Saturday, November 29, 2008

Oden: A Tale of Simmered Goodness

There are many reasons why autumn is my favorite time of year.  First off, the trees.  Ah yes, nature's little beacons of change.  Next up, the seasonal fruits and vegies.  I love all the incredible types of mushrooms and squash.  Living in the Bay Area, we are spoiled with fertile lands just brimming with farms and happy cows.  Lastly, what I really enjoy about the fall is, to me, life just seems to slow down a bit.  The days become longer, which for me means more time for reading, more time for contemplation.  The nights are cooler and more damp, giving you all the more reason to enjoy some warm, comforting vittles with your buddies.
So what better to do with our mellow and cool late-November Sunday night than to have some friends over for oden.  I think the first time I had oden was in a 7-11 somewhere in Tokyo.  I probably wouldn't have ordered it myself as it doesn't look like anything I was used to eating.  But after a few beers (and surely sake), I was up for trying anything.  The concept...simmer, and simmer and simmer some more.  Some of the best oden is left to simmer overnight .  The dashi is very important.  We made a potent elixer of dashi using konbu, katsuo bushi and dried shiitake.  Mmm.  In the pot we carefully set chunks of daikon, yamagobo, hard boiled eggs.  We had so much we started calling more people to come over, but, I wouldn't have minded if we had leftovers!
Since we had several bottles of sake in the fridge, it was time to start the party!  We left all the sake out of the fridge so that it could warm to room temperature.  I remember someone saying something to the effect that when you eat hot food you shouldn't drink cold beverages because it puts out the "fire" in your belly.  Anyway, what a great time enjoying the oden and sake.  We opened one of our wedding presents that night.  This incredible junmai ginjo from Niigata called Koshi no Kanchubai.  Wow!  It melted on the palate only to rise up again midway through with soft fruits finishing clean and bright.  This sake doesn't get exported to the states, but if you ever find it, get it!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you...

Recently, after a long day of work, I sat down at the bar to have a bite and a little sake.  A recent gift from a sushi chef, Cho Chin Namazume Junami Daiginjo offered up its gorgeous bouquet of ripe fruits and melon.  I paired this sake with pan seared day boat scallops atop a fluffy pillow of shimeji and shiitake risotto.  The sweetness of the sake complimented both the texture and sweetness of the scallops.  At the same time, it's bright acidity gently cleansed the palate after each exquisite dollop of risotto.  It was, to say the least, delicious.
This beautiful brew had been carefully created in "BY 19."  This stands for the brewing year 19.  This measurement of time reflects the years in which the current Emperor Akihito has been on the throne.  The current year is Heisei 20, this sake was brewed in Heisei 19.  To add to its dimension, take the fact that is it namazume.  After brewing, the sake had been left to age and mature unpasteurized, for a year.  At that point, it was bottled then pasteurized and released.  
Though I only had about 1/4 of the bottle to enjoy, I still felt compelled to share it with my unsuspecting neighbor at the bar.  He was quite taken aback when I offered and said it was the first time someone he didn't know had offered to share a bottle with him.  It seemed strange to me not to offer.   The pub is where humans have been coming together for centuries, it felt only natural.  And with a "kanpai," our conversation led us down many different roads, then we parted.  
Sharing sake with those around me will always be a part of my life.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Aged Sake and Japanese Curry

Up until recently, the thought of aged sake, or koshu, didn't really seem like something that I would get into...ah, but again, sake goes and surprises me again.

Take one...a simple Japanese curry with mushrooms, carrots, potato and udon noodles.  Tada-san had just prepared this piping hot bowl for us to share on a stormy San Francisco night.  After a couple bites, that little part in my brain where I store all my sake thoughts said, 'koshu."  It was all over from there.

Enter stage left, Kinzan Junmai Ginjo Koshu.  Brewed in 1998, in a little town in Nagano prefecture, this beauty is light caramel in color; smokey and earthy with mushroom on the nose.  At first sip, it offers a light attack on the palate, meanwhile a bright sweetness takes over as the sake rounds out on the finish with a bolder more pronounced effort.  Quite surprisingly, I am still experiencing this sake minutes after the first sip.  

The savoriness of the koshu was an obvious match with the curry.  But it was the sweetness in it that surprised me.  It kind lured the sweetness out of the curry as well, and at the same time cleansing the palate.  As the koshu warmed to room temperature, it seemed to open considerably more and offer a somewhat succulent quality.

Just a little about aging sake.  Like most steps in the making of sake, these toji, or brewmasters, must have an incredible amount of experience and often intuition when it comes to sake.  Temperature is a major factor when aging.  Too cold, and the sake wont really age, just settle or mature.  The color will never change.  But raise the temperatures and you will actually see a visible change in the color.  Remember, these sakes are not aged in barrels, mostly in the bottle or in the tanks (ceramic-lined stainless).  The color change is the result of the amino acids actually aging.  Therefore, if the temp is too warm, the sake will age too quickly and more than likely take quick turn for the worse.   

Koshu's cousin kijoshu.  I haven't personally seen too many of these, but they are worth the try.  The difference: when making kijoshu, instead of adding back brewing water, previously sake is added and then left to aged.  The one that comes to mind, Hanahato Kijoshu.  Maple syrup, toffee and caramel on the nose.  Full, rich flavors of dried fruits and honey.  AMAZING with candied walnuts and bleu cheese...I'm not kidding.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Mood Swings and Comforting Sake

Not sure if its just me, but I feel like what I eat and drink has a major impact on my mood, and vice versa.  When I was a sushi chef, the customer would ask me "what do you recommend?" and I would say "what kind of mood are you in?"  I know, you shouldn't answer a question with a question.  But, to me and what I have learned about food is that it's a major player in who we are as individuals, whether you are conscious of it or not.  Vittles can be uplifting, or comforting, sometimes even an aphrodisiac.  

So when I tasted Taiheizan "Tenko" Kimoto Junmai Daiginjo from Akita prefecture, it put me exactly where I wanted to be.  A soft, silkiness on the palate, just melting.  Round, lush aromas of ripe fruits, with just a kiss of acidity on the finish to balance.  Wow.  Soothing and comforting.  

What is kimoto?  I'll start this story off in a round-about way.  Its somewhat surprising to learn how extremely difficult it is to brew sake.  Not only are there a myriad of steps involved, each completely specific and vitally important in their own right, but these guys (mostly guys, some girls) for six months of the year are waking up before dawn IN THE DEAD OF WINTER!!!  Its freezing cold out there and the passionate ones do it because well, they are passionate about it.  Having said this, back to kimoto.  Considering how arduous sake brewing is, kimoto style of brewing is incredible.  To make the yeast starter, the kurabito (brewery worker) mashes together the rice, water, koji and yeast in a big hangiri (shallow bamboo bowl).    This process sometimes would take hours to get to the right consistency, so traditionally the kurabito would sing songs (the likes of which I do not know, yet) and when the song was finished, so was the mash.

But why do they do this?  They want to take out all the pockets of air in the mash.  The natural lactic bacteria (that floats in from the ambient environment) will not produce the lactic acid in the presence of oxygen.  Lactic acid is very important in the brewing process because its strong and will sterilize the tank.  Ah, this is so very technical, and its only the first post! 

Ultimately, kimoto sakes, because of the way they are made, often exhibit full, round flavors, sometimes a gamey-ness that can be very nicely paired with savory dishes like lamb or roast.  Of course they can be enjoyed on their own and I think they are great for wine lovers.