Niigata is arguably Japan’s home of rice and nihonshu, or as many of us like to call it, sake. You see, sake really refers to any liquor, whereas nihonshu more specific to rice wine.
Last month, I traveled to Niigata to check out the food scene for a long weekend. Unbeknownst to me, there was a particularly unique spot to indulge in the region’s most famous alcohol. It’s called Ponshukan, and it’s a place to try a variety of nihonshu from throughout Niigata prefecture.
Why are New York bagels so renowned?
Some say it’s the water.
Is that the reason why Asahi Shuzo, the Iwakuni-based liquor company, is opening Japan’s first ever plant on the East Coast of the United States?
Nah, but according to CEO Kazuhiro Sakurai, the goal is to not only tap into the large U.S. market, but also to present sake as a great pairing for cuisines other than Japanese.
Great, now I’m envisioning bagels and sake as the new brunch mash-up for 2023.
The seven billion yen (~$53 million) facility will be located in Hyde Park in upstate New York, close to the Culinary Institute of America, and will offer tours and tastings to the public. Furthermore, domestic sake sales in Japan have been on the decline for years, China and the United States have been two massive growth markets for the industry. Consequently, the Hyde Park brewery will have 52 5,000 liter tanks, using a type of rice called Yamadanishiki grown in Japan and Arkansas.
Interestingly, Asahishuzo has created a sake just for the North America, called Dassai Blue. The name dassai means “otter festival,” which alludes to the fact that otters used to display their catches everyday on the water’s edge. A Japanese poet by the name of Shiki Masaoka adopted the name dassai because he would scatter his papers around his room. The “blue” part of the name comes from a Japanese proverb that talks about how blue dye comes from indigo plants, although that color is even more blue than indigo itself. Thus, the idea is that child should do better in life than the parent, regarding Asahishuzo’s desire to keep creating superlative products.
Dassai Blue is a type of junmai ginjo. What does that mean? Sake is classified by how much a grain of rice is polished before brewing; roughly, the more rice is polished, the more aromatic the sake becomes. Junmai ginjo refers to sake that has been polished no less than 60%.
What’s your favorite sake, and have you tried any produced in the United States?
Is this the durian of the protein world?
Stinky tofu, that Taiwanese cheap eats classic purportedly created by accident in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), has no shame. A tofu merchant apparently left his bean curd in a vegetable brine for too long; what resulted in that barrel hundreds of years ago is what you smell today. Not literally, but it’s close.
I first tried it in Shenzhen, China about 17 years ago, and couldn’t deal; it was an acquired taste to be sure. But sometimes you gotta give a food another shot.
Of course, there are countless foods considered to be acquired tastes — with stinky tofu being one of them — but I tend to think that kæstur hákarl, the fermented Icelandic shark dish that smells of ammonia, has it beat. Although I haven’t tried kæstur hákarl, I also haven’t found any desire to sip whatever is under my sink.
Which is to say, stinky tofu isn’t that bad. The aroma is off-putting — if you’re out and about in Taiwan, it’s a night market staple, and a street food tradition. If you want to try it but just can’t do that first bite, add some pepper, chili sauce, or some other condiment of your choice. <<I haven’t found the same solution for a bite of durian.>>
In short, stinky tofu may not be durian, but they do share at least one thing in common.
They could both really use deodorant.
Ketoprak, one of my favorite street foods, may not be as common a sight at the kaki lima (street carts) dotting Jakarta as satay, or nasgor (nasi goreng = fried rice). But given the scale of the city, it’s out there, waiting for you by a clogged canal, randomly neon-lit bridge, or a group of mischievous cats.
Ketoprak — not to be confused with the Javanese theater style of the same name — is a vegetarian dish amply covered in protein; fellow omnivores might want to add some satay to really raise the bar. It consists of peanut sauce, aka bumbu kacang, fried tofu, lontong (banana leaf-packed rice cakes), bihun (rice vermicelli), taoge (bean sprouts), garlic, palm sugar, fried onions/shallots, and if you’re lucky, an egg or two. Slosh all of that fun stuff around, dip in some krupuk, or shrimp crackers, and you’ve got some filling Indonesian cheap eats.
And if you’re like, naively asking for pedas banget — extra spicy — you’ll be glad cucumber slices accompany the meal on the side.
Have you ever tried ketoprak? What are your favorite Indonesian street foods?
Many a time I’ve tried to like durians, but it just doesn’t happen … then again, it’s not as if there’s a rule saying I should.
Nevertheless, I’ve had it fresh, in a shake, in a cake, as lempuk, with all resulting in failure. And it’s not even the awful odor that does me in — I’ve generally eaten it in places that smell a lot worse.
With that displeasing transition in tow, I present to you, Jakarta, Indonesia. Jakarta is one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been, but like many other cities, it takes some patience to get to the good eats. They are expanding their metro system and other forms of public transit, which is good, but it also makes the metropolis’ infamous traffic that much worse.
In short, getting to Jalan Raya Mangga Besar, or what I have deemed to be durian street (at least at nighttime), is vexing. Located in the northern part of the city relatively close to the old Dutch fort Fatahillah, and Jakarta’s Chinatown — near where a lot of the metro construction is happening — Jalan Raya Mangga Besar is busy during the day, but really buzzes at night with lots and lots of street food.
It’s also where you can find stall after stall of durian, the spiky fruit native to Kalimantan and Sumatra, Indonesia, among other countries in Southeast Asia.
As it had been a few years since my last taste of something better suited for college mischief than human consumption, I took a walk along “durian street” for a small, small nibble:
Spicy Seafood and Chicken with Cashews, Bangkok ‘Flavorful’ Restaurant, Thailand
How do you choose where to eat in Bangkok, a place where it sometimes feels as if there are more food sellers than anything else? To wit, shopping centers have multiple levels with restaurants, and sometimes across from those restaurants there’s a warren of food vendors with snacks. Streets are teeming with a range of stir-fry, stews, cut fruit, and grilled mysteries, and supermarkets are as diversely stocked as the city’s nightclubs and tuk-tuks.
With so many choices in the Thai capital, I finally gave up on rolling the dice, and searched recommendations for eating out.
A long walk down Sukhumvit, one of the busiest thoroughfares in Bangkok, took me to Flavorful restaurant, in the On Nut neighborhood.
Nondescript and standard issue the façade may be, Flavorful looks like the average casual Bangkok restaurant. But it’s never the superficialities that determine where I eat, it’s the food!
I’ve long been a fan of mackerel and bibimbap, so to discover a marriage of the two in an ostensibly random Japanese city was a delicious coincidence.
Availing of the the Hokuriku Area Pass, a 4-day Japan Railways train ticket that covered many hotspots in Ishikawa, Toyama, and Fukui prefectures, I took a day trip from Kanazawa to Obama, a port city in Fukui.
Historically, this region was called Wakasa (若狭), which held a prime location on Wakasa Bay. For hundreds of years, it supplied Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital of Japan, with abundant seafood. Together with Awaji province (present-day Hyogo prefecture) and Shima province (today’s Mie prefecture), Wakasa was one of Kyoto’s miketsukuni, basically the food pantry.
In particular, mackerel, or saba (鯖) in Japanese, was very popular at the time, so much so that the route from Obama to Kyoto came to be known as the “mackerel highway,” or saba kaido (鯖街道).
With such a prominent local delicacy — actually, due to overfishing, Japan has been importing mackerel for decades — I found out that one of Obama’s most famous dishes was called 鯖ンバ, or sabanba.
OK, so it’s not such a well-known meal — never mind that the one restaurant serving it, Yamato-an, is best known for tonkatsu, or fried pork cutlets — and let’s not forget that the dish is a fusion of Japanese food and Korean food. (link in Japanese) The manager at the time was fond of bibimbap, the Korean comfort food of mixed rice, vegetables, and an egg, so the epiphany came to add mackerel to it.
In Japan, sabanba falls under the category of B級グルメ, or B-grade gourmet. That is, it’s a dish with inexpensive ingredients and mass appeal. Regardless of that appellation, sabanba is still a fun, tasty, and variegated meal that spotlights one locally historic ingredient.
Generally speaking, I’m not a beer drinker. But I am easily duped by gimmicky foods and drinks to try. A recent stay in Japan, one of my top three culinary countries (thus far), reminded me of the emphasis on seasonality of ingredients in Japanese cuisine, as well as how carried away some places get when they’re famous for a particular edible.
Yes, getting carried away is a popular theme throughout the country, so there’s no better place to start than one of my coolest day trips in recent memory, the Daio Wasabi Farm (大王わさび農場), located in Hotaka, Nagano prefecture. I will do more of a detailed post on this place at a later time, but for now, take everything that you believe to be the true flavor of wasabi, and hurl it out the window.
And if someone offers you wasabeer, ehem, wasabi beer, staunchly reject it.
Ah, so we’ve already located the gimmick … right? Time will tell.
Yes, wasabi beer was one of a number of unusual offerings at the farm, tinted green, and flecked with grated wasabi. It had a little bite, but it didn’t help that the flavor of the beer itself was not so pleasant. Still, you go in with an open mind, and you leave for the first time with a simultaneous hangover and nasal decongestant.
Following that brush with Japan’s most famous rhizome, it was time to move on to more stable beer choices. Continuing with the theme of trying regional food, a three-night stay at the Tateshina Shinyu Onsen in Chino, Nagano prefecture both reintroduced me to the joys of sampling nihonshu (日本酒), or what we call in the west as sake, and introduced me to rhubarb beer.
Rhubarb, I hardly know ye. Outside of a pie, I may have only tried your sour root once. However, your flavor lends itself quite well to fill a stein.
Yatsugatake Rhubarb House produced this particular brand, using rhubarb grown at the foot of the Southern Yatsugatake mountain range (link in Japanese). Uncommonly known as the “lemon of the field,” rhubarb, being quite tart, is most commonly use in sauces, dressings, and jams. Though, since beer often has a sour note, I’d say rhubarb was a pretty good flavor profile for this unexpected pairing.
Moving along to the last of the three unusual beers, let’s hoof it to Kanazawa, the largest city in Ishikawa prefecture, on the Sea of Japan. Now, this ingredient is much more widely known, grown, eaten, and imbibed around the world, but usually it’s a glass of wine.
That’s right, I’m talking about grape beer.
In a quest to try the elusive — and expensive — Ruby Roman grape, I visited the Budou no Mori vineyard and restaurant in the Morimoto neighborhood of Kanazawa. Even though I failed in my search that time, I still had a delicious buffet of autumnal specialties, a grape parfait, and yes, even grape beer.
The description on the menu above reads that the grape beer is the pride of Budou no Mori (which means “grape forest”), and is a harmony of the sweetness and slight bitterness of grapes. I’d have to say that description was spot-on, and formed a tie with the rhubarb beer as my favorite of the three (not that wasabi beer ever had much of a chance). Come to think of it, it might as well have been a dessert beer, so I wonder which types of grapes were used.
Would you try any/all of these three beers?