Spring, meaning the cherry blossom season, has finally reached Japan in full bloom and the country is blanket in white and pink flowers. Weather or not is chilly, people drag outside to have a picnic under the cherry trees. It is also the season for salted cherry blossoms that make fantastic Sakura Gohan (rice mixed with cherry blossoms) – perfect to take on a picnic. But there is more to salted cherry blossoms than Sakura Gohan. They can also – and in face are during wedding ceremonies – served as Sakura Yu (a broth-like ‘tea’). Why is that? It is believed that green tea encourages gossip. And with each liaison there are many opinions about it out there. But on the day of the wedding ceremony it is expected that everybody keeps silent about personal opinions on the couple and to emphasize this, Sakura Yu is served instead of green tea.
So if you are invited to a wedding try to get your hands on a bag of salted cherry blossoms. They make a cute little gift.
Washoku, Japan’s traditional food culture has gained increasingly worldwide interest since it has been awarded a UNESCO Intangible Cultural World Heritage two and a half years ago. The heart of Washoku is a healthy, balanced cuisine that embraces and internalizes the spirit of seasonality and seasonal events. It is a century old culinary tradition that is still in evidence throughout Japan.
The Japanese even have a specific word for their attention to seasonality: Shun. There is no equivalent for Shun in the English language. Shun translates to an almost religious obsession to consume food at the peak of its season. Imagine you bite in a big, fat, red, succulent, sweet and juicy strawberry that fills your mouth with this irresistible distinct flavor of early summer. That is Shun.
But nature’s production does not begin and end with this peak in flavor. So the Japanese dedication to seasonality has further divisions of the season: Hashiri and Nagori. Hashiri refers to products that have just come into season or are even a little early. They are usually smaller in size, not as flavorful and rather expensive. Whereas Nagori describes the products at the end of the season, who are no longer really wonderful.
Coming back to the strawberries. Hashiri means the run for the first strawberries. You remember the fruity, juicy, succulent and sweet flavor, which you have been waiting to get for the past year. You cannot wait to bite into one, knowing that they are often not fully ripe and tarter than you would actually like, but to get a glance at the taste of what is soon to come in full flavor is worth the high price you pay.
Nagori is the opposite. Middle of June, when the strawberry season is almost over and the ones that you buy are usually over ripe, easily bruised and no longer wonderful. But you just have to buy that one last basket, one last glimpse of that juicy taste that is so typical for the first warm summer days, because you know that this is your last chance before you have to say good-bye and wait another year for them to come around as wonderful as they just were.
Given this attention to seasonality it does not come on a surprise that in a formal Kaiseki-meal the chef composes a symphonic firework for all senses, fusing the five colors, the five flavors and the five methods of preparation for products from all of the three sub-seasons.
This is not going to be a complete sake buying or ordering guide. At least not yet. Nor is this post meant to make you a sake professional, so forgive me if I skip details to keep you focused on the essential information as well as not covering all the sake ground for the same reason. I will gradually build up on the knowledge that I provide, so if you want to know more about sake sign up for the newsletter and you will get the updates delivered to your inbox automatically.
For now let’s focus on Ginjo. As you can read here this is the one word that you should remember when it comes to sake. Why is that? Because by looking at a sake label most people cannot easily tell if it is any good? Ultimately there is no right answer to that question, as whether or not it is any good depends in the end on your taste. But there are hints you can use to narrow it down and increase the chance of ending up with a bottle you like. And the first one is being able to identify the word ‘GINJO’ on the label.
Sake comes in different grades and among them are eight grades that are considered premium sake, for which special regulations (e.g. milling rate) apply. The top four of those premiums all have the word Ginjo in their grade. So if you can identify the word Ginjo on a label of sake you know that you have at least a decent bottle in your hands. Does that mean that all the other sake is not good or not as good? Certainly not! There is wonderful stuff out there that is not labeled to be one of the top four grades, but it is a little harder to identify.
So what is the difference in the ginjo’s above?
The ones at the top (Daiginjo) have (most of the times) more of the rice milled away than the ones at the bottom. The ones on the left (Junmai-type) have no alcohol added as an ingredient but the ones on the right do.
For sake the outer parts of the rice grain are usually being milled away. This is called semei buai and means the amount of rice that is left after the milling. Legally the minimum semei buai for Ginjo is 60% and for Daiginjo 50%. But those numbers are just the minimum requirements. It is perfectly legal and common practice to sell a Ginjo with a semai buai of 50% or less. Ginjo and even more so Daiginjo are brewed in a very labor intensive way and fermented at colder temperatures for a longer period of time. The resulting flavor is more complex and delicate than the one of non-ginjo-sake, and you will often (not always though) find it to be more fruity and flowery in fragrance and flavor.
Often brewer’s alcohol is added to the sake just before it is being pressed. This is not primarily done to stabilize the sake and increase shelf life. More importantly though this is done to extract more aromas and flavors that would otherwise not be able to delight your palate. So adding a small amount of alcohol does not mean the sake is better or worse. It is just a different method of brewing sake. Junmai-types are usually a little more full and heavy in flavor than the premium sake that have alcohol added to them. Also the acidity is often slightly higher as well. Generally speaking it is more likely to be a good choice for matching with food, as it tends to have a presence that makes it stand up better to stronger aromas than lighter sake would.
So as a s first step in reading sake labels remember the Kanji below. When you can identify those as a first step you most likely will also be able to identify them when they are written in beautiful but hard to read calligraphy. This plus the general knowledge of how many characters you are looking for will get you started.
– 吟 the ‘gin’-part of Ginjo
– 大 吟 Daiginjo to recognize a bottle from the top oft the sake world (Dai means big or important)
– 純 米 Junmai, which means ‚pure rice’ and indicates that the alcohol comes from fermenting rice and rice alone.
Eating flowers is certainly nothing unusual. Neither in the western world nor in Japan. I love pickled Chrysanthemums in fall as much as salted sakura in springtime (see my last post).
On Monday I had another type of flower for lunch: Peach. Not just palate pleasing, but equally wonderful for the eye – it was almost a crime to eat those wonderful artfully assembled flower-maki.
The petals are five small maki-rolls made from rice mixed with yukari, wrapped in nori. Assembled like a flower around a blanched, green asparagus in the center. They were embedded in sushi rice wrapped with another sheet of nori to give it the final maki-shape that you see on the picture. When cutting the maki-roll, be sure to have a slightly wet knife or the rice will stick to it, ruining the beauty of your work.
Springtime in Japan is magical. From the middle of March to the end of April or beginning of May the soft light pink flowers blanket the country, attracting visitors from all over the world and dominate the local’s life.
For this year the sakura (cherry blossom) forecast predict the start of the bloom in Tokyo for March 23 with March 30 to April 07 being the best time for Hanami (flower viewing). In happy anticipation I got myself
sakura joghurt and I also got a fresh pack of Tomizawa’s salted sakura that I will use for the sakura rice in our Hanami picnic bento. Don’t miss out on grabbing a pack or two if you are near a store (read here for more details on Tomizawa). They keep well and are equally wonderful as a finish on a perfectly grilled steak.
Not only Japan is pink at this time of the year. The same is true for our home. Even though it could be my second daughter’s liking of that color, it is not. But with three girls in the house Hina Matsuri becomes kind of a mass-event. Hina Matsuri is the day of the girls in Japan, which is celebrated on March 3rd. This itself would account for a heavy use of pink. But that day is also called Momo no sekku (Peach Festival), as March is the peach blossom season, which bloom bright heavy pink.
Like in many Japanese Families with girls Odairi-sama (emperor) and Ohina-sama (empress) moved in our home middle of February. Though not with their complete entourage and as a wall decoration in lieu of the traditional Hinadan. A one, three, five or seven-stair display for hina ningyo dolls and former everyday commodities (like tea set, sake cups, swords etc.) that is covered with a red carpet. The Hina Matsuri festival is primarily a family celebration dating back to the Heian period (794-1185) when the dolls came to be viewed as caretakers of the girls’ health and happiness, warding off bad luck and bringing in good fortune.
Hina Matsuri is partly reminiscent of Cinderella, as all the decoration has to be taken down before midnight on March 3rd to avoid a delay in the girls’ future marriage. For this year we have set three (!) alarms starting at 11pm. Just to be sure, because we already missed it once and who would want to take chances, right? By the way, Hina ningyo dolls are by no means toys but valuable art crafts, decorated with real gold foil and first-class lacquer, sometimes passed down for generations. The average price for a three-stair display with five dolls is about 2.000€.
One of the most popular public display of Hina ningyo dolls in Tokyo can be found at Meguro Gajoen Hotel (this year until March 6th). More than 500 Hina ningyo dolls are on display in the seven old, breathtaking banquet rooms that can be reached using the 100 stairs in the old annex of the hotel. The stairs are numbered as a service for visitors. Not quite as motivating as the stairs in the much-loved Tokyu Hands Department store that show the cumulated amount of calories that you have burned, but I don’t want to get overboard.
On the day of Hina Matsuri, families get together and enjoy delicious traditional dishes and sake. Some of them are Hishimochi, Hina arare and Shirozake.
Hishimochi. Diamond-shaped mochi (rice cakes) with pink, white and green layers. The colors representing the pink peach blossoms, the white of the snow of the waning winter and the green for the new, fresh growth of early spring.
Hina arare. Pink, white, green and yellow balls of crunchy puffed rice that are sometimes covered with sugar. Their origin is not quite clear, but it is believed that to make hina arare the left over rice crackers from New Years (Oshogatsu) were turned into rice biscuits in late February, which led to their connection to Hina Matsuri. Given that usually nothing is going to waste in the Japanese Kitchen, it absolutely makes sense. And as such hina arare are a symbol for the economic thrift of a good wife.
Shirozake. White, unfiltered, sweet with a low alcohol content of 8-9%. A sake-like drink that, even though it is called sake, it is technically not nihonshu or seishu (the legal term for sake in Japan). For shirozake steamed rice is mixed with koji (mold for making Sake) and shochu (Japanese rice-liquor), left to age for a month and then sold unfiltered. Shirozake was created around 1600 to 1650. Due to its sweetness and low alcohol content it became tied to Hina Matsuri even though women did not necessarily drink sake in the old days. The white of the shirozake also complements the red (pink) of the peach blossoms and the Hinadan to the traditional colors of celebration in Japan that signify happiness and good fortune.