Japanese Drinks – Wine!

Varietals. Aromas. Complexity. Palettes. Terroir.

Wine inspires passion, joy, camaraderie, sweat, tears and toil. Cultures and industries throughout history have focused on the creation of wine from crushed and fermented grapes. And this infinitely varied drink is becoming a staple in modern Japanese cuisine.

Wine is made from the grapes, typically of the Vitis vinifera family of grapes, which originate from the area that spans Western Europe through the Middle East until the banks of the Caspian Sea. From ancient times, grapevines were highly prized and traded, and grape cultivation is now common on every continent on Earth except for Antarctica.

Grapes were introduced to Japan during the Nara Period (710 – 794 CE), at a time of diplomatic, cultural and religious exchanges between China and Japan. Grapevines were cultivated in Yamanashi, Yamagata and Nagano Prefectures along with some areas in Hokkaido. Until the 16th century, when Jesuit missionaries from Portugal brought wine as gifts for the Japanese nobility, grapes were simply consumed as fruit, not wine. Japanese people tasted wine only through the missions, and the unfamiliar beverage did not gain popularity until the 19th century, during the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912). Cross-cultural exchange thrived during the Meiji Era, and the diplomats of the Iwakura Mission famously traveled to America and Europe, gathering information about many advances and industries, including viticulture. The first native Japanese wine was attempted using sake equipment and koshu grapes that were cultivated in Yamanashi Prefecture.

Today, wine drinking is increasing in popularity and many varietals pair beautifully with Japanese food. According to Peter Kasperski in Food & Wine, “Sake is legendary in Japan because of its ability to offering subtlety and nuance – just like dishes such as sashimi. Wines with similar subtlety and nuance tend to fall into the category of light, white and crisply acidic, with bright fruit notes… with a chameleonlike? way of matching a variety of dishes.”

These characteristics are inherent in two of the most popular indigenous Japanese grapes: the white “koshu” and the red “Muscat Bailey A”. These two grapes make up the majority of grapes used in native Japanese winemaking. Wine from koshu grapes is typically refreshing, with notes of grapefruit and lemon and with light acidity. Wine from Muscat grapes is also light in acidity, with subtle notes of cherries, peaches, rose petals, apricot and orange blossoms. Japanese winemakers utilize the well-known winemaking process developed by the French, where carefully cultivated grapes are harvested, crushed and pressed, then mixed with yeast, sugars and water into a mixture called a must. This mixture is fermented, then strained, or clarified. The clarified liquid undergoes a second fermentation, after which it is bottled and aged. Once produced, Japanese wines are categorized as kokunaisan, wine made exclusively from domestic materials; kokusan, wine made from imported ingredients but fermented in Japan; and yunyu, imported wine that is bottled in Japan.

Japanese food pairs beautifully with wine. Sashimi and sushi lend themselves to crisp white wines, including light, sweet Rieslings, mineral-rich, full-bodied Pinot Blancs and dry koshu-based wines. Fried foods such as tempura and karaage ideally pair with sparkling wines as well as light, mineral-rich red wines, such as Sancerres, Muscats and even some varieties of rosés. And grilled meats such as yakitori and teppanyaki complement fuller, fruit-forward white and red wines such as Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignons, Sauvignon Blancs and certain Bordeaux.

Almost any type of Japanese food is delicious when paired with wine!

We hope you try your favorite wine with some of our favorite foods, and as always, don’t forget to share your best pairings with us!

Japanese Drinks – Shochu!

Vodka. Whiskey. Gin. Tequila. Rum. Shochu.

Some of the most famous liquors in the world are the distilled alcohols of fermented grains, vegetables and herbs.

And Japan’s shochu is easily one of the most enjoyable and drinkable of the list.

Shochu is a distilled beverage made from water, koji, yeast and other ingredients such as rice, barley, sweet potatoes, brown sugar or buckwheat. Enjoyed throughout Japan, shochu, like sake, has become increasingly popular all over the world. And while shochu is a quintessentially Japanese drink, its origins are international.

The production of shochu in Japan has been documented to the 16th century. Historical information indicates that shochu was introduced to the area known as Ryukyu, or modern-day Okinawa, by traders from Siam, or modern-day Thailand. That drink was called arrack, the origin of which has been traced to ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilizations where an anise-flavored liquor called arak was made from the distillation of fermented cereal grains.

Rice mold, or koji

The Okinawan style of shochu, called awamori, is still made today, although the more popular honkaku shochu is considered the most authentic Japanese shochu and is primarily produced in Kyushu region. Honkaku shochu production became varied and robust during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) in Japan. The process begins similar to sake production, in that steamed short-grain japonica variety rice is inoculated with black or white aspergillius oryzae mold, or koji. Once the rice has been broken down into starch, amino acids and citric acid, yeast and water is added to complete the koji. Left to ferment for approximately one week, the resulting mixture, or moromi mash, is the initial source of alcohol for the shochu. A base ingredient, such as more rice, sweet potatoes, brown sugar, barley or buckwheat, is added to the mix. The base ingredient gives the final shochu its distinctive flavor. This mixture produces the second moromi mash, which is let to ferment for two weeks before it is heated and cooled in a traditional distillation apparatus. The distillation process retains the characteristic flavor of the base ingredient, which is mellowed and refined while the shochu is aged from several months to a few years in stainless steel, wooden or ceramic vessels. Once the shochu is aged, it is diluted with water to the appropriate alcohol content of either 20%, 25% or 30% and then bottled and shipped.

Honkaku shochu

Awamori shochu is produced using long-grain Thai indica variety rice and only black koji. While honkaku shochu goes through two mixing stages, awamori is made using only one mixing stage, going quickly into the fermentation step and after distillation, it is aged for a minimum of three years. Awamori shochu, because of its long ageing stage, has a characteristic vanilla flavor and much higher alcohol content – 43%!

Drinking shochu is a pleasure, especially at Japanese bars called izakaya in southern Japan. Beginners typically drink a rice-based shochu, called kome shochu, or a fruity cocktail called chuhai. The simplest way to drink shochu is neat, simply poured into a glass at room temperature. But shochu can be enjoyed over ice or mizuwari-style, that is, diluted with a small amount of cool water to round out the edges of the alcohol. Oyuwari-style, or diluted with warm water, is ideal during cold weather and enhances the depth, flavor and aromas of the shochu and purists often enjoy shochu warm, without any added water.

With the cold winter months coming up, we hope you’ll try some shochu at your local Japanese izakaya or restaurant. And as always, don’t forget to share your favorites with us!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Oseibo

oseibo01

The spirit of cooperation and coexistence permeates Japanese culture in so many ways, from washoku to coexistence with nature to how relationships are nurtured.

Giving gifts is a long-standing tradition among the Japanese, especially at the end of the year with the tradition of oseibo.

Oseibo is the custom to show goodwill and gratitude to those who have contributed to one’s life, such as to relatives, bosses, or caretakers. Oseibo gifts are often items that the recipient uses every day, such as condiments, cooking oils and sauces, detergents and cleaners, as well as specialty items like alcoholic beverages, gourmet sausages and seafood. Gift certificates also make popular gifts. Oseibo gifts never go to waste, as the items are always useful!

oseibo02

Department stores frequently setup special sections for oseibo gifts, with the monetary value of gift options ranging from 2000-5000 yen, or 20-50 US dollars. Once an oseibo gift has been selected, how it is packaged and presented is just as important as what it contains. Each gift is packaged nicely and wrapped in special decorative paper labeled with language specifically denoting that it is an oseibo gift. The gifts are either delivered by the store or online retailer or given in-person following the Japanese tradition of giving and receiving with two hands.

Oseibo traces its roots to the Japanese custom to pray for one’s ancestors’ spirits during obon in July and on New Year’s Day. During these times, neighbors and relatives used to exchange the offerings. This tradition turned into gift giving, once in the summer (ochugen) and once at the end of the year (oseibo). Today, oseibo is practiced as a custom to show formal respect and gratitude.

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Oseibo gifts at a Japanese market

Because oseibo gifts are practical as well as pleasing, recipients always find creative ways to incorporate their gifts into their lives, especially when the gifts are of food items or beverages. An oseibo gift of whiskey or brandy turns into a lovely hot toddy during the cold winter months. A gift of smoked seafood turns into a lovely terrine de poisson or seafood jeon. And gifts of gourmet meats and sauces can be used for barbequing and stir-frying teppanyaki.

What do you think would make a nice oseibo gift? And if you receive an oseibo gift, what do you plan to make with it? Let us know in the comments below, and from Zojirushi to you, we hope you have a great end of year!