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IT TASTES LIKE GRASS, smells like seaweed and is greener than Brussels sprouts, but that's not going to keep people from sipping — or gulping — green tea by the gallons.

Pick a health problem, any problem — a cold, the flu, skin cancer, cavities, arthritis, arteriosclerosis, borderline diabetes, wrinkles, obesity. Whatever the problem, the cure just might be found in a cup of green tea.

Exactly why green tea is getting so much attention as a wonder-drink is rooted in several studies that indicate it is packed with antioxidants, flavenols, fluoride and a handful of vitamins, all of which have proven health benefits.

Those studies have opened the green tea spigot. Now green tea is showing up not just in tea cups, but in cereals, power bars and fruit drinks.

People are ordering green tea shots in their smoothies, downing capsules of green tea concentrate, smoothing green tea lotions on their faces, even wearing green tea patches that claim to help wearers lose weight fast.

Here in the Bay Area, local tea companies report that green tea is now the most ordered, most brewed, most consumed tea on the market.

"Green tea is the fastest growing segment of the tea industry," says Barbara Graves, Minister of Commerce at The Republic of Tea in Novato, a company that specializes in premium teas.

Although The Republic of Tea sells a lot of oolong, black and white tea, plus a line of herbal teasans, the growth in green tea sales continues to exceed predictions.

"What's interesting to us is that Americans typically love big flavored teas, but we're seeing the plain green tea category grow dramatically." The Republic of Tea sells 16 kinds of green tea, ranging from loose-leaf to bottled teas.

Numi Tea in Oakland, which has experienced a similar spike in green tea sales, suspects the increased interest is being fueled by media reports, such as a segment on "Oprah" last fall.

"We don't know for sure," says Numi Tea owner Reem Rahim, "but when sales spiked dramatically in November, we asked a few customers about why they were buying green tea. They told us about the Oprah segment, which had to do with the health claims of drinking tea, including losing weight fast."

Unlike many new green tea products and extracts that focus primarily on health benefits instead of taste, Numi Tea is all about brewing and enjoying perfect cups of tea, Rahim says.

Numi's green tea offerings include a luxurious jasmine-scented green tea, a smooth, non-bitter plain green tea, plus several flowering teas — green tea leaves sewn together so that they open into a beautiful flower when brewed.

"A lot of people don't like green tea because they haven't had good green tea," she says. "If you drink last year's tea or the really fine bits of tea instead of whole leaves, you will get a much more grassy, astringent flavor."

Although white tea is known to have even more powerful antioxidants than green tea, Rahim suspects that green tea will continue to be the focus of the health world, at least for now.

"The fact is that white tea comes from China. It isn't drunk in India or in Japan. That may be the reason why there are so many more studies being conducted on green tea," she says. 

Because most studies suggest that benefits come not by sipping a single cup, but by consuming several cups a day, all manner of concentrated tea products are appearing on the market.

Teaology of Southern California markets concentrated, decaffeinated tea products that aim to be consumer friendly.

Convinced that Americans have little interest in the natural flavor of green tea, Teaology developed pouches of slightly sweetened and flavored tea concentrates.

"Flavor is really at the top of our list," says Rich Principale, chief brands officer for the company. "We believe if we offer something that tastes great and happens to be good for you, people will be a lot more likely to drink it.

"Our goal is to move people from the 'I should drink more green tea' to a place where they mix up a glass of tea simply because it tastes good."

Beyond leaves

Similar to Teaology's decaffeinated liquid pouches are TeaTech's foil pouches of dry instant tea powder. The powder, which is sold in GNC stores and some Albertsons stores, packs the benefits of six cups of tea into one. Because of processing methods, caffeine levels don't multiply quite as fast as the benefits — one concentrated cup of green tea delivers 45 milligrams of caffeine, or about half that of a cup of coffee.

Brian Allfrey, spokesman for the Utah company, says TeaTech's instant green tea is just the beginning of green tea products: "We haven't been around very long, and we are still waiting for our patent, but we are selling our powder to smoothie companies and partnering with other new companies every day."

"Every time you turn around there are new products made with tea, and our product really lends itself to a lot of different applications," he says. "I expect the number of green tea products, including topicals and foods, will double or triple in the next five years."

His company is working on green tea lozenges. It is also reformulating products to be sweetened with stevia, an herb, because natural food stores will not carry products sweetened with Splenda.

Also capitalizing on the purported health benefits of green tea, 1800 Patch has developed a green tea and kelp patch called Le Patch weight loss system. Wearing the patch and drinking the concentrated green tea powder that comes with it is believed to promote weight loss by suppressing appetite, raising metabolism, increasing energy and burning fat.

"We don't make health claims, but we do share with people some of the research around green tea," says Mike Waldron, director of marketing for 1800 Patch.

Keeping it in perspective

Whether all of the health claims for green tea products are valid is hotly debated in cyberspace, where people share personal anecdotes about miraculous cures in online forums.

But green tea expert Diana Rosen, author of "The Book of Green Tea" (Story Books, $16.95), offers a reality check.

"What's going on now is overkill. People are trying to cash in on the buzz. The reality is that green tea is a cure of sorts, but people need to keep it in perspective.

"Green tea does have a lot of health-giving properties, but it should be a part of a healthy lifestyle," she says. "It's not a panacea. It's a good addition, but we can't think drinking a gallon of green tea will cure everything."

She's also a big cheerleader of drinking tea not just for health, but also for flavor and enjoyment. Rosen has even developed a stash of recipes that use tea.

"Tea is not a magic pill to pop. People who do that miss the whole point of tea," she says.

"Tea offers people what they need. It makes us slow down. We can't rush tea. We have to wait for the water to boil, then wait for the tea to steep, then we have to allow time to sip it. I think people forget that slowing down is also beneficial to their health."


Iced Tea with Lemongrass Syrup

Recipe courtesy of Diana Rosen. Rosen writes, "Blending the best of two powerful Asian flavors, this is the perfect drink when the weather heats up. Choose a good-quality China green jasmine tea and fresh lemongrass stalks. A Japanese sencha or gyokuro would be divine, but would not, of course, have the jasmine scent."

Lemongrass syrup (see note):
2 cups granulated white sugar
2 cups water
6 fat stalks of coarsely chopped and mashed fresh lemongrass

1 quart cold water
2 tablespoons jasmine green tea leaves

Make the syrup by bringing the sugar and water to a boil, then add the lemongrass. Remove from heat and let stand until cool. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve, extracting as much liquid as possible. Pour into a glass jar, cover and refrigerate.

Brew tea by heating the water to 180-185 degrees F and adding the tea. Allow to infuse for 3 minutes. Strain out the leaves and reserve the tea liquor.

Pour about 1 tablespoon of lemongrass syrup into a tall glass, then top with the tea. Add ice if desired. Garnish with a stick of lemongrass inserted into a thin wedge of fresh pineapple.

Serves 2.

Note: The leftover syrup can be refrigerated for up to a month and may be used to flavor dressings, drizzle over fresh fruit, or used for more green iced tea.


Chinese Green Tea Chicken Salad

From "The Book of Green Tea," by Diana Rosen (Story Books, $16.95). This is a twist on the classic Chinese chicken salad, with green tea as a flavoring for the dressing. For extra flavor, the chicken can be cooked with the skin; remove the skin before adding the chicken to the salad.

3 tablespoons sesame oil, divided
4 boneless chicken breasts

Dressing:
3 teaspoons fresh Chinese green tea leaves (Dragonwell, Pi Lo Chun or similar)
½ cup cold spring water or rice vinegar
¼ teaspoon soy sauce
¼ teaspoon sugar
¾ cup olive oil

Salad:
½ cup slivered almonds, toasted
1 can sliced water chestnuts, drained
1 head iceberg lettuce, torn into strips

Heat 2 tablespoons of the sesame oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté the chicken breasts until cooked, about 5 minutes on each side. Set aside to cool.

To make the dressing, steep the tea leaves for about 20 minutes in cold water; if you choose a low-grade tea, steep in rice vinegar. Strain and discard leaves. Add remaining tablespoon sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar and olive oil, and mix well.

Tear chicken into small pieces. Combine with slivered almonds, water chestnuts and lettuce. Add the dressing and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Per Serving (when all the dressing is used): 832 Calories; 63g Fat; 60g Protein; 7g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 137mg Cholesterol; 189mg Sodium.


Green Tea-Poached Asian Pears with Pistachio Cream Sauce Edged with Mint

This is a refreshing dessert with a touch of luxury that works year-round. Its complex taste belies its simple method of preparation. This recipe is courtesy of Robert Wemischner, co-author with Diana Rosen of "Cooking with Tea" (Periplus Editions).

Pistachio Cream Sauce (see note):
1 cup nonfat plain yogurt, well drained
½ cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
1 cup shelled and skinned pistachios that are natural, with no added coloring

4 Asian pears, about 10 ounces each
5 teaspoons green tea leaves, Dragonwell is ideal (aka Lung Jing)
4 cups spring water
½ cup granulated sugar
1 (2-inch) piece of fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced into thin coins
Peel of half a lemon
1 large sprig fresh mint

Chopped pistachios and fresh mint leaves for garnish, as desired

To make the sauce: Coarsely chop pistachios. In a small bowl, whisk together yogurt, buttermilk and maple syrup. Add the pistachios and store the mixture in the refrigerator until serving time.

To make the dessert: Peel and core the pears. Brew tea by simmering in water for 5 minutes. Strain out the leaves and add sugar, ginger root, lemon peel and mint in the liquid and pour the liquid into a saucepan large enough to accommodate the pears in a single layer. Poach for about 20 minutes or until the pears are tender. Asian pears will remain quite crisp even after cooking.

Remove the pears and strain out the solids from the water and return the liquid to the saucepan. Reduce the liquid to a syrup by cooking over high heat for about 15 minutes. Put the pears back into the reduced liquid and allow to cool. Refrigerate the pan, covered.

Place four goblets or glass bowls in the refrigerator to chill.

Just before serving, remove the pears from the poaching liquid, drain well, and place one pear in each chilled goblet or bowl. Top with the pistachio cream sauce and serve immediately, garnished with chopped pistachios and fresh mint leaves, as desired.

Serves 4.

Note: Plain yogurt can be used instead of the sauce. Thicken the yogurt by draining it in a sieve until the liquid stops dripping and the yogurt is thick.

Per Serving: 386 Calories; 16g Fat; 12g Protein; 53g Carbohydrate; 8g Dietary Fiber; 2mg Cholesterol; 78mg Sodium.


Jade Oolong Shrimp

From "The Book of Green Tea," by Diana Rosen (Story Books, $16.95). This is an easy-to-make, festive dish that's great for an appetizer or luncheon entre. Good quality oolong or its greenish relative, pouchong, is essential.

2 tablespoons jade oolong or pouchong tea leaves
1 cup spring water
1 dozen raw, peeled and deveined shrimp
1 bunch spring greens, washed and dried
1 teaspoon lemon zest for garnish
1 tablespoon chopped chives for garnish

Infuse tea in room temperature spring water for about 20 minutes. Pour into skillet and heat gently over low heat. Add shrimp and poach for 3 to 5 minutes until shrimp turn pink; drain. Wash and dry greens and arrange on a platter. Scatter shrimp over greens and garnish with lemon zest and chopped chives.

A light vinaigrette can be sprinkled over the salad for extra punch, as desired. Serve with white rice.

Serves 3 as appetizer, or 2 as generous luncheon salads.

Per 3 Servings: 26 Calories; trace Fat; 5g Protein; trace Carbohydrate; trace Dietary Fiber; 36mg Cholesterol; 36mg Sodium.


You can e-mail food writer Jolene Thym at jthym@angnewspapers.com or call (510) 353-7008.