June 2, 2015

With Sake, Rules Are Made to be Broken: In the Class with John Gauntner

I'm in Las Vegas now, for John Gauntner's sake professional course. John is the foremost non-Japanese expert on sake, and the rise in popularity of his professional courses is testament both to his skill as a teacher and to the growing popularity of premium sake in the U.S. He's taught the course over 30 times, and this, he told us, was his largest class ever, at 70 people. 

The three-day course packs a massive informational punch, but some of the best parts are John's digressions and stories. Here's one he told to prove two important and related points: one, "exceptions abound" to any rules of thumb that you might try to apply to sake, and two, you can "rest assured that some of what is taught here will be contradicted by someone somewhere along the line." 

To prove his point, John told the story of visiting the Dassai brewery in Yamaguchi Prefecture about 10 or 15 years ago, to meet its president, Kazuhiro Sakurai. It is unusual for sake presidents to also serve as master brewer, or  toji, of their breweries, and Sakurai was no exception. One day, though, his toji quit on him, and Sakurai was in a bind. Impulsively, he decided he would take over as toji. He shook up a lot of things, including the brewing schedule. Instead of brewing for six months of the year, which is the way things have traditionally been done, he started brewing year round. To solve the problem of not having freshly harvested fall rice year round to brew with, he decided to freeze part of his rice crop to use in summer. He let John in on the secret to making good sake with this method: you had to mill, or polish the rice before freezing. 

Some time later, John visited the Rihaku Brewery in Shimane Prefecture. Chatting with the brewery president, he learned that Rihaku makes a special New Year's sake that ships every year on New Year's Day. But if they used local rice harvested in October, they would not have completed sake ready to ship on time for New Year's Day. So they decided to use rice from the previous year, which they had frozen. His secret? "You must not mill the rice before you freeze it."

May 8, 2015

On Translating Haruki Murakami, and New Japanese Storytellers

From left to right: Roland Kelts, Jay Rubin, Ted Goossen,
Motoyuki Shibata, Aoko Matsuda, Satoshi Kitamura.

Literary translation and Japanese masters fictions were the topics last night at a Japan Society talk that brought together two North American translators of international cult favorite Haruki Murakami, a Japanese translator of American fiction, an emerging Japanese novelist and a top Japanese illustrator.

Is translation art or merely the mechanical act of transcribing one language into another? What happens when the novelist who is being translated is an accomplished translator himself? What inspires the longtime translator to attempt penning a novel? These were some of the issues addressed in "The Magical Art of Translation: From Haruki Murakami to Japan's Latest Storytellers."

Jumping right into the craft of inspecting words and phrases, panelist Ted Goossen, a Murakami translator from York University in Toronto, expressed uncertainty that there was anything "magical" about the act of translation. His colleague Jay Rubin, emeritus Japanese literature professor at Harvard, opined that yes, translation did involve some sort of magical alchemy, yet flatly denied that the process was in any way creative. Okay, every person has his or her own take on the matter.

Motoyuki Shibata, who recently retired from his post teaching American literature and literary translation at Tokyo University, pointed out that both Murakami and his predecessor, Futabatei Shimei, (whose novel Ukigumo, or The Drifting Cloud, published in 1887, was one of my grandfather's favorites), both wanted to break free of the stifling Japanese literary conventions of their day. Shimei, a translator of Turgenev, wrote his first fictional paragraph in Russian, and Murakami, who has translated Raymond Carver, wrote the first paragraph of Hear the Wind Sing in English.

Rubin was incited to write his first novel, The Sun Gods, out of sheer anger, he explained, over the illegal roundup an imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. His book is set in Seattle and the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho before, during and after the war. Rubin was shocked to learn of this chapter of U.S. history when he was in graduate school, and urged audience members to read Monica Sone's Nisei Daughter to learn more about the period.

Rising Japanese novelist Aoko Matsuda said that she valued her translation work (of the writer Karen Russell) as much as her fiction writing, explaining that both occupy the same part of the brain that tries to fix free-floating voices on the page, and that both have made her "love literature more and more."

Picture-book artist and illustrator Satoshi Kitamura deftly brought the discussion of translation into the realm of images, explaining that he is trying to translate the feeling and tone of the text into pictures. He's worked with poets John Agard and Charles Simic, and showed work from those books as well as his charming illustrations from the children's book The Yesby Sarah Bee. Shibata interjected here, saying that often when he feels that a poetry translation of his falls short it is Kitamura's illustration that helps bridge the gap and make the translation feel whole.

Panel moderator Roland Kelts told us after the discussion that far from micromanaging his translators, Murakami adopts a fairly "laissez-faire" attitude, leaving his translators free to do their work unhindered. The panel also introduced me to new Japanese fiction writers that I'm eager to check out. Several, including Mieko Kawakami and Hideo Furukawa have been published in the journal of new writings from Japan Monkey Business, which is edited by Goossen and Shibata.

April 28, 2015

The Birth of Sake: A Look Inside Japan's Yoshida Brewery

Cooling just-steamed rice at Yoshida Brewery. Photo by Yasuyuki Yoshida.
Those who love sake or Japan or both will want to see "The Birth of Sake," director Erik Shirai's love letter to his ancestral country and its people, and a glimpse into the grueling work and hard-won camaraderie that are part of the fermented rice beverage-making process. I caught the last showing of the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Shirai won a special jury mention in the best new documentary director category.

Shirai, who worked as a cameraman on Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" travel show, says he stumbled upon his subject when he met the young scion of the 140-year-old Yoshida Brewery, Yasuyuki Yoshida, 27, at a promotional event. The brewery sells under the Tedorigawa label, a half dozen types of which are available in the U.S. and are prized for their elegance, finesse and balance.

Toji Teruyuki Yamamoto checking on his product up close. Photo by Erik Shirai.
At the heart of the film are toji (master brewer) Teruyuki Yamamoto, 68, and Yoshida, who is being groomed to take over the post of toji and become president of the brewery when his father retires. Yamamoto brings his pet bird with him to the Ishikawa Prefecture brewery every winter when he arrives for the six-month sleepover that all brewery workers have to commit to. He treats his sake "mother" and main mash with as much loving care as his bird, and talks of making sake in terms of raising a child, a process that requires constant attention, occasional crisis intervention and more experience and intuition than book smarts.

Second-generation Japanese American Shirai, noting that the actual brewing process is repetitive and not that dramatic, delves into the personal lives of his cast of characters to add dramatic tension and comic relief, revealing the pressures on both Yamamoto and his protege Yoshida, the strained relationship between the toji and his son (who is also part of the sake-making team) and the loneliness and exhaustion that are part of the sake-making process.

Shirai  explains that the film came about after he met Yoshida at an American promotional event and took him up on a casually offered invitation to visit the brewery. The visit turned into a two-and-a-half year project, with Shirai and producer Masako Tsumura traveling to Ishikawa to film three different sake-producing seasons as well as gather footage on the sake makers during the off season. Beautifully shot,  the film pays tribute to the rarely-seen work of these craftsmen, and their efforts to keep the artisanal sake-making tradition alive in the face of decreasing market share and increasing automation.

The bad news is that you will have to wait a bit to see the film; Shirai is in talks with distributors now and there is as yet no release date. You can keep abreast of new developments, though, through the film's web site or Facebook page.

April 5, 2015

Happy Ritual Spring Holiday!

I'm a sucker for spring flowers and holiday decor, as some of you may have gathered. Since spring break often means travel, I've collected spring photos from a number of different cities.

This year it was Amsterdam and London. In Amsterdam, we came across an alluring sign that read Urban Cacao, and found colorful chocolate eggs (above) that look like they've been spun by an ecstatic cult of yarn artists. Actually they are the playful work of Dutch chocolatier Hans Mekking.

Here's another one of his avant garde Easter egg works:

In London, it was all bunnies, chocolates and pastel treats at Fortnum and Mason, though since my family is partial to hot cross buns, we were all eyes for these specimens:

Back in New York,  the great Upper East Side bakery William Greenberg Desserts is Passover Central for those in search of unleavened kosher desserts. Greenberg carries an array of sponge cakes, special Passover lemon tarts and many varieties of macaroons. The demand for these items is so pressing they're placed under wraps in big metal carts that block the bakery's storefront windows, and pre-boxed to keep up with demand.

I did, however get this shot of freshly baked and bagged macaroons.

In true New York fashion, you can get both Passover and Easter desserts at Greenberg, and many tips on how to serve sponge cake, as I did. 

After such a long, bitter winter, I long to see more spring crocuses, daffodils and tulips. This London flower display was an early harbinger of spring in March:

Whatever spring ritual you are celebrating this month with family and friends, I hope it's festive, delicious and fun. 

March 19, 2015

One Soup Three Dishes: The Foundation of Japanese Cuisine

Five of the six courses that made up lunch at Fujita Japanese Cooking Studio
For all the incredible variety to be found kaiseki, the traditional multi-course Japanese meal that evolved from the tea ceremony, when you break it down to its  fundamentals, you'll arrive at ichiju san-sai, or "one soup, three dishes." Mentions of this meal-making concept can be traced back in literature over 1,000 years, and many attribute the healthiness and nutritional soundness of Japanese cuisine back to this ancient concept. The packed Japanese breakfast tray is an early morning riff on the concept, as is many a dinner on Japan Airlines, where the miso soup is poured from a plastic pitcher into paper cups.

An example of the packed Japanese breakfast tray,
this one at Tokaitei in the Dai-Ichi Hotel, Tokyo.

Learning about these basic building blocks of Japanese eating were part of a crash course in Japanese foodways that I participated in as a member of an eight-day food fellowship trip sponsored by the Foreign Press Center/Japan.

Fujita-sensei working on fresh sea bream.
We spent one morning in the small kitchen of Takako Fujita, a cooking instructor whose school, Fujita Japanese Cooking Studio is tucked away in the unlikely Tokyo business district of Toranomon. We watched, agog, as Fujita-sensei and her assistant Naoko Sugiyama, both dressed in traditional kimono, conjured up an excellent six-course lunch with a minimum of movement and no fuss. It was a technically understated yet flawless performance that evoked the tea ceremony, only with more utensils and a foundation of kelp and bonito instead of matcha tea powder.

Fujita-sensei salting pork back rib slices for her rice dish. 
Fujita-sensei, now in her twenty-first year of teaching, says she knew nothing about cooking when she was in her 20s. It wasn't until she married that she took up the study of cooking as part of her "bride's training," she adds. For our lunch, she started by working on a dish of rice cooked in stock. It was a traditional takikomi-gohan, or seasoned rice cooked with mixed vegetables, but with a twist--the addition of thin slices of pork back rib meat. It's a dish Fujita-sensei created recently for for a Japanese cooking magazine. Rice, like pickles, is a standard accompaniment to the soup and three dishes of  ichiju san-sai  and so much a given that it goes without mention.

The "soup" in this iteration was an unusual one, centered on hanpen, a cloud-like version of fish cake that has  been pounded and spongified with grated mountain yam and beaten egg whites. The hanpen slices floated in a clear dashi made with konbu (kelp) and katsuobushi (grated dried bonito) and garnished with mitsuba (a parsley-like green). As if it weren't light enough, Fujita-sensei added beaten egg whites at the end to up the lightness ante.

Simmered yellowtail with ginger and pickled plums.
The san-sai, part of the meal, or "three dishes," usually consists of a main dish and two side dishes. The main more often than not involves fish. In our lunch, it was a beautiful dish of yellowtail simmered with ginger and umeboshi (pickled plums) with just a little added mirin, sugar and salt. The secrets here were to employ the traditional Japanese method of sprinkling a little salt on the fish to draw out impurities, and to add ginger skins to the broth. In addition to adding flavor, the ginger skins balance the broth and take away any overly strong fish flavors, Fujita-sensei told us. As in this dish, she often uses milder, Kyoto-style seasoning in her class, she says, "because lighter seasoning is more popular" among her students.

The two secondary dishes of ichiju san-sai usually include a vegetable dish and a legume or soybean-based dish, rounding out a balanced meal with plenty of fermented foods. Long before the start of the fermented food craze that is sweeping certain artisanal corners of America--touted for its probiotic-promoting goodness--the Japanese had build a nation on miso, soy sauce, sake, mirin and pickled and preserved products.

Fujita-sensei and her assistant Sugiyama san bidding us farewell.
For a savory dish of stewed taro dressed in a mix of sesame paste, white miso, sugar and mirin, the tips Fujita-sensei gave us were to boil the taro very quickly in water used to wash rice and a splash of mirin. This keeps its color light and also hastens cooking. The dish was called "Rikyu-style," after the famed sixteenth-century tea master Sen no Rikyu, who apparently loved sesame seeds.

Fujita-sensei says that as in other developed countries, fewer and fewer young Japanese are learning to cook from their mothers or grandmothers, adding that not many young people are interested in cooking traditional dishes. After Japanese-style washoku cooking was named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, however, interest in their native cuisine has revived somewhat among young people, she says.

For more on washoku, and how the Japanese government is working to spread its techniques, flavors and spirit around the world, check out my Discover Nikkei article on the Washoku World Challenge 2015.

March 13, 2015

When Cheese Met Sake: The New Franco-Japanese Alliance

Hakkaisan Sparkling Nigori sake with (clockwise from
top left, Bleu d'Auvergne, Brillat Savarin,
 and 18-month old Mimolette cheeses.

The Japanese brewed beverage sake seems to be everywhere now...or is it just me?

Probably a little bit of both. Ever since I started writing about sake I seem to have entered a parallel sake-loving universe. Last night was a good example. The French Cheese Board hosted a sake and fromage pairing at its storefront on West 39th Street near Bryant Park.

For all of you cheese lovers, the space includes a small cheese store with a well-curated selection of French cheeses that rotate on a monthly basis as well as French butter. There's also a handsome kitchen and a gallery. Charles Duque, managing director of the FCB, and Akiko Katayama, a Japanese food writer and culinary diplomat, were our hosts.

In Japan, sake has been steadily declining in popularity since the mid-1970s, and so venturing into foreign markets (the U.S. and France are two top targets) is paramount for the industry. What I didn't know is that the same is true of artisanal cheese in France. The encroachment of cheaper mass-produced and foreign products has put small cheese-makers on a similar quest to open or expand foreign markets.

The cheese store at The Cheese Board.

Necessity may have driven French cheese and sake together, but as sommelier Keita Akaboshi first showed me, sake and cheese can make a beautiful combination. Katayama, our teacher for the night, explained that one reason is that the high umami content of sake matches well with the umami in cultured cheeses. Japanese researchers have discovered 700 to 1,200 different flavor compounds in sake, compared to approximately 600 in wine, and around 400 in whiskey and other spirits.

She also taught us how to read a sake label. Most premium sakes will include what's known as Nihonshu-do, or a sake meter value, which tells you the sweetness or dryness level; the higher the number the dryer the sake. The first of three Hakkaisan Brewery sakes we tried was a sparkling nigori (unfiltered) sake, with a sake meter reading of -25, which is quite sweet. Acidity levels are also given, in this case a 1.7, higher than average to mask or balance its sweetness. Amino acid levels are also noted, with higher number indicating a richer-tasting sake and a lower number a lighter sake.

The sparkling sake was paired with a triple creme brie Brillat Savarin, the idea being that its high acidity would cut through the fat.

Next, a tokubetsu junmai, a smooth, much less sweet bottle, was paired with an 18-month-old Mimolette, the hard, nutty, orange cheese that gets its color from annatto seeds. Our favorite pairing, though, involved a Bleu d'Auvergne and an ashed chevre from P. Jacquin and Son, both of which were paired with a very sweet kijoshu sake. The blue is classified as a PDO, or Protected Designation of Origin, meaning it can only be produced in the region of the Auvergne by specially designated cows who've been raised on equally specific grass.

The high acidity of the kijoshu (made by adding more sake instead of water to the mix to give it a more viscous quality) balanced its extreme sweetness (sake meter value of -30). On the cheeses, it had the effect of taking the edge off their pungency while pulling out their umami. As Celia, my companion in tasting said, "It was our 'aha moment.'"

To learn more about what I've learned about sake, take a look at this article, on the rise of sake's popularity in New York City, and my most recent story, on a Japanese sake yeast expert who is pinning his hopes for the industry on the discovery of new yeasts taken from native flowers.

The French Cheese Board
26 West 39th Street
New York, NY 10018
(212) 302-3390
Web site: http://frenchcheeseboard.com/

February 6, 2015

Notes on Sake: New York, Tokyo, Hiroshima

The bar at Saikai.
Photo: Paul Wagtouicz

An article I wrote on the growing sake scene in New York City appeared this week in the drinks issue of Edible Manhattan, which, confusingly enough, contains stuff about Brooklyn, too.  In it, I describe how the rice beverage from Japan is enjoying an unprecedented surge in quality, refinement and experimentation.

I happen to be in Japan now, on a sake brewery tour of the Fukuoka region of Kyushu island, and will tell you more about that. Firtst, though, I'll  mention a few sake-serving establishments in Manhattan that didn't make it into my last article. All of them are on the Lower East Side, which must mean I need to get down there more often. There's Sakamai, on Ludlow Street, though the sake there is not the only star on the drinks menu; it's got serious competition from the dazzling cocktails of bartender Shingo Gokan. A few other places come via one of my sake brewery tourmates, Vancouver sake educator Elise Gee. She loves Azasu and its sister restaurant Yopparai (which means "drunk" or "drunkard" in Japanese), so I'll be checking those out soon.

Saikai chefs Xiao Lin, left, and Wing Chen, right.
Photo: Paul Wagtouicz
In the West Village, at Saikai Dining Bar, Masa alumni Wing Cheng and Xiao Lin offer their elevated version of pub or izakaya-style cuisine. Saikai's beverage list, the work of general manager Paul Lee (also formerly of Masa), is similarly impressive. Since chefs Cheng and Lin change up their menu often, Lee ends up rotating his beverage selection frequently.

This means that the sakes on offer at Saikai exceed the 25-label published list. You might want to inquire about several premium junmai daiginjos: the aged sake Yume wa Masayume, the gently fruity Miyosakae Tenmi, and the elegant Niigata Prefecture sakes Kubota Senshin and Kikusui Kuramitsu. Come spring, says Lee,  Dashichi brewery's Houreki, a limited production kimoto style junmai from Fukushima that's richer and earthier than daiginjo sakes, will return to the list. For those who look for bottles bestowed with awards, this is the only kimoto-style junmai to have won gold in the Japanese Brewing Society's national competition.

For Valentine's Day, Sakai will be offering a special six-course, $80 menu, $120 with sake pairings. While the menu may change slightly since the chefs never stop tweaking it, they are sure that the theme of the dinner will be the ocean's bounty. You can expect Kumamoto oysters (which, I was told as we drove through Kumamoto Prefecture today, came from there ages ago but now has no connection to the region), a seafood sashimi selection, a seasonal, truffle-enhanced Japanese grilled fish, live king crab legs with yuzu whipped cream, and a lobster pasta with saffron sauce.

The charming and adorable Marie Chiba
at Nihonshu Moto, Tokyo

At Koishi Sake Bar in Hiroshima,
 Imada Shuzo's Fukucho junmai ginjo.

I have to mention two great sake bars I've visited on this trip, Nihonshu Stand Moto in Tokyo, which was recommended to me by Rick Smith of the East Village sake shop Sakaya, and Koishi (Pebble) Sake Bar in Hiroshima, the sake maker Miho Imada of local brewery Imada Shuzo likes. The first is a tiny yet polished bar that is standing room only, and the second a larger two-story establishment with a cozy bar on the lower level. Both are real and pressing reasons to want to return to Japan.