A Sake Buffet in Niigata, Japan

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.

First Major Japanese Sake Company Opening on the U.S. East Coast

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.

Asahi Shuzo Hyde Park New York
Asahi Shuzo Hyde Park New York (Source: https://www.asahishuzo.ne.jp/dassaiblue/)

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?

Find the Gimmick: A Taste of Three Unusual Japanese Beers

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 HotakaNagano 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.

Japanese wasabi beer
Wasabi Beer (わさびビール), Daio Wasabi Farm, Hotaka, Japan

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.

Japanese rhubarb beer
Rhubarb Beer (ルバーブビール), Tateshina Shinyu Onsen, Chino, Japan

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.

Japanese grape beer
Grape Beer (ぶどうビール), Budou no Mori, Kanazawa, Japan

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?

Avocado Coffee (Da Nang, Vietnam)

It amuses me that one of the things I was most looking forward to having again in Vietnam was the coffee. I rarely drink the stuff outside of when trying to overcome jet lag, yet still have good memories of quotidian cups of cà phê (coffee, in Vietnamese) from having visited Hanoi and Ha Long Bay a few years ago.

Thus, in the world’s second-largest producer of coffee — after Brazil — it was difficult to narrow-down the first café to visit in Da Nang (or Danang), in central Vietnam. Indeed, coffee culture is very strong in this part of Southeast Asia, with numerous cafes trying to outcompete each other with comfortable chairs, small gardens, koi ponds, and plenty of outdoor seating.

In spite of the fierce competition, I went with a place called H Coffee, not far from the beach and boardwalk hugging the East Vietnam Sea.

How did I choose it? Simple … avocado coffee.

As some of you might know, I’m a big fan of avocados. Frequent travels to Mexico in the past few years might have help my case. However, I’ve never seen avocado and coffee combined in Mexico.

Owing to the French introduction of trái bơ (avocado, in Vietnamese) to Vietnam in 1940, fellow aguacate fanatics can rejoice in this recent addition to the Vietnamese drinks scene:

avocado coffee espresso vietnam
Avocado Coffee, H Coffee, Da Nang, Vietnam

Hold up, that doesn’t look like avocado coffee. I see avocado ice cream (with condensed milk inside), and an espresso. It’s more like an avocado affogato; try to say that three times fast.
For those unfamiliar with an affogato, you take the espresso and slowly pour it over the ice cream. Done! In!

Was it delicious? Of course. Should I have ordered again the next day? If it weren’t for the flooded streets, I would have!


Might you be interested in an avocado coffee mash-up?

Baikal (Байкал), the Soviet Coca-Cola?

Baikal (known in Russian as Байкал “bai-kal”), was first created in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s’  partially as a response to Coca Cola’s rapidly expanding presence throughout the world.  Although Coca Cola wasn’t even being sold in the country at the time – even Pepsi beat them to the punch – Baikal’s producers wanted to instill pride in the nation. Thus, they adopted the name Baikal, showing deference to the storied Siberian lake, the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume.

How would I describe the flavor?  Different.  It had a hint of coniferous tree, processed sugar, and some unusual mix of herbs which I couldn’t quite place at the time.  Apparently, Baikal’s ingredients include black tea extract, lemon oil, cardamom oil, eucalyptus oil -what?  can we even consume this one? – and eleutherococcus senticosus, aka Siberian ginseng aka devil’s bush, known to be both an adaptogen and part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

You may not think of Russia these days as a soda powerhouse, and that’s possibly because you didn’t grow up in the Soviet Union, or in a Russian-speaking neighborhood.  They’ve got quite a loyal following for some drinks – if I can find the picture, I will also write about the neon green tarragon-flavored soda – and the flavors from decades ago sound equally tantalizing.


Does pine-flavored soda intrigue you?  Or, have you given up on sodas all together and go straight for the sugar packets?

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways (Mérida, México)

A few years ago, I took a road trip with some friends around southeastern Mexico, starting and ending in Orizaba, Veracruz, ultimately getting as far as Cancun.  As I may have mentioned before, Mexico – thus far – is one of my top three countries for eating…thus, I was not only looking forward to exploring more of the country with locals, but also to trying new and familiar foods along the way.

For instance, there’s chocolate.  I’ve wondered why Mexican chocolate doesn’t get much attention around the world, in spite of being the ancestral home of Theobroma cacao, the Latin name for the original cacao tree.  Of course, colonial empires and globalization have played a role in spreading the harvesting of cacao throughout many tropical countries, namely the Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

Fast forward to my road trip, and the city of Mérida, located in the state of Yucatan.  Although counting nearly one million inhabitants in its metro area, its downtown area has a cozy feel to it.  Mérida is hot year-round, has boulevards lined with mansions built almost entirely thanks to rope, and owing to Mayan tradition, unique foods found nowhere else in Mexico.

Plus, due to its recognition as being one of the safest cities in the country and with that, a sizable expat population, they’ve got some fine places eat and drink.  Places like Ki’XOCOLATL, a small chocolate shop adjacent to Santa Lucia Park.

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways, Ki’XOCOLATL (from left to right, “brown sugar, cinnamon, achiote, allspice, and habanero;” honey is in the container on the central plate)

Though there are some debates as to the origins of the word chocolate, it no doubt stems from Nahuatl, a language spoken for centuries in rural parts of central Mexico; xocolia means “to make bitter,” and atl refers to “water.”

When it was first discovered nearly 4000 years ago by pre-Olmec cultures, it was consumed in its naturally bitter state, ground into a paste with water.  Subsequent civilizations started to add in what was organically found at the time in Mexican jungles and rain forests, namely honey, chilies, and vanilla.

After a long stroll through downtown Merida, I wanted to sit down and relax with some sweets.  Ki’XOCOLATL offered hot chocolate, two ways, I as I deem it.  The first method was the contemporary style, sweetened with sugar.  The latter, evoking how Olmecs and Mayans may have enjoyed it, started off by merely being the bitter cacao seed heated up with water.  The waiter served it alongside honey, brown sugar, achiote – a yellow-orange seed typically used to add color to foods, allspice, habanero, and cinnamon, although cinnamon hails from Sri Lanka.

Although the ancient hot chocolate took a bit of getting used to, I admit that the modern one was the best cup of it I have ever tried.


Where did you have your favorite cup of hot chocolate?  Whether it was in Mexico or somewhere else, let me know!

Tejuino (Mexico)

It may not be well-known outside of that region, but that’s the point; going all-in on new (for me) discoveries to share (with you) is one of the cornerstones of Finding Food Fluency.

Today’s spotlight may taste like a coarse tamarind shake — i.e. something sweet and sour — but there’s none of that legume floating anywhere near this Mexican drink.

Tejuino, a Prehispanic drink attributed to the Nahuas people of northwestern and central Mexico — roughly, Colima, Jalisco, Nayarit, and Sinaloa — comes from the Nahuatl word tecuín meaning “to beat/palpitate.” It is used for ceremonial purposes by the Yaqui of Sonora and the Tarahumara of Chihuahua as offerings to sacred deities; you may even see it consumed at a typical Mexican fiesta in Jalisco and Nayarit.

Tejuino Culiacán Mexico
Tejuino at a Street Stall, Culiacán, Mexico

I encountered tejuino for the first time in Culiacán, Sinaloa. Having no idea what it was, I further went down the rabbit hole by trying it at a street stall where everything was baking in the sun.

And yes, tejuino is an alcoholic beverage, though has a low alcohol content.

Although some of its ingredients may vary depending on who’s preparing it, tejuino counts as its staples corn masa — you know, the stuff used to make tortillas, piloncillo/panela — that is, unrefined cane sugar, water, and a small amount of lime juice. Boil it all, let it chill out for a bit, then cover it with something breathable. Fermentation will happen, and then you’re done!

What was a bit odd about this street stall was that after trying it as is, the vendor insisted on adding a little Squirt Soda to the tejuino. Honestly, I wasn’t a fan of it either way, and in that heat I was that much worse off. Nevertheless, I’d try it again … at a restaurant, when not on a 10-mile trek!

Bom Apetite! A Bunch of Brazilian Bites

Since my first visit to Brazil in 2007, it occurred to me that I still didn’t know much about the culinary landscape in that massive country.  Sure, there’s the crowd-pleasing açaí, and the churrascaria that makes you walk at a 90-degree angle after indulging a bit too much, but what else is there?  A second visit to Brazil in 2016, via Manaus to visit Iguazu Falls and Rio de Janeiro, helped me learn just a bit more about the vast Brazilian culinary landscape.

Manaus, Brazil - Cupuaçu Juice
How nice of them to place it in a measuring cup; is that how nutrition labels are done in Brazil?

As I mentioned above, my layover in Manaus – the largest city in the Amazon basin – was not only long, but also from 22:30 ’til about 05:00.  With those hours, and without having visited the city before, I decided to wander around the mostly deserted streets looking for snacks to check off the list.

Finally, I ended up at some casual late-night outdoor cafeteria with a welcome list of tropical fruit juices and shakes.  Though acerola was tempting, it’s rather easy to find added to drinks in Japanese convenience stores.  So, cupuaçusem/não açúcar (without/no sugar, as usual) was the easy choice.

It wasn’t a terribly memorable flavor though.  Somewhat creamy, slightly sweet and sour, but nothing too inspired.  What the heck, Amazon??  Even the Brazilian tap water had more going on.

Next.

Pão de Queijo Manaus Brazil
Pão de Queijo, Manaus Airport, Brazil

Pão de queijo, aka cheese bread, usually made from cassava flour and Minas cheese.

This is by no means an ad for the above chain; it wasn’t good.  However, it’s my only surviving photo of pão de queijo, taken at a time where sleep had been missing from my schedule for nearly 36 hours.

In short, they’re savory.  They’re addictive.  They’re unhealthy.  Demorou! (Heck, yeah!)

No wonder they made it onto the list.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Brigadeiro
Brigadeiros desserts in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

BrigadeirosSupposedly, they were created at a time when fresh milk and sugar were hard to come by, so someone decided to mix sweetened condensed milk, butter, and chocolate.  But then, what was in the chocolate?

In any event, these too, are difficult to stop eating.  If they were all mashed together into one giant pie, I wouldn’t have even tried them this time.  Damn their convenient take-away size.

Tapioca Vegetarian Sandwich Açai Shake
Tapioca Vegetarian Sandwich and Açai Shake, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A couple of friends had mentioned that I should check out a casual Rio chain called polis sucos to have a glass of açaí.

After trying it a few times during that trip, I really didn’t take to açaí. The flavor transported me more to the Pacific Northwest of the US – which is usually a good thing for food – than to anywhere tropical, though it was by no means as dull as the cupuaçu.  Also, the tapioca sandwich was grainy and probably has a cousin in sandpaper.

Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil - Churrascaria
Churrascaria (Brazilian All-You-Can-Eat), Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil

Thankfully, the exchange rate between US dollars and Brazilian reais was still favorable.  Consequently, I had to try one of the all-you-can-eat barbecue places.  In addition to the numerous cuts/types of meat, they also had some Lebanese/Syrian and Japanese items, likely due A) to the influences on Brazil by immigrants from those countries, and B) to common places of origin of tourists.  The drink is cashew apple juice.


Do you think a comida foi na moral (the food was better than expected)? What would you try?

Kvint Brandy, Transnistria’s Most Popular Culinary Export

Sadly, Transnistria has been in the news lately vis-a-vis the heart-wrenching conflict in Ukraine. I’ve written this post simply to introduce to you Transnistria’s chief export, Kvint brandy, which is so popular that it even makes an appearance on their currency.

While traveling through Eastern Europe a few years ago, I ended up in Chisinau (or Kishinev), the capital of Moldova.  It’s a small but busy city in the former Soviet republic, in which Romanian and Russian are the principal languages– Romanian due to its ethnic and historical ties to the region of Bessarabia, and Russian for its annexation by the Soviet Union.

Using Chisinau as my base, I looked in to possible day trips; after a brief search, one particularly unique locale popped up: Transnistria.

It was an anachronistic trip to Transnistria’s capital, Tiraspol, given the Soviet-era monuments and buildings, but this is a blog about food and drink, right?  Indeed…and it’s time to introduce Transnistria’s most famous culinary export, Kvint brandy.

KVINT -an acronym which translates to “divins, wines, and beverages of Tiraspol” – was founded in 1897 as Moldovan producer of wine and vodka.  Divin is an abbreviated way of saying brandy (from the Romanian phrase “distilat de vin), with a pun taken from the Romanian word divin signifying “divine” or “marvelous.”

KVINT introduced brandy to its collection in 1938, and has since formed quite the formidable presence in Transnistria, accounting for 4-5% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP)!

The company is now owned by a local conglomerate called Sheriff, which runs everything from supermarkets to the recently successful football club Sheriff Tiraspol.

To show its national appreciation to KVINT, I guess, the central Transnistrian bank added its headquarters to the back of its 5-ruble banknote:

To add a personal anecdote to the backgrounder, when I first made it to Tiraspol, I went to a Sheriff market looking for a bottle, having been tipped off to the brandy from a nice hotel worker in Chisinau.

Long story short, a few older women chuckled at me as I wandered the streets of the Transnistrian capital, brandy in one hand, camera in the other.

%d bloggers like this: