Monday, December 31, 2007

12/15/07: Nabé Party

As the temperature (finally) drops towards wintery conditions in NYC, it was time to have a warm dish party at my place. I asked my friend Tomoko what she wanted to be served, giving her options of boiled dumplings (水餃子), udon, okonomiyaki, and nabé (鍋). It seems that Tomoko liked all the choices, and decided to combine 3 out of the 4 options: "Let's do dumplings and udon in a nabé!" was her cheerful reply.

As Melinda explains, the virtue of nabé is that it can be what we want it to be.

Being the chef, I got to choose the ingredients aside from dumplings and udon: daikon radish (大根), Napa cabbage (白菜), shiitaké (椎茸), bamboo shoots (筍), fish cakes (竹輪), and mitsuba leaves (三つ葉). The key to making good nabé is to start early, so that the dashi (ダシ) broth can permeate the ingredients (especially daikon), and in turn, the ingredients release their flavors to the broth.

The gyoza was made by hand, including the skin. The base ingredients were beef, pork, scallion, Napa cabbage, scallion, ginger, and other seasonings. They were cooked prior to serving so that they don't become too mushy. Considering the size of my earthen pot (土鍋), gyoza was served in two servings.

The final serving featured udon noodles. Although we were pretty full, my guests couldn't bear the thought of passing up udon in a umami-rich nabé broth.

We had two sakés for this evening, Sato No Homaré Junmai Ginjo (Yamadaho rice) andTake No Tsuyu Junmai Ginjo. Sato No Homaré with its umami-rich finish was a great complement, and Take No Tsuyu's fruitiness came through with the lightly soy-based broth. Both paired well, but it should be mentioned that practically speaking, most sakés would pair well with nabé.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

12/8/07: ...and Sakaya was Born

The long-circulating rumor of the first saké-centric store in NYC came to fruition on Saturday, 12/8/07. Located at 324 East 9th Street, Sakaya ("saké store" in Japanese, where saké covers all form of alcohol) is the brainchild of Rick Smith and Hiroko Furukawa, and has been in work for the last 2 years. At the initial phase, the team consists of Rick, Hiroko, and Timothy.

While the location is not the easiest to locate, I now look for the Sugidama inside the window to know I've arrived.

The interior is modern-Japanese in approach, and the shelves give off nice aroma of cedar, reminiscent of taru.

On the other side, there is an outline of the map of Japan.

While I was looking around, a history was made- the first ever sales at Sakaya.

Straight ahead, by the counter, is a stand alone refrigerator for premium and nama saké selections. I was very pleased to see the Shichi Hon Yari Shiuku Junmai Daiginjo being sold.

Since Shichi Hon Yari was bit out of my price range, I looked around and found Denshin "Yuki" Junmai Ginjo from Fukui. Fukui makes some notable saké such as Kokuryu and Born, I decided to try this one.

To Sakaya: Good Luck!!! ~ from "Customer #3"


Denshin Junmai Ginjo(SMV: +6, Acidity: 1.4, Seimaibuai: 55%) had aroma of persimmon, and clean, focused, firm, and deep flavor with long finish. Pretty intense.

I cooked Osaka-style Modan-Yaki, but the saké proved too intense even for Modan-Yaki. I'd try this with miso-marinated fish or meat...

Saturday, December 22, 2007

12/2/07: Koshu Tasting

It seemed that most everyone involved in the saké industry showed up at Hakata Tonton restaurant (featuring dishes made of Tonsoku) for a Koshu tasting event organized by Masa Omichi of Megu. Among the attendees were representatives from World Saké Imports, JFC, Saké Hana, BAO, and Lan, among others. In addition to being a Koshu party, this was a farewell party for Kitahara-san of Shichiken Brewery (back to Japan) and Asami-san of World Saké Imports (moving to London).

There were over 25 types of Koshu, classified as follows: Cold Reserve, Pale Amber, and Special Dark. With Koshu, couple of key factors affect the color: polishing ratio and temperature. More refined the saké stored at cooler temperature will result in Koshu that is more clear, while less refined saké stored in seasonal ambient temperature will result in more earhy, viscous, and dark Koshu.

As they say, a picture is worth thousand words:

Ichinokura, Asagi Suisen, Saké Hitosuji, and Tenzan (103) in the back.

Koshu series from Dewazakura. They were all light in color.

Yuki No Bosha, front right. The bottle was colored, and Koshu itself was clear. You knew from the first sip that you are drinking a Yuki No Bosha - fruity, round, and balanced.

1973 Negoshian, the $2,028.00 bottle. Aged in Chateau Margaux barrel, had complex flavors of cotton candy, vanilla, coffee, dried fruit, nuts, and soy sauce. In the decanter is the 1977 Shichiken, with pronounced oxidized flavor of nuts, prunes, and earth, yet light on the body.

All dishes contain Tonsoku in some form.

Masa Omichi (organizer) and Hiromi Iuchi (JFC)

Teramoto-san (Chanto), Kitahara-san (Shichiken Brewery) and Chris Johnson (BAO)

Toshi Koizumi (Saké Hana) and Tomoko Omori (Chopsticks)

Kitahara-san and me

Monday, December 17, 2007

11/22/07: Happy Thanksgiving!

Not too long after my return to the States came one of my favorite foodie holidays: Thanksgiving. While many Japanese are not overly fond of turkey and its gamy flavors, I am a big fan. In fact, I have been cooking the big bird for the Big Feast for the last 6 years or so. (For the record, I use a Japanese-influenced variation of this receipe.

This year, my turkey took road trip to my parents' home. The dinner was going to be a collaboration with my sister, who prepared roasted ham, bacon and beans, mashed potato, sweet potato casserole laced seasoned with Grand Marnier, and cranberry sauce with enough Grand Marnier to get a small village drunk. I took care of the aforementioned turkey and sausage stuffing.

Of course, I contributed adult beverages well. For the wine, I opted Rizzi Barbaresco from Piedmont, which I find to be a nice, mature alternative to Beaujolais Nouveau. For the saké, I checked the fridge. My instinct pointed to either balanced Kimoto or Yamahai such as Hachibei, but I had none. (Note: Kurosawa was gone by then.)

I decided on Okunomatsu Ginjo as I recalled that it had hints of earthiness. This time, though, it was surprisingly fruitier with very little earthiness - which means I have to try again to confirm, 2 out of 3 wins - but as my dad would attest, it paired very well with the turkey nevertheless.

Anyone try turkey with saké with turkey? What would you try? Feel free to give me a shout out!

Monday, December 10, 2007

11/11/07: Last Day in Japan - "Depachika" Experience

After 9 full days of fun and adventure, I craved my last day to be low key and relaxing. After spending the morning and early afternoon shopping then packing, I decided to spend the evening to take in and fully appreciate all the great memories that were created. I cannot thank everyone enough for their amazing hospitality and incredible companionship. As silly as it may sound, for all the fun, I am most grateful that the way of saké provided me with an avenue to deeply connect with my heritage.

I decided that the perfect way to unwind is to have dinner bought at Depa-chika (デパ地下), or "basement of department stores." ("Depa" is short for "Department" and "chika" is Japanese for "basement.")

Naturally, the question is: with all the options around, why get a food from the basement of a department store?

The concept of basement is fascinating in Japanese metropolis like Osaka. The basement is connected to a large bustling underground city, connecting public transportation hubs, buildings (often departments), and hotels. In Umeda (梅田) area of Osaka, the tunnel network includes three major train stations (JR Umeda Station, Hanshin Umeda Station, Hankyu Umeda Station), subway stations, major stores (Daimaru, Hanshin, Hankyu, Yodobashi Camera) and Hotels (Herbis, Hilton, etc.).

In New York City, there is the undeground concourse connecting north exit of Grand Central Station to Rockefeller Center extending as far north as 53rd Street and 6th Avenue. Imagine if the tunnel extended to include Port Authority, Times Square, NY and Penn Station/Madison Square Garden, with easy access to stores.

Getting back to the departments,groceries and food courts are typically housed in the basement in one-stop-for-all layour. One of the reason for that is the proximity to the subway stations to lure rush hour crowd (the other reason is the low cost of routing water, gas, and electricity.) I chose Daimaru right next to the hotel. My dinner (and leftover for breakfast) included: Fried Potstickers (焼き餃子), Croquette (コロッケ), Salmon Rice Ball (おにぎり-鮭), Ume/Shiso Rice Ball (おにぎり-梅しそ), Deep Fried Chicken Nuggets (鳥竜田揚げ), Deep Fried Pork with Vinegar Sauce (酢豚), and Kyoho Grapes (巨峰).

The drink of my choice was the leftover Koto Sen-nen Junmai Ginjo (古都千年) and small bottle of Super Nikka Whiskey, which was very sharp and dry from oak tannins unlike Nikka Yoichi 10 Year Old. Not surprisingly, it didn't pair particulary well with the food, but it had to be "sacrificed" to make space for rest of my luggage. Either way, Depachika was the perfect remedy for this weary traveler.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

11/10/07: Day 9 in Japan Part II- Osaka Goldfish

After returning to Osaka, I was looking forward to dinner. This was to be a special dinner, to celebrate a friend's *ahem!* 21st birthday. The small gathering was to take place in Temma (天満), an area of Osaka with a blue-collar feel somewhat similar to Tennoji.

The restaurant was a small joint called "Muscle Hormone," specializing in "hormone." But what exactly is hormone? From the outside, the restaurant looks like your typical Yakitori restaurant. The aroma is obviously grilled meat as opposed to fried. The meat is served on a skewer. While people are ordering using unfamilar terms, everything seems normal.

On the wall is a poster that is the key to this whole thing, as it helps decode the menu. Upon close examination, hormone is the term used to cover intestines and organs, including but not limited to, small intestine, large intestine, stomach (tripe), liver, heart, cheek, tongue, achilles, and hanger steak. The parts came mostly from pigs and cows, including parts from Kobe beef.If this doesn't sound overly appetizing, think "hotdogs." While different parts had different flavors, the most notable differences were the texture, ranging from filet mignon-like tenderness to crocodile-like firmness. The thrill from element of surprise and adventure made ordering fun.

The drink menu was short and sweet: Beer (small, large), house saké, or house shochu. Considering the food, I chose the house shochu , served on the rocks, which turned out to be a mild and easy. On the next serving, my friend told me to order it "kingyo" style (金魚, "goldfish"). Naturally, I thought the worst (hello, college days); but fortunately, Osaka Goldfish meant serving shochu with shiso leaves (a.k.a. perilla) and red hot pepper. Although smooth at first, refreshing mint/ herb and spice gradually kicked in, providing a fiery complement to the hormone. The lesson, as always? Keep your mind wide open, and your mouth even wider.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

11/10/07: Day 9 in Japan Part I- Temples of Kyoto

One of the biggest thrill during my trip to Western Japan is the visit to the temples. I timed my visit not only to coincide with saké brewing season, but also with foliage season (紅葉) in mind. The tie between saké and temple goes far beyond season, of course. The key components of rice and water each plays significant role in Japanese culture, symbolizing wealth and purification. Saké itsef is central in religious ceremonies, and some breweries began with their origins to serving particular temples and shrines (e.g., Harushika for Kasuga Shrine (春日大社), for one.)

Interestingly, brewers such as Sakura Masamuné benefitted from this relationship, having imported traditional architechtural technique used in construction of temples such as the 1,400 year old Horyuji to make their Brewery. The significance of this technique is the methdod of architecture without use of nails, which can adversely affect the quality of the saké.

Between Nara and Kyoto, there are many significant temples and shrines. Here are some of them from Kyoto (as always, click on the photos to enlarge):

Located in western Kyoto area of Arashiyama (嵐山) is the Tenryuji (天竜寺) known for their traditional garden and a very surreal bamboo forest.

Perhaps the most recognizable of all temples are photogenic Kinkakuji (金閣寺, Golden Pavilion), formally known as Rokuonji (鹿苑寺).

Not too far from Kinkakuji, also in northwestern Kyoto, is the famed Ryoanji (竜安寺), famous for their zen rock garden (called Karesansui, 枯山水).

On the eastern side, there is Nanzenji (南禅寺), notable for huge gate and aqueduct ("Sosui" 疏水) that extends to Lake Biwa. While the temple was completed in 1291, aqueduct was erected in 1890.

Right near Nanzenji is Eikando (栄観堂), temple surrounded by Japanese maple. Of all the trees, Japanese maple seems to hit folage season early, providing fantastic pallet of colors.

Further south is Heian Jingu (平安神宮), with its Chinese inspired architecture. It covers a large property, complete with a gardens and ponds.

One of the most famous temple is Kiyomizu Temple (清水寺), whose name refers to the "pure water" from a small waterfall on the premises. Located on a hillside, its signature strucutre is the large balcony supported by wooden columns.

Of course, there are many more temples in Kyoto. The best time to visit is during foliage season in November. Some of the temple offer "Light Up" admission in the evenings, which from what I've seen on the brochures, look spectacular.