on the one hand, I see lots of Japanese people who are longing for more wabi-sabi in their lives. So many of my Japanese guests came to my house in Kamakura house and told me, “I would like nothing more than to live in an old Japanese house.” They saw the old, cheap tansus, the simple garden, the lovely wooden sliding glass doors, the engawa, the wooden cabinets, and got nostalgic for them because some part of them recognizes the intrinsic beauty of those things. Yet in the next breath, comes the inevitable refrain: “But isn’t it hard to clean? Isn’t it fuben (inconvenient) to live here, like this?”

And therein lies the problem. People are willing to give up aesthetic living for convenient living, even if it means living in a small box in an especially nasty area of Tokyo and being surrounded by nothing but depression in the form of indescribable ugliness, all in the name of convenience; as long as the room is easy to clean and the commute to work isn’t so long. Such low hopes for the very people who developed wabi sabi! I hear over and over again how wonderful it must be to live in Kamakura, in an old wa-fuu house, yet when I point out that the rent here is just a fraction of what they’re probably paying in Tokyo, and yes the commute is an hour from Tokyo but one hour is not exactly lengthy by Tokyo commuting standards, a kind of defensiveness sets in, as if they are trying to convince themselves that they’ve made the right decision, the one to live an un-wabi sabi life.

For more on wabi sabi, please do read Koren’s book.

(photograph by Bruce Seltenright)

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World-Class Wine, World-Class Matcha. Cooking Wine, Cooking Matcha

Drinking world-class matcha is SO much like drinking a truly great wine. Forget the health benefits of either for a moment, and let’s just concentrate on taste.

World-class matcha — and yes, I do count all three grades of Breakaway Matcha in this category — really is like a world-class red like Domain Romanée-Conti in many respects:  both are heady, have perfect balance, have umami in spades, have acidity that’s racy and almost electrifying, have multilayered flavors and aromas on both front and mid palate, and have a long, smooth finish.

Lots of agricultural similarities, too: geography, soils, amount and intensity of sunlight, humidity,  rain, harvest time, fertilizer . . . .

And then we have similarities of craft: harvest timing, inherited knowledge, method of picking, processing procedures, aging, blending … ALL of these factors dramatically affect the final product, be it matcha or wine.

That said, it’s also important to note that, just as there is no shortage of truly bad wine in the world, the markets are full of very, very poor quality matcha. Much of it starts off bad (by poor/cost-cutting agricultural techniques, and by machine harvesting new growth, stems and all) and winds up much worse: poor storage, excess supply, and a “race to the bottom” in price all add up to matcha that is either sugared (meaning, sugar has been added to it to make it palatable), badly oxidized (resulting in a hay-like colors and aromas), or simply lifeless and dead, bitter, dusty, and forgotten.

It is vile stuff; most unfortunately, this dead, cheap matcha is the only experience with matcha that many people have. If you’ve tried matcha and didn’t like it, join the club. That is what you had, and it’s ubiquitous.

Bad matcha is actually much worse than Two-Buck Chuck; it’s more like pouring a glass of “cooking wine.” Which is what it is, in essence:  most matcha is meant for culinary purposes. It may still have enough of a “matcha” taste to taste ok as green tea ice cream, as cookies and cakes and all kinds of confections. The fats and sugars in those confections will often mask off-flavors, and the result will be quasi-acceptable.

Great matcha is very, very different. It is meant to be drank, like wine, not used as a cooking ingredient. (I doubt there is anyone on earth who dumps half a bottle of Echezeaux into a pasta sauce.) All of the amino acids, umami, and acid structure of great matcha remain intact when brewed into a nice cup, but are destroyed/rendered undetectable if fat, sugar, and heat enter the picture.

So: think of great matcha as great wine. And think of culinary matcha as cooking wine. The parallels are pretty much exact.

But in another important sense, great matcha is the antiwine: instead of the soporific effects associate with alcohol, matcha provides a calmly stimulating effect, perfect for sipping throughout the day and becoming supremely productive.

One more difference, while we’re pointing out differences: cost.

  • Grand Cru Burgundies: $200/glass
  • “Cult” Napa wines: $75/glass
  • Excellent Napa cabernets: $30/glass
  • Mediocre Napa cabernets: $10/glass
  • Breakaway Matcha Blend 100:  $ 3/cup

Yes, the most delicious, rare, and healthful drink on the planet costs about 1/10th that of a quality cabernet, and even less less than a glass of subpar wine. Great news for hyperpremium matcha drinkers! AND great news for serious wine drinkers: if you’d like an Echezeaux-like experience that you drink all day long and that makes you MORE focused, calm, and awake, look me up!

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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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How To Make Matcha, Breakaway Style

The first official matcha pouring yesterday at the Remodelista event was a blast. So gratifying to see so many instant converts!

I finally got around to making a quick video on how I make matcha. Since it’s so portable, I thought it would be fun to shoot it outside, on the hiking trail. A huge thank you to Michael Maloney for making it happen.

As you might suspect from reading this site, I don’t do it the traditional way, which is with a small bamboo whisk and a big, often clunky, matcha bowl. I much prefer the horsepower of the Aerolatte frother, which makes the best matcha crema I’ve ever seen, inside a well-designed creamer to froth it; it’s then poured into small ceramic cups and enjoyed espresso-style.

Still working on the new matcha pages and the ecommerce section — building a not-ugly store is challenging on so many levels — but I must say: it looks fabulous so far. Please stay tuned.

The teas are nothing short of incredible. I’ll follow up this post with a detailed description of them.  Your feedback is, as always, hugely appreciated!




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Come Taste Some Matcha at the Remodelista Holiday Market


I’ll be sieving and frothing up all three grades of Breakaway Matcha this coming Sunday, as part of the Remodelista holiday market in Mill Valley (just north of SF). If you’re around, come taste some!

There’s also a terrific lineup of local artisans, includingAmbatalia Textiles, Common Dog Wine, Dagmar Daley, Erica Tanov, Fearless Chocolate, Fineline Letterpress, Heritage Culinary Artifacts, La Saison Specialty Foods, Luke Bartels, Marie Veronique, Mato Creative, Rough Linen, Sefte, Tony Tutto Pizza, Studio Patro, Wendy Furman Design, and more.

And, the briefest of matcha updates: it’s all done except for the webpages, which are ALMOST done. It’s looking lovely. A sneakpeek is here — storefront is being designed and coded as I type, can’t wait to go live!

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Big List of Recipes From Past SF Chronicle Essays

For some unexplainable reason, I haven’t been linking my articles from the SF Chronicle here, so I thought I would remedy that while it’s still forefront in this aging brain of mine. I’ll try to be better about providing links here just after new ones are published. And yes, that is Daphne’s hand on this freshly cut red beet!

But before I list the Chron articles, please note that I’ll be teaching a public class at Draeger’s, in San Mateo, on October 26 — there are a few slots left so please do sign up soon if you’d like to attend. It’s going to be an autumn, vegetable-driven menu. And please introduce yourself!

The SF Chronicle series started off with a nice profile of breakaway cooking and four recipes:

I then wrote a paean to ginger, and offered the Triple Ginger Salad

followed by an encomium to fresh herbs, and their use in the breakaway kitchen and a recipe for Herby Summer Udon

For Father’s Day I wrote about one of my all-time favorite breakfasts,

And here’s a great way to use up all the veggies in your fridge:  an intensely flavored crustless quiche.

One of my current favorites, one we eat all the time around here, is the Spiced Tofu in a Ginger Broth — can’t get enough of it.

As regular readers of this space know, I’m pretty obsessed with injecting umami into everything, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to add copious amount of pulverized shiitake into dishes. Here is that story, along with a recipe for Shiitake Powdered Steak With Ginger and Shallots.

Happened to be looking for Braised Plummy Chuck Roast? Look no further!

And finally, my love affair with carrot juice, along with recipes for

A few of the above are from the new book, which I’m STILL working on. Video editing is complete, which paves the way for the design stage. We WILL get there! Now all of you have to go buy Ipads …. :^)

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The Coolest Umeboshi Poem in the World




All the Difficult Hours and Minutes

by Jane Hirshfield


All the difficult hours and minutes

are like salted plums in a jar.

Wrinkled, turned steeply into themselves,

they mutter something the color of  sharkfins to the glass.

Just so, calamity turns toward calmness.

First the jar holds the umeboshi, then the rice does.


.(first appeared in Poetry magazine; used with permission).


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