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?

The Land of Rice and Sake: A Small Feast from Joetsu, Niigata, Japan

It’s true. Of all the potential prefectures (roughly states/provinces) in Japan to be considered the “land of rice and sake,” Niigata often leads the pack. Of course, it helps that sake, the quintessential Japanese liquor enjoyed warm or chilled, is made from rice … indeed, according to one source, Niigata prefecture regularly vies with Hokkaido for the top spot in rice-paddy yield, and total area dedicated to rice-paddy cultivation.

Thus, with all of this hubbub about being one of the culinary centers of Japan, not just for rice and sake but for seafood, hot sauce(called Kanzuri; link in Japanese) and even B kyuu gurume, I decided to take a day trip from Kanazawa to Joetsu city Joetsu (上越市).

Hopping on the Hakutaka shinkansen, or bullet train, in Kanazawa, I made it to Joetsu about 50 minutes later. After walking a couple of miles to Takada Castle to check out its lily ponds, and a stop at a secondhand shop to rummage through bygone electronics, my hunger pangs led me to a restaurant called Gunchan. (Note: I generally don’t care about restaurant reviews, because I’m the only one with my taste buds. This particular branch gets a low rating online, so I guess my delicious meal was an off day?)

Niigata cuisine Joetsu Japan
Gunchan Restaurant, Jouetsu, Niigata Prefecture, Japan

CRAB MISO soup, seasonal fish sashimi and tempura, and a brisk glass of regional sake were just some of the highlights. Suffice it to say, I’d go back.

During My Last Visit to Japan, I Had Poisonous Fish

In the wide world of Japanese cuisine, Shimonoseki, Japan is particularly famous for something particularly controversial:

Shimonoseki - Sewer Cover fugu
Manhole Cover with Fugu Design in Shimonoseki, Japan

Blowfish.  Pufferfish.  Swellfish.  Delicacy.  Jimmy.  No matter what you call it, there are still…plenty of other words to call it.

River pig (河豚).   鰒/フグ, pronounced fuguふく fuku, which means “good fortune” and which serves as a pun on fugu, the official name for the venomous fish.

Hire me to remove the eyes, ovaries, and in particular the liver, and you won’t be around to read my next post.  Nor will I.  I’ll be in jail.  You really need to find the right chef at the right time.  Or, cower out and try the poison-free version.

Shimonoseki isn’t shy about its most famous resident.  I had never tried fugu before visiting that city, but a visit to one of Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores, called konbini, changed all of that:

Shimonoseki - convenience store fugu
Convenience store (konbini) fugu! — There really was a slight tingling sensation after taking a bite

Do Japanese convenience stores keep humans in mind? Fugu, bread stuffed with chocolate and margarine and pocket-sized cans of sake really make you wonder if we are their main source of revenue.  Then again, have you ever had the displeasure of breathing in at a 7-11 in the US?  Those stores must be one of the many layers of Buddhist hell.

For a short history lesson, immediately following the end of the Meiji Era (~1868-1912), Shimonoseki was the first city in the country to allow legal consumption of fugu. It’s not even the region where most fugu are caught; yet, due to its trend-setting stance on allowing people to eat blowfish, Shimonseki became the venomous fish’s main distribution port.

Anyway, let’s take a brief tour of Shimonoseki.

Shimonoseki - Karato Market exterior
Exterior Shot of Karato Market, Shimonoseki, Japan

Japan’s most famous fish/wholesale market is undoubtedly Tsukiji Ichiba (市場/いちば/ichiba = market), located in Tokyo.  However, for a much more relaxing yet equally delicious market visit, check out Karato Ichiba in Shimonoseki.

For which marine product are they most famous?

Take a wild guess.

Shimonoseki - Karato Market fugu sculpture
Is that a float? Imagine that during Mardi Gras

That’s English for fugu, and Japanese for fugu.

canned fugu supermarket
Canned Fugu and Whale Curry in a Shimonoseki Souvenir Shop

Someone went a little overboard here.  Fugu (Japanese-style) curry, boiled fugu in a can, raw fugu in a can, even whale curry tags along…who says Japan and China aren’t alike?

Would you try fugu?  What if it were a birthday gift?

Airline Meals, Part Two: But is it Art?

In my first piece on airline meals, I explored a few in-flight meals that I tried in 2018 and 2019, just prior to the pandemic.  With certain countries remaining stubbornly shut, the photos of plane food have  bizarrely become my last memories of parts of East Asia.

Maybe that should serve as a lesson to not take so many airline meal photos.

In any event, they don’t all — bad pun incoming — leave a bad taste in the mouth.  In fact, some of the airline food is downright decent, and occasionally merit consideration for display at a culinary institute.  Or a five-star restaurant.

Or even an art museum.  Enter, the Japanese fish ball.

Known in Japan as つみれ (tsumire), they were introduced from China centuries ago, mostly likely from traders originating in the present-day provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.  With any luck, the main ingredient is fish, typically horse mackerel and sardines; miso paste, egg, and leek commonly round out the rest of the recipe.  Then, the mix is rolled up into dumplings and boiled.

That’s all fine and good, until you fly with Japan Airlines.

From the country that brought us white bread stuffed with mochi, and a cartoon character named after a fish paste named after a whirlpool,  I present the multicolored tsumire.

rainbow fishball soup
Multicolored Fishball Soup, Japan Airlines Business Class

Like Jules Verne, I’m aware that there are countless undiscovered species swimming around our oceans and inside our water bottles.  Let’s be real, though– was there really a need to dye one fish ball, let alone an entire bowl of them?

n.b. it was Japanese food after all, so I finished the whole damn thing.

Have you ever encountered Roy G. Biv in your meals?

Not Ice Cream, But Ice Crin (Japan)

While studying abroad in Tokyo years ago, thanks to an article in an expat magazine, I had come across Namjatown, in the district of Ikebukuro.  Namjatown was a theme park, with carnival games, arcade consoles, and food-themed areas, namely a gyoza (dumpling) section, and an ice cream “stadium.”

Ice Cream Stadium used to have flavors such as “salad,” “garlic,” and “beef tongue.”

Namjatown is still there, though greatly diminished both in quality and quantity.  That is to say, as much as I love eating gyoza, what really sold it was the ice cream  stadium, which no longer exists.

Viper (マムシ mamushi) Ice Cream

Ironically, I don’t eat ice cream much – it’s too good.  But just as I would to unique flavors of other foods, I acquiesce to seldom seen flavors of ice cream.

Kudzu (Arrowroot) Soft-Serve Ice Cream, Nara, Japan

Take Yoshino Hon Kuzu (吉野本葛) as one example.  Whereas to botanists in the Southern US, it’s an invasive species, to chefs, it’s a horse of a different color.  Kuzu, kudzu, or arrowroot, is a tuber best known as a thickener for soups and sauces, and as a primary ingredient in wagashi (わがし 和菓子), or traditional Japanese sweets customarily eaten with tea.

Fast-forward to 2019, after a stint volunteering at a restaurant on the artsy island of Naoshima.  I spent a few days in the small but extremely appetizing city of Kochi, where I discovered that ice cream wasn’t the only chilled dessert in town.

At Hirome Market in downtown Kochi, as I was weaving through the cramped aisles filled brimming with good eats, I was struck by this sign:

Ice Crin (アイスクリン), a Kochi, Japan-Specialty

The sign read “ice crin.”  What???

Apparently, ice crin is a Kochi specialty, made with eggs and powdered milk, though clocking in at less than 3% butterfat, it’s a bit less “unhealthy” than the heavy cream and milk combo that composes ice cream.  Ice crin is also somewhat crunchy, which makes it a cross between ice cream and shaved ice, or kakigoori (かき氷).

For some backstory, Japan had known about ice cream since the 1860s, when a Japanese delegation was introduced to it on a boat while visiting the US.  Although the frozen treat spread quickly around Japan, it was through the ravages of World War II, when certain foodstuffs were in short supply – in this case, fresh milk – that gave rise to ice crin.  With the post-war proliferation of cars, ice crin stalls were set up along highways, further adding to its appeal and convenience.

One cool aspect of Kochi is that it’s subtropical, so the local flavors that can be added to ice crin – yuzu (a citrus fruit), my favorite, green tea, tangerine, and pomelo – are all fresh.

Have you ever tried ice crin?

Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン)

Located on Shikoku, the smallest of the four primary islands of Japan, Tokushima is a small seaside city best known for a 400-year old dance called the Awa Odori, an historic indigo trade, a citrus fruit known as sudachi, and Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン).

Tokushima ramen may not be one of the better known bowls of noodles throughout Japan, having only been popularized at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in 1999.  It’s saltier and sweeter than the average Japanese ramen, generally has thin and soft noodles, and unbeknownst to me at the time, comes in three different types of broth.

Tokushima Ramen at 麺王

The most common broth is brown, using tonkotsu (豚骨), or pork bone broth, and a darker soy sauce.  Fried pork, spring onions, and a raw egg (already mixed-in in my photo) round out the Tokushima style.

Other types of Tokushima ramen might be yellow, due to chicken or vegetable broth and a lighter soy sauce, or whitish, using tonkotsu and a lighter soy sauce.   Also, rice is a common accompaniment to Tokushima ramen, as if there weren’t enough carbs on the table.

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