Kakigori

Of all the dishes one could eat in the unbearable Japanese summer, kakigori is the most refreshing. No wonder, since it is nothing else than shaved ice with added flavour. During summer, it’s sold pretty much everywhere, from simple street stalls at festivals to convenience stores or traditional kissaten cafes and there are even shops that specialise in kakigori. To advertise kakigori, a special banner is used, showing the kanji for “ice”.While having ice available in summer only became widespread from the 19th century onwards, the nobility could enjoy kakigori as early as the Heian period of the 11th century. It is already mentioned in Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, when it was a rare treat even at court. At that time, large blocks of ice were cut from rivers during the winter and then stored in mountain caves or special ice houses that would reach deep into the earth.

Nowadays, the ice for kakigori is mineral water frozen into blocks. Great care is taken that the ice turns into a fluffy, snow-like consistency when shaved, and it is this consistency that sets kakigori apart from other shaved ice desserts like snow cones. These days, electric machines are used to shave the ice, but there are still street vendors who use a traditional hand-cranked machine. These machines are ubiquitous at flea markets; they come in all sizes and very small ones are still occasionally sold at household goods stores.Once the ice is properly shaved, it is put on a dish – special korikoppu dishes were popular before WWII – and then it’s time for the flavouring. Heavy syrup that comes in numerous flavours is poured over the ice, and you can have your kakigori as strawberry, lemon, plum, grape, matcha… An extra dash of condensed milk adds a bit of sweetness.While the basic kakigori is available throughout Japan, there are a few local varieties as well. Shirokuma (literally polar bear) comes with small mochi, condensed milk, anko, and a variety of fruits added to the shaved ice. This type of kakigori was invented in Kagoshima during the Edo period and is now known throughout Japan.

Another version is Ujikintoki with green tea syrup and anko. It is named after Uji, a small town near Kyoto that is famous for its green tea and kintoki, a type of red bean paste.Whether you get a small cup of eat-as-you-go kakigori at a festival or sit down at a specialty shop for a large bowl topped with fruit, kakigori is always a welcome refreshment in the hot Japanese summers and worth trying all the flavours.

Doyo-no-ushi-no-hi

Today is the second doyo-no-ushi-no-hi of 2020, so if you need a bit more explanation than what I gave in my post of last week, here you go.

Let’s start at the beginning: What is doyo?

Traditionally, doyo is the period of 18 to 19 days before the beginning of a new season, so there are four doyo in each year: before the beginning of spring (called risshun) around Feb. 4, beginning of summer (rikka) around May 5, autumn (risshuu) around August 7 and winter (rittou) around November 7. Nowadays, doyo most often refers to the one in summer.

Generally, the doyo is considered a time of preparation for the coming season. However, it also means that times are a bit unstable, and it is possible, in particular during the last night, that demons may enter the world in the gap between two seasons. This is the reason for the setsubun ritual, where demons are ousted from our world on February 3rd.

Moving on: What is ushi-no-hi?

Ushi-no-hi is the day of the ox, one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Every day (and every 2-hour period and every cardinal direction) is assigned one of the zodiac animals. Therefore, doyo-no-ushi-no-hi refers to the day of the ox during a doyo period. Obviously, when dividing a period of 18/19 days by 12 zodiac animals, some of the animals have to repeat. This is why in 2020, there are two days of the ox in the summer doyo period, on July 21 and August 2.

But what makes doyo-no-ushi-no-hi so special?

Well, the day of the ox during the doyo is considered the hottest day in all summer. In general, it seems to me that the Japanese bear the summer heat less well than the cold in the winter, which is understandable for anyone who has ever tried to move on a humid summer afternoon in Kyoto… Therefore, they have come up with a lot of little traditions to better get through the hot days.

One of these traditions is moxibustion, where people burn dried mugwort on their skin. Another one is to wear “cool” colors like white, light blue or green and to take a hot bath in the evening. And another one is to eat healthy foods, which in this case means anything that starts with the letter u. Such foods are udon noodles, umeboshi (pickled plums), uri (all sorts of gourds including cucumbers, pumpkins, and melons) and unagi eel. While umeboshi, melons and cucumbers can be eaten cold, unagi needs to be cooked, which sounds a bit counterintuitive to a light summer meal. So, why unagi?

The story goes that a certain Hiraga Gennai, 18th century pharmacologist, renaissance man and gay icon, particularly recommended eating unagi on doyo-no-ushi-no-hi. However, not because he believed so fervently in the efficacy of the dish, but rather because one of his friends, who had an unagi restaurant, could do with more customers…

And that’s why many Japanese to this day still eat unagi on the hottest day in summer.

Ayu

From the time I was a child, I’ve always liked eating fish. This is interesting, since Austria has no access to the sea, and we chiefly subsist on pork and potatoes. As a child, fish was mainly those deep frozen/fried fish-stick kind of things, and when I was a bit older, we occasionally got fresh trout from a family member who had a fish rearing pond.

So, now that I’m in Japan, one would think that I’d eat a lot of fish. Well, yes I do… kinda. Sadly, I mainly stick to sushi and salmon. To be honest, although the fish and seafood section in my supermarket is huge, I am a bit intimidated – I mean, I have no idea how to cook this properly!

But of course, now I am an adult with lots of curiosity and said supermarket next door plus: enter the internet! I am proud to report tha I have already cooked myself spicy clams with spaghetti, and even though I probably got the wrong kind of clams (it was an Italian recipe) I was very happy with the outcome. My proudest moment, however, was when I tried the ayu.

Ayu, also called sweetfish, are small freshwater fish that are very popular in Japan and other parts of Asia. They are eaten throughout summer and are available at almost any matsuri where they are grilled over an open fire.

So when I saw the fish above, I was intrigued but also a bit worried. As you can see, this is a complete fish, bones and innards and all – do I have to do that cutting that stuff out myself? So I asked one of the staff at the supermarket, an elderly man. First of all, he explained that this was indeed an ayu (there are many kanji for this fish, none of which I can read: 鮎, 年魚, 香魚) and then he said that no, Japanese people eat the whole thing. Really.

After some deliberation, I thought, oh well, let’s try this. Thankfully, not having to cut off any pieces made cooking it very easy – I simply put it on the little fish grill of my gas stove. And because ayu are maybe 20 cm long at most, it took only around 10 minutes until it was done.

Overall verdict: The term “sweetfish” is accurate, the meat was tender and very delicious. I only used a bit of salt to cook it and put some lemon juice on it before eating. Full disclosure, I did not eat the whole fish after all, leaving the spine, head and innards, but it may be something I’m willing to try at a later point, of which there will definitely be many!   

Cafe Breaks

With summer approaching and my apartment still being without aircondition, I will probably be forced out of my home every now and then in the coming months. I am slowly building a list of cafes where I can go and work in dire circumstances because I don’t want to go to the same ones all the time. So far, my favourites are the following:

  • The Cafe in the Ogaki Bookstore on Kitaoji Street. It’s the closest to my home, they have small meals and excellent matcha latte. When I need a break, I can simply walk among the books in the store. Con: No wifi.
  • The Mushiyashinai, a vegan cafe near Ichijoji Station on the Eiden railway to Kurama. While I don’t care much that it’s vegan as such, their soymilk lassi is absolutely addictive. They have nice little cakes to take home too, and as a bonus: the young man working there is very cute… Con: a bit expensive.take-home fruit cake from the Mushiyashinai
  • The Nama Chocolat in Okazaki, run by a friend of mine. Pretty quiet (except for weekends) and located in a lovely old house. Excellent home-made chocolate, a real treat together with matcha. Con: I always end up chatting with my friend rather than working…
  • The Mo-an Cafe on top of Yoshida hill. Rustic and quiet atmosphere, with a nice view over Kyoto. Serves small meals for lunch, not many people (busy in the weekends and during lunch time though). Con: Tricky to access by bicycle. You should leave it somewhere at the foot of the hill.
  • Matsunosuke near the Museum of Kyoto. A bit far from my place but their sweets are worth it. Best pancakes in town. Con: Not really a place to work since it’s quite busy. Pancakes are delicious but take an eternity to make…
  • The Lec Court Cafe in the Kyoto Hotel Okura. Excellent desserts, excellent service in very stylish ambience. Tea is served in large pots to about three cups. Con: Expensive. And they would probably frown upon laptop use – not that they would complain though!
  • The Lipton Tea House on Sanjo Dori. Fluffy cakes to die for (and for takeout), a large selection of tea and wonderful hot chocolate. Refined ambience, friendly staff and reasonable prices. Con: Like in the Okura, it doesn’t feel right to take out a laptop. Bustling with tourists.

These are my favourite cafes in Kyoto when I want to work away from my office, or when I just want a break. There are hundreds more that want to be tried of course. The nice thing about cafes in Japan is their great Austrian approach to it: Order one coffee, and you can stay forever. I prefer not to go on the weekends when these places are usually busy with many customers, but during the week, when there’s nobody else, they are fair game. Who knows, I might be seeing you there!

Green Tea

Even though more and more Japanese people enjoy drinking coffee – specialty cafes are everywhere now – the staple drink is still green tea in all its forms. Come summer, the Japanese will drink it as their main refreshment when out and about, and in many restaurants, you get free green tea as a drink right away upon being seated.

The first tea seeds were imported from China back in the 9th century, and green tea was first used as medicine. Around the 12th century, aristocrats and monks picked up the habit of drinking tea, and finally everybody did it. Note that here I don’t mean powdered matcha, this is a completely different animal I will talk about some other day.

There are a few different types of tea plants, but mostly, the Japanese green tea you can buy is blended from the Yabukita cultivar leaves grown in different regions in Japan. What is most important with respect to taste is whether plant grows in the shade or in the sun. Tea that is grown under protective black netting is said to taste sweeter and also has a stronger green color. This type of tea can be very expensive and is often used to make matcha in Japan.

Picking fresh green tea leaves

Now, how to make green tea? First, there is the tea picking. Fresh leaves begin to come out in April/May (called: first flush, usually the most expensive tea is first flush) and what is picked is not more than the top two or three leaves of each branch. These leaves should be light-green and relatively small compared to the larger and darker leaves towards the bottom of the tea-plant.

The freshly picked leaves have barely any smell at all and as the very first (traditional) step, they are roasted at 180° C in a pan for example. This prevents the leaves from oxidation and is an important step of making green tea instead of black tea.

Making green tea - roasting the leaves

Cooling the tea leaves and reducing the heat of the pan to about 80° C, the next step is called “tea rolling”. Traditionally, people would pick up the tea leaves from the pan and roll them with their hands, all the while keeping the leaves nice and hot. This rolling is meant to break up the leaves and reduce their moisture, and even for very small quantities, it can take 20 minutes and more.Manual tea rolling

After the tea rolling, the temperature is reduced to about 70° C and the tea is slowly and fully dried. The leaves have now a uniform size and they give off the typical smell of green tea. They may be rolled and dried again, but in principle, no further steps are necessary, and the tea can be drunk right away or blended into special brands.

Matcha – powdered green tea – is made from dried tea leaves as above by simply grinding them to a powder. Other than standard sencha, matcha is rather delicate and cannot be kept for too long. This is why matcha is sold in rather small quantities.Freshly dried green tea

Even today, the three steps above are still done by hand for the most expensive brands. On an industrial scale, the heating of the tea leaves is mainly done by steaming in Japan. Still, overall, the procedure of making green tea is quite simple, and there are many opportunities in Japan to pick and produce your own tea.

Each year, Japan produces about 85 000 tons of green tea (exclusively). As mentioned above, there are a number of regions where green tea is produced, but most tea comes from Shizuoka prefecture. In Kyoto, tea from Uji has a special ring to it; Uji is very close to Kyoto and there, the first tea plants were grown from the seeds brought from China. Tea from Uji is mostly made into matcha that is used at Kyoto’s many tea ceremonies.

Both matcha and standard green tea come in many price ranges, but I have yet to find out where the difference lies. In the meanwhile, I can definitely recommend green tea as the perfect souvenir from Japan, no matter the price.

Kyoto Sake Experience

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity (through What’s up in Kyoto) to take part in a sake tasting in Fushimi, a southern part of Kyoto. The experience is well worth sharing – and recommending! – so here are the details:

I had made an appointment with Kotaro, founder and CEO of Kyoto Sake Experience, who conducts most of the sake tastings himself. We met near Fushimi Momoyama station, and first talked briefly about what I could expect – and about Kotaro himself. He grew up in Fushimi and spent a few years in Australia, so his English is excellent. He is very passionate about sake and was happy to answer, and could sometimes even preempt, my questions. In fact, he recommends taking a sake class as the very first thing to do in Japan, so people have time to find out what type of sake they like best and to be able to fully enjoy it on their visit – and take a few bottles of their favourite back home in the end!

Saketour - Gekkeikan Sake Brewery MuseumAnyway, after our brief talk, we headed to the Gekkeikan Sake Brewery, one of the largest and oldest sake breweries of Japan. They have a sake museum, and Kotaro uses its exhibits to explain the intricacies of sake, starting out with the rice. Rice meant for sake is different from rice meant for eating; it has longer stalks and contains more starch, both of which makes it about twice as expensive as food rice.

Once the rice is harvested, it is polished, and since the flavour lies in the hull of the rice, the smaller the remaining grain (i.e., the higher the polishing rate), the more pure starch is there, and the better (that is, sweeter and more fruity) the resulting sake. The highest grade for sake, daiginjo, has a polishing rate of 50% or more.Different grades of polished rice

As first step the rice is steamed and cooled down to 30 degrees before adding koji mold. This mold is meant to break down the starch into sugar, and many breweries have their own type of carefully guarded koji. Only very little is needed to start the procedure, but since the koji is very temperature-sensitive, it must be checked every couple of hours. After two days, the procedure is finished and we have kome koji, mouldy rice.

Now it is time to make moto, a mixture of kome koji, fresh steamed rice, water and yeast. There are about 30 different yeast cultures that are shared property of all sake breweries, and each culture gives a certain flavour in the end. Making the moto takes about two weeks, this is essentially the starter culture for the final fermentation that starts afterwards.

To the finished moto is again added more kome koji, fresh steamed rice, and water, and now the fermentation can begin in earnest and in very large barrels. In this step, the koji continues to produce sugar so there is constant supply of food for the yeast that turns the sugar into alcohol. However, after 27 days when the alcohol content is 22% (genshu sake), this process comes to a natural end and the sake is finished.

Busily fermenting sakeTechnically, that is, because now the raw sake is pressed, filtered, pasteurised, and diluted in a series of different steps. Special types of sake are taken out of this process early, for example namazake is not pasteurised. However, the sake that is usually available at stores or restaurants underwent the whole process. It has a final alcohol percentage of around 15% and is divided into several types, according to the original polishing rate of the rice.Pressing the sake.

We have for example daiginjo with a polishing rate of 50% or more, or ginjo with 50-60% of the grain remaining. Daiginjo often has a fruity taste, which is enhanced by adding distilled alcohol. Pure rice sake, consisting only of rice, water, yeast, and koji, has a somewhat stronger taste and gets the prefix junmai.

That was already an enormous amount of information, and my head was spinning before the very first cup! But now the sake tasting started, back at the place where we started. There were 7 different types of sake waiting for our return, three special ones and four standard ones, for two rounds of tasting.

In the first round I was to drink the sake pure, and my favourite turned out to be the daiginjo with a very fruity taste, and, unfortunately, it is the most expensive one. Remember that the polishing rate is highest, so there is more sake rice needed to produce it. I also liked nigori, a type of sake that is not fully filtered (it reminds me of Austrian Sturm, another story).

Seven types of Sake during the testingIn the second round, the same sake was paired with different types of food, and here it shows that Kotaro had been working as a chef. This time, the winner was much less clear. Like with European wine, it is important to balance food and drink, so that they are either balanced in strength of taste (daiginjo with soy beans has a very delicate taste) or strongly complementary (a 5-year-old sake together with cream cheese led to a taste explosion). The difference in the taste of sake together with the food compared to without it was phenomenal, and even though I am not a gourmet, it was obvious.

Kotaro inspecting the almost done sakeAltogether, I spent three hours with Kotaro and his sake, and I found it a very intoxicating experience in all respects, and I cannot recommend it too highly. The only complaint I have is that the name is not well-chosen: this was not just any standard sake experience, it was a master class! I now know exactly what to look for when buying sake (for myself and others) and I feel like the only way I could learn more about sake would be by making it myself (which is not on the agenda. For now.)

If you are coming to Kyoto and want to know more about sake, and especially if you want to find the right sake for you, do take Kotaro’s Sake Master Class. I promise, you will never need another sake tasting again!

Disclaimer: I received a free sake experience in return for an honest review. A much shorter version of this will be posted on What’s up in Kyoto as well.

Shiso Sparkling

Shiso SparklingShiso is the Japanese name for perilla, a plant of the mint variety with a strong and distinctive taste. The leaves are about the size of a palm and green. Usually, shiso is served raw with sushi and sashimi, and also used in other dishes. There is also a red variety of shiso leaves, but they are not usually eaten, but used as ingredients in making umeboshi, for example, mainly for the flavour and colour.

Recently, I came across Shiso Sparkling, an alcoholic drink made with (of?) red shiso leaves, and of course, I had to try this. It does have a refreshing minty taste, but it is not overwhelming, and the extra bubbles make this very quaffable. It’s nice to drink on the rocks, so more of a summer drink, and for those who want to go the extra mile, maybe top it off with a mint leaf?

Tirol

There are new sweets on sale at my supermarket. And they have the enticing name of “Tirol” (a federal state in Austria). And since they appeared to be chocolate tarts… You see where this is going:

Tirol Chocolate TartsThey are nice, with a very rich chocolate taste, so there will be more to come even though they are pretty small. The one thing I don’t understand is the Tirol connection. Especially since most Japanese wouldn’t know the name – the only two places they know about Austria are Vienna and Salzburg. But I guess it’s just like with so many things used for advertising in Japan – as long as they look and sound cool, anything goes…

Going Out

Last Thursday, one of my English students took me out to one of his favourite restaurants in town. It was a relatively large restaurant in inner city, with three storeys of different sized rooms, and we took a small private compartment on the first floor. The restaurant (sorry, I forgot its name and didn’t take a business card either) boasts 100 different dishes, from the very simple kara age fried chicken available at food stalls at every festival to the most elaborate Japanese dishes.

We – or rather, my student, because I have no idea about Japanese food – chose a la carte and ate a seven course meal, together with a large bottle of (cold) sake. I wrote down the name of every dish, so I could remember it, and below I am sharing a few pictures. We did eat faster than I could take photos, sorry ’bout that.

We started out with sashimi, of course, and hari hari salad, a kind of vegetable. sashimi and harihari saladThen we had kara age, fried chicken, and, popular among the Japanese, beef in red wine sauce together with fried potatoes and onions (which were very tasty). kara age and red wine beefMy student also ordered tomorokoshi, fried corn, he said it reminded him of his grandmother who made this dish very often just for him. The most exciting dish, however, was tai no kabuto, sea bream’s head (literally: tai’s helmet). I love fish in general, and tai is one of the dishes that are served on very special occasions when people have reason to celebrate. That’s why this fish is sometimes jokingly called omedettai (omedetto means congratulations). tai no kabuto - tai's helmetAs the final dish, we had ochazuke with salmon. Ochazuke is simply rice with green tea, and if you are served this soup by somebody in Kyoto, it is a more or less covert way of telling you to get up and leave. Obviously, the meaning is different if you order it yourself in a restaurant, but it is still supposed to be the last dish of the evening. ochazukeI had a lovely evening, my student is very knowledgeable about Japanese history, and we had a lot of fun together. I really hope we can do this again soon, he certainly did promise…

Tempura

TempuraTempura is probably the best known Japanese dish after sushi and sashimi. It should be relatively easy to make: cut the veggies, throw in batter, fry in hot oil, but what I have heard, it appears to be rather tricky to get the consistency and taste just right.

To be honest, at this point, I have not tried making tempura myself. However, I did look up tempura recipes, and one of them is now on the Washoku page for Japanese food.

Enjoy – and let me know how it turned out!