Green tea ice cream (抹茶アイスクリーム, Matcha aisu kurīmu) or matcha ice (抹茶アイス Matcha aisu) is a Japanese ice cream flavor. This flavor is extremely popular in Japan and other parts of East Asia. Green tea ice cream is also sold in monaka form. It has been available in the United States since the late 1970s, primarily in Japanese restaurants and markets, but is currently moving into mainstream availability.
There is a clear indication that Mount Fuji-shaped green tea ice cream was an item on the menu at the royal dinner party during the Meiji period (1868–1912). The true origin of green tea ice cream, however, is unknown. Although green tea itself seems to have existed as local handmade ice cream at some districts in Japan, none of the Japanese flavored ice creams were really merchandised until the 1990s because the major Japanese ice cream manufacturers were producing vanilla, strawberry and chocolate as their primary flavors. However, green tea shaved ice Uji Kintoki (宇治金時) has been well known and popular in Japan long before green tea ice cream.
The amount of luxurious imported ice cream has increased in the Japanese market since the import liberalization act of ice cream in 1990. However, the trigger of the nationwide sales of Green Tea Ice Cream in Japan was actually from the importation of green tea ice cream from Maeda-en USA in California with the catch phrase "Pure Japanese style made from California”. It has been produced since April 1995, using fresh California milk made in U.S.A.
The same product was soon imported and distributed to convenience stores and supermarkets in Japan as well and it was introduced in some Japanese newspapers. Soon after, the Japanese ice cream manufacturers recognized that Japan was ready to move on to a new era, one where Japanese people accepted different and unique ice cream flavors besides vanilla, strawberry and chocolate.
During a certain period of the 1980s in Japan, Meiji Dairies started selling its green tea ice cream with Lady Borden Brand but eventually discontinued selling the product. In 1995, Maedaen exported green tea ice cream to Japan, which became current topic in Japan rapidly, then influenced other major manufactures to start introducing their green tea ice cream products. As a result, many more green tea ice cream products spread into market in Japan until now.
Häagen-Dazs Japan started producing green tea ice cream in 1996. The product is now sold in Japanese grocery markets and has become one of the company's most popular flavors.
Statistics from the Japanese Ice Cream Association show that green tea ice cream was ranked third in the “Favorite Ice Cream Flavor” study. It is served in many restaurants as a dessert.
In order to prevent a change in color to green tea ice cream (catechin) from sunlight, some containers have lids with an opaque underside. Some green tea ice cream is artificially colored, and others have natural green coloring from the catechin present in green tea.
Green tea ice cream has been available in the United States, the country with the largest ice cream consumption, since the late 1970s, primarily in Japanese restaurants and markets. It is currently becoming mainstream and can also be made at home.
The U.S. saw rapid growth in Japanese cuisine and sushi popularity in the mid 1990s, which resulted in a big expansion of the Japanese restaurant business in the U.S. This development gradually helped people learn about green tea, resulting in green tea ice cream becoming a typical dessert.
In those days, there were two different kinds of green tea ice cream served at restaurants. One was made by mixing dissolved Matcha powder into vanilla ice cream in a restaurant’s kitchen, while the other was made by a local ice cream manufacturer who did not know the proper way to make the dessert. In the first method, ice cream had to be melted once and refrozen when they mixed in the dissolved Matcha powder, resulting in the ice cream having an undesired texture. The second method had artificial green tea coloring and flavoring because most of those local ice cream manufacturers could not import authentic Matcha powder from Japan; therefore they usually replaced it with an artificial flavor that was accompanied with a strong chemical smell that was often covered by the heavy use of sugar.
In 1984, Taku Maeda moved from Japan to the U.S. and started his business ‘Maeda-en USA’. He has been to many Japanese restaurants all over the United States and wondered how he could promote high quality and tasty Japanese green tea and establish it among Americans as a staple. He also tried Japanese menu at restaurants he visited for sales and often found this artificial type of green tea ice cream on the menu that he felt was weird. The color he sees is green, but the taste was questionable to call it “green tea ice cream”, as most of the green tea ice cream was made from artificial colors and flavors in those days. He then had an idea of making green tea ice cream by mixing in real green tea from Japan, and since 1993, Maeda-en USA started OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturing) and sold their original green tea ice cream.
As to their original green tea ice cream recipe, it was said that Japanese restaurants supported in developing the taste since they were serving the green tea from Maeda-en USA. After many tests by the chefs and the managers of those restaurants, the Maeda-en green tea ice cream was born with the concept of “East meets West.”
Now almost all ice cream manufacturers produce a version of it, including foreign vendors such as Häagen-Dazs, Baskin-Robbins, and Natuur. The name "Matcha" comes from a specific type of green tea used in Japanese tea ceremonies.
On November 14, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama visited Japan for the first time as president. He gave a speech about foreign policies toward Asia at the Suntory Hall in Tokyo and at the beginning of his speech, he mentioned one of his memories from childhood: visiting Japan with his mother, he saw an ancient Buddha statue in the seaside town Kamakura. He recalled being most interested in enjoying green tea ice cream and also expressed his gratitude towards Yukio Hatoyama, the Japanese prime minister at the time, for serving the dessert at the dinner party to welcome Obama. It is said that the sales of the green tea in Kamakura increased because of the speech he made.
Also, the CEO of the Michelin Guide commented that he ate green tea ice cream during his visit to Kamakura, Japan.
Green tea ice cream could easily be integrated into various decorations and arrangements with other ice cream flavors. It could be served with other Japanese sweets such as Azuki (小豆), Dango (団子), and Monaka (モナカ).