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!

Anyway, 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 (sweeter and more fruity) the resulting sake. The highest grade for sake, daiginjo, has a polishing rate of 50% or more.

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.

Technically, 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.

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).

In the second round, the same sake was paired with different types of food, and here it shows that Kotaro was 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.

Altogether, 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. Don’t worry about the price, I promise you that 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!

Katsudon

Time for another recipe!

I am so proud: I have learnt how to make katsudon! Katsudon is short for tonkatsu donburi, which essentially is a tonkatsu pork cutlet on top of a bowl of rice. It is easy and quick to make, a kind of Japanese comfort food if you want so.

Bonus for Austrians: Tonkatsu is essentially a very thick Wienerschnitzel, so if you ever have leftover Schnitzels, this is what you can do with it on the next day (if you’re not putting it into a Semmel, of course).

Enjoy!

Soboro Don

I keep trying how to make Japanese dishes, but I’m still rather timid and stick to the basics. Besides, I neither have time nor patience to stand in the kitchen for hours on end like many Japanese women do, so that’s another reason to keep it simple.

Donburi fits the bill perfectly, it’s nothing but a simple bowl of rice with different toppings. I have just learned how to make soboro don, a very simple dish with rice, meat, and eggs, with a cooking time of maybe 10 minutes or so (not including boiling the rice).

Actually, I thought this particular dish was called “oyako don” – mother and child donburi – because it is chicken meat and eggs; but oyako don is a bit more elaborate, boiling the meat in dashi. This also sounds nice though, so I promise to try it soon.

Anyway, find a quick recipe for soboro don on my washoku page for Japanese food. Enjoy!

Matcha Presso

Suntory's Matcha PressoIn Japan, matcha – powdered green tea – is a ubiquituous ingredient in all sorts of sweets: there is matcha Baumkuchen, matcha chocolate, matcha ice cream, even matcha kitkat. And recently, I came across matcha liqueur.

It is made by Suntory and called Matcha Presso. In fact, the name is well-chosen, since the drink is very strong (14% alcohol) and very sweet. And it’s almost pitch black! When poured out of the bottle, it looks like dark coffee, but when adding ice cubes – Suntory recommends to drink it on the rocks – the distinctive bright green matcha color becomes visible immediately.

Since it is so sweet, it’s not a drink to sip on all evening, but a little glass every now and then is a treat a real matcha fan would not decline…

Maguro

In Japan, tunafish is the most popular fish for sushi and sashimi. Large tunafish can sell at auctions for thousands of US$, and the carving of a tunafish into bite sized pieces is an attraction that draws lots of people every time. Thanks to Japan being an island, fish is popular and ubiquitous, and most people buy their tuna – fish in general – raw and cook it themselves.

In the West, tunafish is much less attractive. Of course, it is eaten often, but not many people have ever seen anything else than the cooked pieces that are drowned in oil and packed in cans. In fact, this kind of canned tuna also exists in Japan, of course, but here it is called “sea chicken” for some reason.

The best way to cook tuna – according to a Japanese tuna salesman I asked – is to grill it very lightly so that it is still raw in the middle, just like good steak. But the most delicious way to eat tunafish is as sushi or sashimi because only there the delicate taste comes out as it should. What many people don’t realise is that tunafish tastes differently depending on which part of the fish is eaten. After all, a grown tuna can be up to one metre long, that’s a lot of meat!

3 types of maguro sushiWhen eating sushi, there are essentially three types of tuna available: Maguro sushi is the most common, and this is usually what is served abroad as well. It is dark red, comes from the fish’s back near the spine and is the leanest type of tuna. Pieces from the belly are called Otoro, their color is light pink because they contain a lot of fat. Often, otoro pieces are marbled like good beef, and they are so tender that they melt easily on the tongue. The taste is quite oily though, not everybody likes that. A bit more to the inside of the belly of the fish are the pieces called chutoro (written with the Kanji for “middle”). They are pretty much in the middle between maguro and otoro, in taste, fat content, and in color.

Interestingly, otoro is the most expensive part of a tuna fish, at least of the parts that are eaten as sushi. For the average Westerner this must sound strange – just imagine all that fat! – but the Japanese don’t mind fat that much, and otoro is very tasty indeed. If you have a chance somewhere at a sushi bar to try out all three kinds of tuna cuts, do so! You will not be disappointed, promised!

Mitarashi Dango

Staying with the theme of last Thursday, let’s introduce more Japanese food: mitarashi dango.

Dango are little Japanese dumplings made from rice flour. They are similar to mochi, but mochi are much softer and sweeter than the dango. Dango are usually boiled in water and then skewered in groups of three to five.

Except for the hanami dango that are sold during cherry blossom season and come in three flavours (cherry, green tea, and plain), the dango themselves are usually plain and don’t have much taste. The flavour comes by adding a sauce to the skewered dango, and you can have anything on top from a layer of anko (red bean paste), to a chestnut paste, kinako (roasted soy flour), or sesame seeds.

A set of three mitarashi dango skewersIf you first boil and then grill the dango over a fire and finally cover them with a sweet sauce made of sugar, water, rice vinegar, and soy sauce, you get mitarashi dango. Their origin goes back to the mitarashi festival of Shimogamo shrine, where a family offered the first skewered dango to the gods. Their round shape is meant to resemble the bubbles that form in the shrine’s Mitarashi pond, and that there are usually five to one skewer is explained by the fact that the top dango counts as the head, and the lower four as the arms and legs of a human.

Nowadays, mitarashi dango are sold all over Japan, and especially in summer they are very popular. However, there is a very old mitarashi dango shop nearby Shimogamo shrine, and it is said that the first mitarashi dango were made there. Whether this is true or not, it is certainly a nice story, and I think I might just go and visit that particular shop to try the original.