A little black book caught my eye the other day in a little book store in Berlin. ‘A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees’. How much more Japan can you get into one title? The author is a Japanese Buddhist monk named Yoshida Kenkō who has lived more than 700 years ago (1284 – 1350).
His collection of 243 short essays Tsurezuregusa (‘Essays in Idleness’) are among he most studied works of Japanese literature. “An eccentric, sedate and gemlike assemblage of his thoughts on life, death, weather, manners, aesthetics, nature, drinking, conversational bores, sex, house design, the beauties of understatement and imperfection. “ (Source: smithsonianmag.com)
When the days get shorter and nighttime falls earlier every day, it is a good time for me to immerse into the thoughts of the past, into the thoughts of a far away world, into the thoughts of someone from the past which, I have never met.
Maybe – or most likely it will not only be only one glass, even though the essay is a short one. The Sohomare Junmai Daiginjo is simply too inviting. Brewed from the best Yamadanishiki rice, harvested in the Premium A area of Hyogo prefecture it is handmade using the ancient Kimoto method.
Soft and slightly creamy on the palate with an elegant aroma I recommend drinking it from a Burgundy glass. Drink it as it is or with a bit of goats cheese as a nibble while reading. If you want to pair it with food, I would go for charcoal-grilled fillet, chūtoro (medium fatty tuna) or ōtoro (fatty tuna).
I have similar experiences with tofu than with Japanese sake. Before I moved to Japan both were awful. Sake was that weired warm stuff that you got for free at the end of a meal and tofu the unpleasently grainy textured tasteless something that you only eat when you need an alternative for meat. Sometimes overpowered with spices or smoked to transform it into an unpleasantly grainy texture something with some taste – but still awful.
After discovering what sake can be, I am all in for it. A wonderful ambrosia. Clear, fresh, complex and very divers. From clean and dry to fruity, sweet or luscious . The sky seems to be the limit and not every sake taste the same. Similarly you wouldn’t compare Liebrauenmilch with a wonderful German Riesling.
And my experience with tofu is similar. Since I had the really good stuff, I don’t want to live without tofu anymore. Without Japanese tofu to be precise. All over Japan you can find tofu-ya (artisanal tofu makers) like you find artisanal bakeries in Germany.
Small family owned businesses that turn on their light in the middle of the night to make fresh tofu. Often in shops as big as a garage with a tiny stall in front of it. Easy to spot in the morning when they hang their cloths up for drying in the wind in front of their shops.
Japanese tofu is widely different from the one I get over here. A very delicate taste, but with a definite hint of soybeans – not invasive just the natural taste, which is so fundamental for the Japanese cuisine. Nothing that needs to hide under a layer of spices. Pure and clean.
And the consistency? Whether firm, fried or silken Japanese tofu always has a pleasant mouth feel to it. The silken kind is velvety as crème bruleé, topped with grated ginger, katsuo bushi and a refreshing ponzu-sauce a refreshing snack or lunch in the heat of the summer.
I have tried every tofu that I came across. Artisanal ones sold at a farmers market as well as those commercially made in organic supermarkets. Without any success. Nothing could keep up with the tofu I tasted in Japan.
I will be keeping eating every new brand of tofu that I come across, but my hopes are not high to find what I am looking for. Obviously the German taste is different than mine. So I started to make my own tofu.
I did not expect it to be complicated. And it actually isn’t, but there are a few things that can go wrong … and did go wrong. So at the same time I found out that making tofu yourself is not a piece of cake either.
These days I am spending a lot of time in my kitchen lab, testing various ways to make Japanese tofu, aiming to understand all the parameters to make what I want reliably. I will keep you posted on my findings, but before that here are the good news:
I already succeeded a couple of times. I made tofu that tasted like the one from Toshio and Kyoko Kanemoto, my favorite tofu-ya-couple in Tokio, just around the corner from Kaminoge station.
I am happy to announce that The Taste of Japan will host two events at the Food Art Week that will take place in Berlin this year.
The Food Art Week, curated by Tainá Guedes, focuses on a wide range of contemporary art and dining experiences. There will be a central art exhibition alongside performances, dining experiences, workshops, screenings, and much more.
Shōjin Ryōri in Berlin
For this year’s theme “Vs. Meat”, Taste of Japan will host WaSu: An intimate dining experience showcasing Shōjin Ryōri* cuisine – Japanese Temple Food.
Shōjin Ryōri is the traditional dining style of Buddhist monks in Japan that grew in popularity with the spread of Zen Buddhism in the 13th century. It is a plant based cuisine, focused on simplicity and harmony. Shōjin Ryōri is strictly tight to the Washoku-guidelines, the underlying principles of traditional Japanese cuisine. So Appreciation and respect of the seasons, nature’s bounty and the diligence and ingenuity of the people that produce the dishes are essential part of cook’s consideration in creating a meal.
At the Food Art Week’s WaSu dining event fresh, seasonal food will be transformed into nutritionally sound and aesthetically satisfying dishes that avoid waste and sustain our natural resources.
Decoding Japanese Sake
Brewing Japanese sake is tradition, is passion, is art. Although on the rise in popularity still wildly unfamiliar. As sake sommelier and certified educator for sake I will decode Japanese sake at Food Art Week’s SAKAYA event, explain what you need to know and walk you through the sampling of curated premium sake to experience what you have heard.
Interested? Stay tuned. More details are coming soon.
Yesterday I started my first journey back to my culinary roots for 2017. I will be traveling all over Japan for the next few weeks, getting my hands on more traditional dishes, cooking techniques and ingredients. I am going to visit a couple sake breweries and taste even more wonderful sake from different regions.
To get the most out of this culinary mission, I will not post new recipes until my feet touch German ground again. Stay tuned until I can share new insights into culinary Japan.
I usually encounter raised eyebrows when I mention anything about sake breweries, because people are puzzled that ‘rice wine’ is actually brewed. Others are irritated because they assume that sake is distilled, as it can be quite strong. So what is sake?
Sake is the traditional Japanese beverage that has been brewed for 1.000 years like it is today from rice and rice alone. Of course you need yeast, water and koji (a mold that is grown on rice to break the starch into sugar) for the fermentation, but no other grain than rice is allowed. The fact that sake is brewed from a grain makes it more a beer than a wine. But given its complexity of flavors and the amount of flavor nuances (about 400), sake relates more to wine (which has about 200 flavor nuances). And even though sake has a natural alcohol content of 16-20%, is not distilled and not even remotely related to any spirit. In the end sake is sake. A beverage of its own. Subtle, diverse, complex and very enjoyable.
So how is sake made in a nutshell?
Rice is being polished, washed, soaked and then steamed in this order. Afterwards it gets mixed with yeast, water and koji in a small open tank and is then allowed to ferment for about two weeks (sometimes four). After those initial two (four) weeks that mixture (Moto) is transferred to a large tank and more steamed rice, water and koji is added three times in four days. This mixture is now called Moromi. The Moromi will ferment in a large open tank for the next 18 to 32 days after which it will be pressed, filtered, often pasteurized and sometimes blended.
Sounds pretty straight forward, right? So how can something so ‘simple’ develop such a variety of flavors? Because basically ANY variation in EACH and EVERY STEP in the process has an influence on the taste.
What type of water is used and its chemical composition.
Which type of rice is being used and where the rice has been grown.
The weather during rice growing season as well as during the brewing process
How much and how fast the rice is being polished.
How long the rice is being washed, how long it is being soaked (Japanese brew masters go down to adjust the time by seconds) and steamed
How the koji mold propagates on the rice (which is adjusted by humidity and temperature – again, in the 0,5 to 1 degree/percent- range)
What type of yeast is being used and the fermenting temperature
The list goes on and on, but I think you get the idea that brewing sake is an art and certainly not straight forward. All the adjustments are decided by the toji (master brewer) based on intuition, experience and his five senses. Machines and computers can only inadequately replace those skills and are therefore only used for ordinary, low grade sake. Thus it doesn’t come on a surprise that it takes decades for a young kurabito (brewery worker) to get the necessary experience and to sharpen his senses to become a toji – if at all.
I am not just a foodie. I am also hooked with wines and spirits, which led me to my WSET education a couple of years ago. Being in Japan I just had to get my hands on sake. Nowhere in the world will you find a selection of fine sake as you do in Japan. Which does not come on a surprise, given that Japan is fortunate enough to have a sake industry that comprises about 1,500 breweries. So nowhere in the world can you get a better experience in tasting sake and learn about sake than in Japan.
So on my mission to truly understand the “beverage for the gods”, as sake was called until the Heian period (794 – 1185), I not just tasted a wide variety since I started living in Japan. I also topped my experience with a formal education about sake with the Sake Education Council and theJapanese Sake Sommelier Institute.
That were 261(!) – in words – twohundredsixtyone sake that I tasted in 30 days – plus the average 14 sake that I have at home to train my palate and practice for blind tastings. That is true sakemania. I got to taste many of the sake at breweries that I visited. Big, industrial ones that have high-tech equipment for a large scale year-round production as well as tiny, artisanal breweries that use ancient methods that have been passed down for generations.
The good news is that for pure enjoyment you don’t need to study that hard.
Knowing that there is more than one sake out there is a good start to find one you like. Additionally you should remember one word: “Ginjo”. Because if the word “ginjo” is on your bottle you have a premium sake in your hands, that means good stuff. Try it and take it from there.
I have the roasted soy beans ready. Only the onimask (demon mask) for my husband is missing. My girls tried to make one, but unfortunately it was neither scary nor durable and did not stand the test of time. So we have about another week to get fully ready for Setsubun.
Setsubun is the break of the seasons, which today is only celebrated at the break of winter, on February 3rd. Referring to the Japanese lunar calendar Setsubun was previously thought of something like New Years. As such in the Setsubun ritual the evil spirits of the old year are expelled and the good spirits for the year to come are invited in. In our house my husband gets to be the oni, representing the evil sprits and my girls throw fuku mame (roasted soy beans that are called ‘fortune beans’) at him, shouting “Oni wa soto!” (“demons out!”). But remember – nothing goes to waste, so afterwards they go outside, pick them up again and to my ‘delight’ throw them back in our living room shouting “Fuku wa uchi!” (“luck in!”). To complete the luck, everyone gets to eat the fuku mame. One for each year of one’s life and in some areas one more for the year to come.
This year I have counted 866 soy beans. And even if, I would deny that we are that old, so no way they can all be eaten in our little Setsubun ritual. But they serve wonderfully as beer or sake snack. So for this year I decided that we will enjoy them with a chilled glass of Tsuki no Katsura ‘Yanagi’ Junmai Ginjo from Fushimi in Kyoto, which I will introduce in detail in my next post.