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Mostly Food & Travel Journal

Introduction: Visiting and sharing Japan

Furoshiki – The art of wrapping with fabric

Japan – Eyewitness Travel

Learn Japanese with Eurotalk

Okinawa and Awamori - the spirit of the islands

Romantic Takayama

Serene Gardens

Discover Japanese Sake – with Discovery Channel

Onikoroshi Honjozo Sake

Ozeki Dry Sake

Sake - a History

Sake in situ – the overlooked tourist attraction

Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries

Sake Cups – or perhaps a glass

The Saké Handbook

Shirataki Shuzo Atoaji Kiriri Uonuma Junmai Sake

Taruzake – cedar difference

Interview: Toshie Hiraide - Sake Samurai

Interview: Koichi Saura – Sake Samurai

Bento Love - Easy Japanese Cooking

The Chopsticks Diet

Donburi Mania – Easy Japanese Cooking

Easy Japanese Cookbook

Easy Japanese Cooking – Appetizer Rex

Food of Japan

Food Sake Tokyo

Hashi – A Japanese cookery course

Japanese Bible

Japanese Cooking – A Simple Art

Japanese Home Cooking with Master Chef Murata

The Japanese Kitchen

Japanese Pure and Simple

The Just Bento Cookbook

Kitcho - Japan’s ultimate dining experience

My Japanese Table

Sushi

Umami: THE FIFTH TASTE

Umami Kelp and Wasabi – an introduction

Veggie Haven – Easy Japanese Cooking

Washoku – Japanese cuisine recognised by UNESCO

Recipe: Crunchy Chicken (or Pork) with Yutaka Panko Breadcrumbs

Recipe: Japanese Curry – traditionally cubed

Recipe: Rafute

Recipe: Salmon with Wasabi-Cream Sauce

Recipe: Wasabi Chocolate Truffles

Recipe: Yuzu Cupcakes with Matcha Tea Frosting

Japanese-English Food Dictionary
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Chisou - Knightsbridge

Ichi Sushi & Sashimi Bar

Ichiryu Hakata Udon House

Inamo – St James

Inamo Techno Restaurant

Itsu - Notting Hill Gate

Shoryu Ramen – Soho

Soseki

Tsunami - Charlotte Street

UMU of Mayfair

Interview: Hisashi Taoka of Kiku

Interview: Ryosuke Mashio – UMU Head Sommelier

Interview: Chef Yoshinori Ishii of UMU


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Travel Reviews
- Japan

Culture and Travel:

Introduction: Visiting and sharing Japan

Furoshiki – The art of wrapping with fabric

Japan – Eyewitness Travel

Learn Japanese with Eurotalk

Okinawa and Awamori - the spirit of the islands

Romantic Takayama

Serene Gardens

Sake

Food

Restaurants


Okinawa and Awamori - the spirit of the islands

Okinawa Awamori Awamori is the celebrated spirit originating in and unique to the Ryukyu Islands (Nansei Islands in Japanese) of Okinawa. It is made from long-grain Thai rice, which historically has been used in this region. The Ryukyu Kingdom was independent and ruled most of these islands from the 15th to the 19th century.

The name Okinawa means ‘rope in the open sea’ which refers to this long swathe of islands between Taiwan and the four main islands of Japan. It consists of around 50 inhabited islands and more than 100 uninhabited ones. It was a tributary both of China and of Japan and a convenient portal for Japanese trade with China. When Japan officially closed its doors to all European nations except the Dutch, Nagasaki and the Ryukyu Islands became the only Japanese trading ports connected with the outside world. It has therefore had a more open nature and has developed its own culinary culture.

Short-grain rice is generally used for sake- and shochu-making in Japan, but Okinawa uses long-grain Indica Thai rice instead. Centuries ago the islands had easier access to this rice than products from the rest of Japan. It is thought that sake was brought to Okinawa from Siam around the late 14th to 15th century. Okinawa’s distilled Awamori liquor is considered the forefather of the more widely known shochu which is popular throughout Japan. Unlike shochu, Awamori is made only from rice, where shochu can have other ingredients such as barley and sweet potato.

There are vintage Awamori bottles that are held in the same regard as fine whisky and wine, with age giving a richer and deeper taste. Those that are said to be aged more than 3 years are called Kusu (‘old liquor’), and are particularly popular. In reality it’s called Kusu when at least 50 percent of the beverage is aged for three or more years. It is distilled once, and afterwards the alcohol content is lowered with pure water to about 25 to 30 percent, although some Awamori is found at more than 40 percent alcohol. Awamori is traditionally aged in clay pots which is thought to improve its flavour and softness.

Okinawa Awamori Some Awamori has been aged for decades and there are subterranean cellars that are used for keeping bottles that are bought to celebrate the birth of a child or other important events. The temperature in these caves is a little too warm to keep wine but they are perfect for Awamori. The most popular way to drink Awamori is with water and ice. It can also be drunk straight, on the rocks, and in cocktails. I have been told that you won’t wake up with a hangover, either.

Okinawa is an undiscovered gem, at least by non-Japanese. It has a delightful tropical climate with all the associated crops. The cuisine is a little different from the rest of Japan, with more influences from China. Awamori pairs perfectly with these dishes. These islands should be a magnet for any lover of good food and those interested in a slightly different aspect of Japanese culture. The chance to sip Awamori in its place of origin, and perhaps to see it made, would be special.

Other things to do in Okinawa:

Okinawan music is popular in mainland Japan and the three-stringed sanshin is a beautiful local instrument which could be a striking souvenir for any music lover. Kokusai-dōri, Naha city’s main street, is where it’s possible to find all manner of gifts including traditional and contemporary sanshin. Kokusai-dōri (‘International Avenue’) is a 1.6 kilometre-long street of shops, restaurants and assorted bars. Yes, there is the inevitable McDonalds but the majority of the stores and restaurants are local or Japanese.

Okinawa Awamori The covered Heiwa-dōri Shopping Arcade and Makishi Public Market are the older and more colourful faces of Okinawan retail. There are souvenirs aplenty but also household goods, fabrics and toys. There are small family-run outlets that specialise in drink including awamori, snacks, tea and clothing. The food market is vibrant and bustling with people buying ingredients for dinner - glistening fish, still-live crabs, octopus, as well as condiments, local pickles, meat and vegetables. This will be the highlight of a visit for anyone looking for an authentic food experience.

Just outside the market is the area called Tsuboya or ‘pot jar shop’. This neighbourhood was once a major centre of ceramic production on the island and is still a magnet for those hunting for Japanese tableware or ceramics of any description. A whole dinner service might be too weighty to take back home but a set of chopstick rests would be light and affordable.

Most people will know of Okinawa from wartime documentaries. Historical World War II sites can be found throughout the islands, especially the main island of Okinawa, commemorating the huge loss of life and conflict in the region. There is the Peace Memorial Park in Naha, the navy’s former underground headquarters, and the Himeyuri Monument.

Find out more about Okinawa and Awamori here.

food and travel reviews

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Sake:

Discover Japanese Sake – with Discovery Channel

Onikoroshi Honjozo Sake

Ozeki Dry Sake

Sake - a History

Sake in situ – the overlooked tourist attraction

Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries

Sake Cups – or perhaps a glass

The Saké Handbook

Shirataki Shuzo Atoaji Kiriri Uonuma Junmai Sake

Taruzake – cedar difference

Interview: Toshie Hiraide - Sake Samurai

Interview: Koichi Saura – Sake Samurai

Culture and Travel

Food

Restaurants


Taruzake – cedar difference

Taruzake Sure, the world of sake is new and mysterious to most of us. Japan’s national beverage is made of few ingredients but there are many styles and each one has its own history and its own character. We are being offered a wider range of sake in Japanese restaurants but it’s a shame that non-Japanese restaurants are not aware of the Sake Buzz, the sake wave of appreciation.

There is one variety of sake that has always intrigued me, one with a very pronounced flavour – of wood. No, not the taste of knotty pine nor the richness of mahogany (although I have never had a chew of either of those). Here we are talking cedar and that taste is there for a reason which dates back centuries.

Let’s put this into historic context. Until the beginning of the 20th century sake was stored and transported in wooden barrels made of Japanese cedar called sugi. It was only when it reached the sake shop that it was put into ceramic vessels. These vessels can still be seen if one is lucky enough to visit a sake brewery, many of which have been plying their trade for more than a dozen generations.

Taruzake – cedar difference Taruzake sake (also called Taru) is the name of this distinctive style of sake. It is aged in casks or barrels called ‘taru’ from which it gets its name, but these days the sake stays in wood for only a couple of weeks and then it’s bottled in glass.  It isn’t exported in wood as it takes too long in transit. Any longer aging than a couple of weeks impairs the delicacy and produces a sake which has overpowering flavour and aroma. The iconic barrel is usually made of cedar wood and is different in each region but cedar grown in the Yoshino district of Nara is considered the most prized for the job. The wood imparts a distinctive light smoky cinnamon scent and flavour which is quite unique and which I find rather pleasant.

Taruzake is a very popular drink in Japan on New Year’s Eve. It is essential at every kagami biraki cask-opening event. The fourth Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna (1641 – 1680) is thought to be the first one to hold this lid-breaking ceremony. Before going to war he gathered his daimyo (feudal lords) at his castle to break open a sake barrel. The battle was won and so this colourful tradition was started and is seen at various celebrations and auspicious occasions.

A traditional kizuchi (mallet) is used to break open the lid of the small and ornate cask. These casks and associated accoutrements can actually be hired for events.  For smaller gatherings an extra barrel bottom is fixed half way up so as to reduce the quantity of sake within. A hishaku (wooden ladle) is used for dipping into the sake cask and pouring the taruzake into a square masu. Taruzake – cedar differenceThese are traditional wooden boxes which were originally used to portion out rations of rice.  The word ‘masu’ means growth in Japanese, and so these boxes or wooden cups are also symbols of good fortune.

Taruzake is delicious when paired with smoked fish and robust meat dishes, but surprisingly it works well with creamy cheeses. I was introduced to this combination at a cheese and sake pairing event with Kiko Ito of La Fromagerie in London. Here we tasted Taruzake with Burrata cheese mixed with Crème Fraîche garnished with Japanese soy sauce and wasabi. Masterful!

The weather is cool so an ideal time to sip a sake which has warming notes on both the palate and the nose.


food and travel reviews

Sake in situ – the overlooked tourist attraction

Japan tourA dream came true for me recently and it was courtesy of the Japanese Ministry of Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). That might sound unlikely when one’s dreams are often woven around the acquisition of something small and sparkling, a new 3D TV, or designer shoes. MAFF invited me on my first trip to Japan and that surpassed any gratification from transient gifts.

I embarked on this first visit with a degree of trepidation. I had been told by several people that at least my lone arrival would be fraught with linguistic impossibilities. I would not be able to read station signs, I don’t speak Japanese – in short I would be lost from the start!

I have few calls to fame but one of those is a complete lack of sense of direction. I was not going to be, initially, part of an organised group. I was fed a diet of ill-informed negativity before I even left Heathrow, and 12 hours on the flight to Tokyo allowed me to grow the already-sown seeds of apprehension into a quiet dignified panic.

Tokyo airport is huge but friendly. I was beckoned with animated cordiality, directed with cheer and welcomed with smiling eyes over the ubiquitous white mask. Well, I mused, perhaps an airport isn’t representative of ‘outside’. I found my terminal transfer bus with ease and was escorted by a fellow passenger to the correct gate. It was evident that I was a tourist. I don’t look Japanese and so the population at large seemed to be keeping a parental eye out for me.

Nagoya airport was going to be my next challenge. I was on a mission to find the station, buy a ticket and reach my hotel in Nagoya city.  I had already checked out the modus operandi of ticket machines on Youtube, and those machines were just the same in real life, complete with English translation button (top RH corner).  I found my platform and train by asking. Yes, dear timid reader, I asked, and my couple of words of Japanese served me well. A polite apology for interruption and the flourishing of my ticket was met with more smiles and a ‘You want platform 3, just down there.’ I was now enjoying my dream. I was in Japan.

Japan tour Japan is surprisingly good value for money these days, with return tickets to Tokyo being found for under £600. Any experienced traveller will have no problems with language. A pocket phrase book and a civilized demeanour will, like everywhere in the world, serve you well. But there is more to Japan than the buzz of the big cities, although these are worth the time to explore. There are small towns that are historic, beautiful and full of unique character. There are artisan shops where one might be able to watch traditional candles being made, for instance. The food lover will be blessed with opportunities to taste local specialities and meet the makers. And then there are those sake breweries.

MAFF were not supporting this trip in order for me to make friends with railway workers. I was here to indulge a passion – Sake. I have enjoyed tasting sake in London, and had already studied and gained a very modest qualification in the subject, but this was my chance to actually visit breweries and to taste in situ, so to speak. Nothing can beat seeing the production of anything first-hand. I was part of a group of sake educators who were sitting their final Wine & Spirits Education Trust Sake Level 3 exams. Also in attendance were the two tutors, Natsuke Kikuya and Antony Moss, who have supported this multi-national bunch on their paths to sake knowledge.

Obviously I had seen pictures of the sake-making process but they mostly consisted of shots of anonymous stainless steel vats, crates of bottles and perhaps a few sacks of rice. Not much charm there, I supposed. But once again the reality of Japan surpassed the expectation. We visited breweries that could be mini tourist attractions in their own right.

It’s obvious that sake professionals will want to visit breweries. They will already have their favourite bottles tagged with reminders to visit the originators. They will know about the steps to making perfectly balanced and delicious sake and they will relish the prospect of discussing the niceties of brewing with the Toji (brew master). But there were breweries on this trip that should be incorporated into any visit to Japan, and they will be a delightful addition to any tour even if the tourists are sake virgins.

Japan tour I know that it’s unlikely that a sake novice will embark on a solely sake-dedicated vacation to Japan. I can promise you, however, that if you include a sake brewery or two in your visit, you will become a convert. There is much more to Japan’s iconic beverage than you might find at your local sushi bar, where there will probably be only two varieties available – hot or cold. Many breweries will offer tours and some offer food. They will convert the sceptical.

Kamoizumi brewery in the sake town of Saijo is well worth a visit. The town is a magnet for local sake lovers and should be included in any itinerary. It’s family-run and they produce both first-class sake and some of the best Japanese food I personally have ever tried. The huge Hakutsuru factory brewery in Nada has been around since 1743 and shows the high-tech face of modern sake brewing. There is a sake museum attached and a sizable shop for sake and sake-related gifts.

The delightful Tenryou in Hida with 8 generations of history is unmissable. This was the first brewery I visited and I was impressed by the warm hospitality of a family who are justifiably proud of their sake. The area would be a calming base from which to travel around some unspoilt countryside, and perhaps you’d like to take advantage of staying at an Unsen hot-spring spa for a few days of pampering.

Hirata brewery in picturesque Takayama is beautifully traditional, as is the town, which has the most photogenic wooden buildings – like a mini Kyoto. They present award-winning aged sake in a brewery that still shows the hand-made element of the industry.

The Watanabe brewery in charming Furukawa is among my favourites. One of the brewers here is American, so able personally to guide English-speaking visitors. They take tender care of their sake and believe that a few kind words and cheery sounds help to improve the brew. A visit here will be fascinating.

I will write more about these individual sake breweries in the near future but their internet sites are listed below.

Japan is accessible and open for tourist business. It’s polished and safe and good value for money. I have been enchanted by the country and its people, and have learnt more about sake than I ever could from books and bottles alone. It’s a cultured land that welcomes visitors who are interested in and respect its traditions, and it offers so much to lovers of food, sake and history. One visit is not enough and likely will only act as the introduction to a lifelong travel addiction.

Some useful links:

Visit Wine & Spirit Education Trust here

To learn more about Sake in the UK visit here

Visit The Satoyama Experience here

Visit Hida here

Visit Watanabe Brewery here

Visit Kamoizumi Brewery here

Visit Hakutsuru Brewery here

Visit Tenryou Brewery here

Visit Hirata Brewery here


food and travel reviews

Discover Japanese Sake – with Discovery Channel

Sam HarropWe are invited to ‘Travel with Sam to Japan and uncover the secrets of sake’. But the first questions are likely to be ‘Who is Sam?’ ... and ‘What is sake?’

Sam Harrop, Master of Wine, is a leading consultant winemaker with clients all over Europe. He is also co-chair of the International Wine Challenge, one of the world's largest and most prestigious wine competitions. The IWC now has a category specifically for sake, which attracted nearly 600 entries last year!

So that already helps us to answer that second question: What is sake? It’s a Japanese beverage that is evidently popular with ‘them in the know’ in the wine industry. But that industry enthusiasm mirrors the interest of the general public in London, so the aforementioned Sam takes us on a voyage of discovery with the Discovery Channel to demystify this most iconic drink.

Sam Harrop Although a Master of European-style wines, Sam has long had an interest in sake. It’s not just a drink frequently consumed by folks living on the Pacific Rim. This has been part of Japanese social and religious activity for thousands of years. These days there are fewer sake brewers, and indeed fewer sake drinkers, in Japan, but its celebrity is these days taking on a multi-national dimension.

It is often described as ‘rice wine’ but sake is made with a brewing process much like the production of beer. Sam enlists the support of his friend Kenichi Ohashi who is a Sake Expert, Master of Sake, and has a Diploma from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.

An impressive duo, and one might expect a programme full of over-technical detail, jargon, and a smattering of formality. In fact the result of the film-maker’s art is charming, informative and a good introduction to sake for those outside the wine world. Yes, there are mentions of flavours like banana and pineapple, and there is the requisite amount of Japanese bowing, but it sets the scene and makes for good viewing.

Our two sake explorers take us to brewers who use the latest techniques to produce the finest of sakes while maintaining the historic know-how; we learn about rice cultivation and drinking etiquette and how sake enhances not only Japanese food but also dishes from other culinary traditions. Sake is becoming known as the drink that doesn’t fight with food.

japanese food Sam returns to London and enjoys a kaiseki meal at UMU of Mayfair. Chef Yoshinori Ishii presents plates that are delicious, aesthetic masterpieces to partner some fine sake. Drinking sake is about savouring delicate flavours inherent in the drink, but also enjoying food and good company that will add to the experience.

Discover Japanese Sake can be viewed here




food and travel reviews

Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries

I was told to expect a book. I was told to expect a big book. I was told to expect a coffee-table book. What I got was a book the size of a coffee table but one which will hold my attention long after the furniture would have lost its purely functional appeal.

sake Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan's Artisanal Breweries (yes, the title fits the proportions of the book) is organic in its style and appropriate for the subject. The cover is fabric in a cool winter-sky blue with simple black text. Unfussy, crisp and displaying Japanese taste for minimalism.  One naturally opens the volume with respect.

This is a heavy tome but not heavy reading. It’s a sake story book that will be the volume of choice for any lover of sake or things Japanese with which to snuggle. It’s a picture book over which to pore. Images of craft and continuity are showcased to beautiful effect. Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan's Artisanal Breweries is encyclopaedia of some of the most significant breweries (including 10 shōchū distilleries and 5 Okinawan awamori distilleries), looking at sake and those Japanese spirits. It features 60 or so breweries, with each chapter focusing on the families who have, often for many generations, dedicated their lives to the production of Japan’s iconic beverage. The book displays the diversity of brewing methods that produce such changes in flavour around Japan.

The striking photography is by one of the world's most renowned travel photographers, Jason Lang. He transmits to us the spirit both of sake and of those who labour to make it. He shows the reality of the process, its beauty and charm. Steam, warm rice, brewers and landscape populate these pages. He captures the environment with shots of rugged faces and frosted fields. Vignettes of traditional brewery slippers, high technology and natural wood. Anyone who has visited a sake brewery will be convinced that they can actually smell fermenting mash between these pages.

 Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan's Artisanal Breweries will appeal to a wide audience. For the untutored, it will open a door to sake and introduce the characters who make that distinctive drink possible. For lovers of sake who want to learn more, there is a raft of information to study and muse upon. It’s a book about sake but equally about people and the relationship between the two.

Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan's Artisanal Breweries
Authors: Hayato Hishinuma, Elliot Faber
Published by: Gatehouse Publishing
Price: £75.00
ISBN-10: 9810795289
ISBN-13: 978-9810795283

food and travel reviews

Onikoroshi Honjozo Sake

Founded around 1720 in Takayama Hida in Japan, Oita Shuzo brewery has been producing sake ever since. This is a beautiful region with several noteworthy breweries. It comes alive in winter, which is the sake-brewing season in Japan.
Onikoroshi Honjozo Sake
In the Edo era sweet sake was more highly esteemed than the dry version. Many dry sakes produced in Japan were sarcastically nicknamed ‘Oni Koroshi’.  Oni is the Japanese word for demon and koroshi is slayer or killer. Locals said that even those monsters would die if they drank such dry sake. Now drier sake is more popular and is my favourite style, being crisp, light and more easily paired with Western food. Try a chilled glass with your preferred evening snacks.

Oita Shuzo is now in its 15th generation of family owners and is under the watchful eye of Hideo Oita, although they have moved from their original site in Takayama. Such family business continuity is not so unusual in Japan. The company produces 400kL of sake and shochu each year. They respect traditional methods but are happy to incorporate new technology and practices where they improve the process.

Honjozo is sake that has a small amount of brewer's alcohol added to the fermenting sake mash after the yeast has completed converting the sugar in the rice. To be considered as a honjozo sake, the weight of the additional alcohol must be no more than 10% of the weight of the rice used.

This sake is available in convenient smaller-size bottles. Its reasonable price makes this a great entry-level sake.  Oita Shuzo of Hida produces this Onikoroshi Honjozo Sake with a slightly dry character, displaying an elegant smoothness and a hint of crispness, making this a versatile sake, and one that fits easily into a small sake carafe.

Onikoroshi Honjozo Sake is produced in 300 ml bottles
Alcohol Content: 15.5%.    
Rice polished to 68% (the % of rice remaining after the polishing process is complete)
The Japan Centre has an impressive selection of Sake. They are available online and from their shops.

Japan Centre Food Hall and Book Shop
19 Shaftesbury Avenue
London W1D 7ED

Visit Japan Centre here
Phone: 020 3405 1246
Email: foodshop@japancentre.com

Email: bookshop@japancentre.com

Read the blog at blog.japancentre.com

Join Japan Centre on Facebook here www.facebook.com/japancentre

Follow Japan Centre on Twitter at www.twitter.com/japancentre


food and travel reviews

Ozeki Dry Sake

Ozeki Dry Sake If we are new to sake we will likely be looking for a mild flavour and a light sake. Yes, sake does indeed have a different taste profile from wine, but Japan’s national beverage is distinctive, complex and can be rewarding to those who appreciate its layers and balance.

I found Ozeki Dry Sake particularly interesting as it is the first sake I have tasted that has been produced outside Japan.  In 1711 Ozeki Sake was established in Imazu, Hyogo prefecture, which has long been praised for its great water quality, and this year it hosted the IWC Sake judging.

In order to better provide fresh sake for the US market, Ozeki started its U.S. production in Hollister, California, in 1979. Ozeki was the first Japanese sake brewer to locally produce sake within the U.S. They use local rice grown especially for sake-making; water being the other key component, Hollister was selected for its clear water from the Sierra Nevada.

This is a Junmai style of sake that is made with water, the essential koji mold, yeast and rice. Junmai uses rice that has had 30% milled away, with 70% of each grain remaining. It’s refreshingly dry and smooth with fruit flavours. It can be consumed warm but I think its qualities are best enjoyed chilled when its crisp characteristics come to the fore.

Ozeki Dry works well with food. Yes, obviously sashimi and sushi but also Western dishes such as grilled oily fish like mackerel, or with chicken salad, and it’s exceptional with shellfish.  The alcohol content is 14.5% which is on the low side for sake.

Buy this sake with hot summer evenings and alfresco dining in mind.

Visit the Japan Centre here

food and travel reviews

Shirataki Shuzo Atoaji Kiriri Uonuma Junmai Sake

Japan centre This sake is fresh-tasting, dry and elegant! The quality junmai sake, made in Uonuma City in Niigata, is a pure sake made of just 100% Japanese rice polished to 65% of its original size. The key ingredients are water and koji mould, which turns the starch in the rice to the sugars necessary for fermentation.

With about 90 sake breweries, Niigata is one of Japan’s leading sake-producing areas. The snow and rain that falls on the mountains of this region create springs which feed the rice fields. Winter time is the traditional sake-making season and the cold weather here allows for slow fermentation, resulting in a particularly delicious sake.

The Shirataki Shuzo brewery was established in 1855 in Echigo Yuzawa Town, and began using the local water. The combination of this natural charcoal filtered water, locally-grown Koshihikari rice, and the same traditional sake making principles that have been passed down through generations, as well as modern technology, are what makes Shirataki Shuzo’s sake some of the best.

Uonuma is an area of Niigata Prefecture with celebrated natural beauty. The sake from here is easily paired with a variety of dishes, both Japanese and Western.  This particular sake is a pure sake, meaning that it contains no brewer’s alcohol. It is also of a high quality due to the degree to which the rice has been polished.

This and other fine sakes are available at Japan Centre. Visit them here



food and travel reviews

Sake Cups – or perhaps a glass

sake cups For those of us who love the delicious complexity of sake, the vessel from which we drink is often something of an afterthought. But it shouldn’t be.

A sake set is a generic term for the collection of items used for serving sake. It usually comprises a small flask and cups. Many sake sets are still made of ceramic, but they are increasingly made from natural wood, lacquered wood, glass or even plastic.

Let me liken a sake cup/glass/box to shoes. We have trainers for every day. On the other hand, we enjoy wearing high heels (if we are women, that is) as we know we move in a more elegant fashion. Perhaps the sakazuki, a flat saucer-like cup, can be likened to those classic shoes. So let’s consider the popular shapes and materials for sake cups both traditional and contemporary.

The oldest sake cup style, the wide saucer-like sakazuki, is more often seen at formal ceremonial events such as weddings these days. Shallow and refined, this cup is lifted to the lips with both hands: one to hold the bottom of the cup like a tray and the other to hold it on the rim. Sakazuki are available in a variety of sizes but typically they hold only a few sips. Sakazuki can be ornately decorated and are usually made from porcelain, earthenware or lacquer. These sakazuki are, in my opinion, the high heels of sake drinking accoutrements. Beautiful, elegant but not over-practical for a long night out.

sake cups A much more robust alternative is the ubiquitous wooden drinking box called masu. Traditionally these boxes have a volume of 180 ml. A 720 ml bottle of sake equals a serving of sake for 4 people! They were originally used to measure rations of rice. The masu can be filled to the rim as a sign of prosperity or a small glass can be put into the masu and filled to overflowing to symbolise abundance. Masu can be found in lacquerware but I prefer the pale wood of the traditional box. They are hard to break and able to hold a decent amount of sake, so have become the cup of choice for enjoying sake at festivals, cherry-blossom viewing (‘hanami’) and for me, picnics by the river. One can pretend it’s spring in Japan. Today, masu are often used at those iconic sake barrel-opening ceremonies called ‘kagami biraki’ and at traditional Japanese pubs (‘izakaya’). Some folks argue that the best masu for enjoying certain varieties of sake are those made from Japanese cypress, giving still more aroma and flavour from the natural material.

Anybody who has taken a sake course will have likely used a small, white, ceramic cylindrical vessel called ochoko or choko. These days ochoko is considered similar to guinomi which is the same shape, although ochoko are usually smaller than guinomi. Sake producers and tasters use a special large ochoko called kikichoko which has a circular blue and white design on the bottom of the inside of the cup. The blue hue and pattern are used in the evaluation of the sake's colour and clarity, and the cup's wide opening allows for the sake's subtleties of aroma to be appreciated.

sake cups Sake stemware is also available these days, with a sake cup being mounted on a wide base. Glass is now commonly used to serve chilled sake, where one can enjoy the dew forming on the outside of the vessel. A white or red wine glass with a wide mouth is suitable for enjoying the fragrant sake styles where aroma is most important. Sake is delicate and subtle so tasting from a wine glass instead of a small sake cup will heighten aromas and flavours. Crystal wine glasses are thinner than ceramic ware and can change the perception of sake’s body and complexity. Yes, sake can be served over ice and so sipping from a cut-glass whisky tumbler can be a pleasurable experience.

One is spoilt for choice when it comes to sake drinking vessels. If one is tasting professionally then there is a lot to be said for the traditional industry-standard ochoko or a glass with a wide mouth. But for me, I’ll be sticking to my cheap Daiso-bought sake set. It’s a traditional design which might not allow the character of the sake to burst forth, but I feel I am really immersing myself in sake culture when consuming it in such a way. So try all the options, make your choice, but do drink sake!

food and travel reviews

Koichi Saura – Samurai for Sake

Mr Saura UrakasumiWe, at least in London, are becoming more familiar with Japan’s iconic national beverage. We are tempted to take our first sips in the increasingly numerous Japanese restaurants in the capital. Sake is new to us but it’s been around for a couple of thousand years in some form or other, and there are families that have been dedicated to brewing sake for generations – in some cases more than a dozen generations, and those are dynasties that have endured longer than most Royal houses.

I met Mr Koichi Saura of the celebrated Urakasumi Brewery on one of his frequent visits to London, which has become over the past few years a hub of international sake promotion. Saura-san was, in fact, the founding chairman of the Sake Samurai organisation in Japan which was set up to counter the decline of the sake industry.

I asked Mr Saura about his family history and his home. ‘My ancestors set up the brewery around 290 years ago during the Edo Period (The Tokugawa or Edo period lasted from 1603-1868). My home has a long history and people have written poems about its beauty. It’s in the north of Honshu Island and about 300km from Tokyo, facing the Pacific Ocean. There is a famous shrine there called Shiogama Jinja which is more than 1000 years old. We have always had many visitors and we needed sake to welcome them and also sake to dedicate to the shrine.

Mr Saura Urakasumi ‘I am the 13th generation and the only son so I always thought I would go into the family business. In Japan we own the brewery but we contract Master Brewers to actually make the sake. These days young brewers are making it themselves. We make sake during the winter time, it’s the traditional way. It’s been the best time as the master brewers were usually agricultural workers and there would be little for them to do at home during those months. Also the cold temperatures help us to regulate the fermentation process. These ways are changing though, as now people can find work all year round in other industries.

‘Urakasumi (the name means ‘misty bay’) produces a wide range of Sake products. We use different varieties of rice and different polishing ratios to create a wide range of sake – 20 different styles – and sometimes it’s difficult to keep to the production schedule. Sake production in Japan is around 40% of what it was at its peak. People have more choice of what to drink these days. 40 years ago we didn’t have such a wide selection. People want to try something new from abroad. Older people are trying to reduce consumption as they consider their health more. There is increasing interest now, though.

‘Young people in Japan are not drinking as much alcohol – not just sake but any alcoholic beverages. There has been a change in mentality. Sake is still a cornerstone of culinary culture in Japan. These days there are around 1300 sake breweries spread around the country. Each brewery is a centre for culinary culture and sake is still a drink to dedicate to the gods in Shinto religion. Owners of breweries have played an important part in local society. It’s said that sake brewing is one of the oldest industries in Japan and it still remains an important part of everyday life with sake and food pairing, which I want to continue to promote.’

What was the reason for creating Sake Samurai? ‘A group of young sake brewers wanted to find a way to promote sake to the domestic market. Consumption was decreasing so we had to elevate the profile and change its image. For young people, sake was considered as a drink for grandfathers – old-fashioned. However, when I went abroad people were more interested and were surprised when I informed them that I was the 13th generation of a brewery-owning family, with such a long history. By promoting sake overseas and giving feedback to the domestic market we have found an effective way of elevating the sake profile.’
Mr Saura Urakasumi
Who exactly are the Sake Samurai? ‘We confer the title of Sake Samurai on those people who work hard to promote sake in Japan or overseas. We expect those people to continue to support sake in the future. We started 10 years ago and there are now around 40 Samurai who help to promote sake. We chose the name Samurai as there was the popular movie ‘The Last Samurai’ and we realised that the name was very attractive to foreigners. Samurai has a good image as a person that protects our beautiful traditions so we think it’s appropriate.’

So what of the future of sake? Younger Japanese are taking more interest in their own culture and sake is very much part of that. The international enthusiasm for sake is lagging behind that for Japanese food so there is surely a great opportunity for continued momentum of popularity for this delicious and complex drink.

Visit Urakasumi Brewery here

Visit Sake Samurai UK here

food and travel reviews

Toshie Hiraide - Sake Samurai Japan

Japan has many icons. Sumo, sushi, kimonos are among the first that spring to the non-Japanese mind …along with sake!

Toshie Hiraide Japanese food and sake are becoming more common all over the world and London has a growing list of good restaurants serving sake to an increasingly knowledgeable audience. Toshie Hiraide is the Japanese Sake Samurai Co-ordinator. And that multinational organisation is responsible for promoting sake and finding new markets.

Toshie is a vibrant lady who devotes her energies to spreading the word but she doesn’t, as one might assume, come from a sake-brewing background. Her journey started with wine but her destination is most definitely sake.

Ms Hiraide described her personal sake odyssey. “October 1st is known as the opening day for a graduate to start looking for a new job. Normally almost everyone decides before summer on a company or a career, but I believed I could start in October. But almost all my friends had already found a job to go to by that time, and the only vacancies remaining were in TV and radio companies, and the airlines – so that was the reason that I joined JAL.

“My mother recommended it, too, so I took the exam and, luckily, passed it, and started working for them as a cabin attendant.” Toshie’s face lights up with a laugh as she admits she was no natural as air crew:  “I did suffer from  airsickness.”

“I had never thought about a long-term career. Thirty years ago most Japanese women might work for up to three years, find ‘the right man’, get married and quit the job. By the time you were 25, you were expected to have married – as we say, ’After Christmas, nobody buys a cake!’” More of that infectious laughter.

“I was nearly thirty by the time I had met a man and decided to marry. At the same time I had become interested in wine tasting and wine education. Wine tasting was quite a new thing to us. Twenty days a month I was away from Japan, because of my job, and we often went to restaurants. There were not many Japanese restaurants overseas, but some other good restaurants had wine lists, and they fired my interest. I thought, ‘If I learn about wine, maybe it will be more fun to take a closer look at those wine lists!’

“One of my friends at work had passed a sommelier exam – the Japan Sommelier Association had opened the certificate to cabin attendants. So I went along, and enjoyed the tasting – people can learn, through wine, about different countries and different languages. I passed the exam in 1992.

“Many cabin attendants tried to get the certificate, but more experienced sommeliers sometimes referred to us as ‘paper sommeliers’, having just passed the exam! So I realised that I needed to establish my identity as ‘Sommelier – Cabin Attendant’. We were always travelling, so we could visit wineries and taste wines in their home countries.

“I met some professional Masters of Wine, and was impressed not just by their knowledge but by their desire to educate and to work with the wine industry to bring it up to date. Then one day I visited a sake brewer – of course I knew sake, being Japanese – and I realised that this was a living part of Japan: just rice and water, but with such delicate flavours, and with such a long history. At the same time, I felt sad that so many sake brewers were closing, and that so many Japanese people don’t understand the value of the tradition.

“In 1999 the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) offered to open a wine school for JAL. I suggested to JAL that this was a great chance for us: WSET was a great wine education network and if we partner with them this would be good for JAL. So in 2000 the company assigned me to the school for three months. I worked with WSET and management people at that time to help build up the wine school in Japan.

“Afterwards I went back to flying, and was at the hub in London. I was very happy to meet the WSET people again, and I asked them if there was anything I could bring them from Japan. They were interested in Japanese sake, and said that they knew nothing about it, as sake brewers were not then marketing sake outside Japan. So I brought bottles of sake to London on every trip!

Toshie Hiraide  - Sake Samurai Japan “In 2003 I introduced sake brewers to WSET at a wine seminar. Mr Sam Harrop, a Master of Wine, attended, and he said that he was interested in sake. He had planned to visit Japan to see sake brewers, so I offered to introduce him to some of them.

“We visited brewers in Kyoto and Shizuoka, and Sam enjoyed it, and was impressed by sake. He sought opportunities to introduce sake to the world, and when he became Co-Chairman of the IWC (International Wine Challenge) he looked at creating a sake category. We didn’t know how to get sake entries, as very few of the sake brewers knew of the IWC at that time. I was a Sake Samurai Co-ordinator; Sake Samurai Association became a partner with IWC, and we introduced the IWC to sake brewers, to help find entries and decide on the sub-categories. We sent a judge from Japan, and created some pages in Japanese for the IWC website.

“JAL was in decline at that time, so I quit my job in 2010. This was a big decision: I was 49 years old, and if I stayed in the company my job would become busier and the salary would go down; but it would be hard to change my career. Several sake brewers told me that they could help, and I decided to start a small company and begin a new life.

“I had my own house, though I hadn’t finished paying for it, and I thought of selling it to raise funds both for the business and for my daughter. Luckily I had some connection to people in government, in the Ministry of Economy – the ‘Cool Japan’ section. They were talking about sake. Then I met people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was interested in how to introduce sake to the world. From 2011 they started to use more sake at embassies, in place of the more usual wine. He also gave a ‘sake’ lecture to new ambassadors, which I coordinated. It was very important that Japanese diplomats knew about sake, as well as wine.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was a great support to our work. In 2012 there was a big change: the government decided that any ministry could have a budget to support the introduction of sake to the world – previously only the Finance Ministry could undertake this.

“Sake brewers are all over Japan – family businesses and long histories. If you study French wines, you have to learn the geography of France, so a global programme of sake education is a useful way of introducing Japan to the world. Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are very well-known to non-Japanese people, but through sake education all the other prefectures can benefit from tourism and exports. Because of my career as a cabin attendant, I appreciated that tourism is a really safe industry, in which people visit and spend money, and come back with good stories.

“These days, local governments around Japan sometimes invite me to lecture, talking about my story, how to introduce sake to the world, how it can promote the region. In February I have three seminars – I’m so busy now.

“The IWC group are so friendly and so helpful to us. There are 12,000 wine entries, and only 600 sakes – but this is still the biggest competition outside Japan. Being an IWC sake judge shows that one is a specialist. Once a year at the IWC sake tasting, there is a great opportunity to exchange information and network with new people.”

I asked Toshie if sake was being noticed more in Japan. “In the winter we Japanese have a custom of sending gifts to our friends. The biggest department store in Osaka, Hankyu, sends out a gift catalogue, and last year Hankyu introduced an IWC award-winning sake to the range of gifts: they sold out!

“I am not so much a specialist, I do not have a sake shop or a restaurant, so my role is to continue explaining, showing that vision, but I never imagined that I would be doing what I do now – my plan had been to marry after three years and to be a housewife! Now, with IWC, WSET, the gift catalogue, and many other events, people can see what I do and they can understand. Many people are supporting and helping me – I couldn’t do anything by myself!”

Toshie Hiraide didn’t plan a career in sake but that career has found her. She has had to make adjustments to her life but she has become respected as a sake ‘doer’ and an indispensible part of the increasing global sake buzz. It’s a long way from that airsick cabin attendant, but the flying continues apace.

Visit Sake Samurai here

food and travel reviews

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sake
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Hashi – A Japanese cookery course

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The Japanese Kitchen

Japanese Pure and Simple

The Just Bento Cookbook

Kitcho - Japan’s ultimate dining experience

My Japanese Table

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Umami: THE FIFTH TASTE

Umami Kelp and Wasabi – an introduction

Veggie Haven – Easy Japanese Cooking

Washoku – Japanese cuisine recognised by UNESCO

Recipe: Crunchy Chicken (or Pork) with Yutaka Panko Breadcrumbs

Recipe: Japanese Curry – traditionally cubed

Recipe: Rafute

Recipe: Salmon with Wasabi-Cream Sauce

Recipe: Wasabi Chocolate Truffles

Recipe: Yuzu Cupcakes with Matcha Tea Frosting

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Culture and Travel

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Washoku – Japanese cuisine recognised by UNESCO

Washoku We in the West might consider that we know all about Japanese food and indeed all about Japan. It is, I guess, a consequence of globalisation. We see Japanese tourists on our streets, sushi fast food cafés are now common, and there are more Japanese restaurants in our larger cities. Yes, we know all about it …we think. But there must be more to it than that! Why would the United Nation's cultural organisation add traditional Japanese food to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list?

The learned UNESCO Committee agreed that Washoku (the term for traditional Japanese cuisine) satisfies the criteria for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Washoku became Japan's 22nd intangible cultural heritage, alongside Nogaku and Kabuki theatres, and Yuki-tsumugi, a silk fabric production technique. It was recognised as having the following qualities:

1. Transmitted from generation to generation, Washoku plays an important role in strengthening social cohesion among the Japanese people while providing them a sense of identity and belonging.

That sounds very grand, but any national food should be a source of national identity and pride.

2. Inscription of Washoku could raise awareness of the significance of the intangible cultural heritage in general, while encouraging dialogue and respect for human creativity and for the environment, and promoting healthy eating.

Anyone who has eaten good Japanese food will recognise its healthful qualities. Its presentation is also fundamental, as is seasonality.

3. Safeguarding measures to protect and promote Washoku in different regions of Japan, including research, recording and awareness-raising through education and cultural exchanges, will be implemented by civil society associations and the Government.

This will be an exciting initiative. Japanese cuisine is under threat from contemporary Western fast food, but raising awareness of its unique history and evolution in both Japan and overseas will ensure its future.

4. Communities, individuals, research institutions and local authorities participated in the nomination process in large numbers, and the communities provided free, prior and informed consent.

Japan should be commended for its pride and Washokuconcern for the continued appreciation of Washoku. Perhaps it’s a lesson we could all learn. Every culture has elements worth preserving and celebrating. The Japanese, both in Japan and overseas, show real interest in their traditional dishes, and as time goes on more of us can understand why. Washoku is only the fifth food culture to have made it to the heritage list, the other four being: French cuisine, traditional Mexican food, the Mediterranean diet, and ‘keskek’, a Turkish or Iranian ceremonial dish of meat or chicken and wheat. Washoku isn’t an individual dish but a culinary concept and philosophy.

“We are truly happy,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said of the UNESCO recognition. “We would like to continue passing on Japanese food culture to the generations to come and would also like to work harder to let people overseas appreciate the benefits of washoku.” Ambassador Keiichi Hayashi remarked that “The number of Japanese restaurants is up to 680 in the UK alone, and we hope UNESCO’s recognition will lead to the further promotion of the cuisine here.”
Washoku
Those aforementioned Japanese eateries in the West have introduced a new audience to sushi. Whilst those morsels of rice and fish or vegetables are fresher and lighter than the typical sandwich, it’s a shame that many people have the impression that sushi and sashimi form the basis of every Japanese meal. “Don’t these folks ever eat hot food?” we might ask.

The UNESCO status will hopefully encourage non-Japanese to find out about traditional home cooking as well as the refined kaiseki cuisine. A regular Japanese dinner might consist of separate bowls of rice, miso soup and pickles alongside the main dish. That doesn’t sound very much like sushi, does it? The key factors are seasonality and presentation - subtle flavours and aesthetic beauty. Japan has an extensive battery of recipes of which little is known outside its shores.

The Japanese government is evidently hoping that the UNESCO accolade will help ease safety concerns over the country’s food exports following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the well-publicised Fukushima nuclear crisis. The UNESCO status was confirmed exactly 1,000 days after the disaster that eroded confidence in the safety of Japan’s foods.

We celebrated UNESCO's accolade at the Japanese Washokuembassy in London. Chef Yoshihiro Murata, a multi-Michelined celebrity, took the rostrum with our own Heston Blumenthal. Chef Murata was able to give a Japanese perspective on Washoku. He has been playing an important part fighting for its registration as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. He is well qualified, being the third-generation owner/chef of Kikunoi, a traditional ryotei restaurant in Kyoto. Chef Murata is the director of the Japanese Culinary Academy, an organization founded to promote understanding of Japanese cuisine.

Chef Murata discussed umami which is present in certain ingredients. It’s that indefinable savoury element that one finds in dashi stock. We learned that one can replace oils and fats with umami flavours to produce healthy yet satisfying dishes.

Heston Blumenthal has long been a supporter of Japanese food and an enthusiastic student to his friend Chef Murata. Heston offered amusing anecdotes about his first visit to Japan and described the Japanese passion for fish and selecting tuna in the fish market in Tokyo. It’s evident that Western chefs are looking to Japan for inspiration, new cooking techniques and ingredients.
 
Washoku's designation on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is quite a mouthful but is evidently welcomed by the Japanese government, not only in terms of this unique cuisine’s public elevation, but also for the possible impact on the economy. This designation will surely boost tourism and food exports.

Washoku is prized for its healthful properties. Dishes emphasise the fresh flavours of vegetables and herbs, they showcase the tastes and textures of fish and seafood. Japanese food doesn’t rely on fat to provide flavour, so a Japanese diet will likely aid weight loss. Meat isn’t eaten in great quantities – a contrast to the UK which is also an island nation but which only recently started to see the advantages of fresh seasonal produce and exploring the bounty of the sea.


Japan feature

Umami Kelp and Wasabi – an introduction

Turning Japanese London’s Icetank Studio was the venue for an informative and friendly seminar on Umami hosted by the Japanese Culinary Academy UK and supported by JETRO London (Japan External Trade Organisation). It showcased some of the exhibitors from the Japan Pavilion at this year’s Speciality Food Fair and they gave demonstrations to illustrate the significance of umami. This year, in the Japan pavilion, JETRO hosted 18 companies that provide authentic Japanese speciality products including rice, kelp, tea, sauces, noodles, seasonings and ingredients not yet familiar to UK shoppers.

We in the UK find the concept of umami to be somewhat elusive. We need educating in this element of flavour which can be recognised in all manner of foodstuffs – even those common and definitely not Japanese, such as Marmite. This event helped to demystify umami with flair and expertise from a group of Japanese food big-hitters.

Akemi Yokoyama eloquently conducted this fascinating forum and she was well-placed to do so. She is a chef and instructor at Sozai Cooking School and a respected Japanese food writer and presenter. She was born in Hokkaido, in the north of Japan and that’s the centre of Kombu production.  90% of this remarkable seaweed distributed in Japan comes from Hokkaido.

Chef Daisuke Hayashi was appointed executive head chef at the 2008 G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit, and is currently preparing for the upcoming TICAD Nairobi 2016 summit, where he will be overseeing Japanese cuisine. He is Executive Chef of Tokimeite restaurant and of The Japanese Culinary Academy UK.

Turning Japanese Chef Daniele Codini is Head Chef of Percy and Founders, although he has had plenty of experience working with some of the very best Japanese restaurants in the country. He understands Japanese ingredients and umami and his demonstration showed this to great effect.  First, he offered turbot with the traditional Japanese curing, and then contrasted that with the European, more passive, style cure with salt and sugar. We saw the difference between the two, and how such small changes in ingredients can have a huge impact.

There was an informative contribution from Ms Michiyo Itabashi of Yamao Co. Ltd, a yama-wasabi distributor from Hokkaido. Their horseradish is a natural product; grated, and kept vacuum-packed, it lasts from 3 to 5 years. Temperatures in Hokkaido range from -10 degrees C in winter to +30 in summer, which helps to generate the very agreeable spiciness and distinctive flavour. Wasabi isn’t just delicious paired with Japanese food, however. Use it to accompany roast beef, steaks and in any dish where one might use regular mustard. I have made chocolate truffles with wasabi-infused cream and they were addictive.

Chef Yasuyuki Ouchi of NOBU supported the showcase with a recipe demonstration of Ichiban dashi. This clear soup is used in many classic Japanese dishes with the purpose of imparting umami to the other ingredients. No Japanese food demonstration would be complete or so enjoyable without the addition of delicious and well-matched sake. This was supplied by Takara Brewery which has been a leading producer of sake in Japan for more than 150 years.

Takuro Takahashi and Kyoko Takahashi of Takahashi Food Industry Co. Ltd gave information on their kelp products which were key to the event. Kombu is a cornerstone of traditional Japanese cooking. This seaweed contains glutamic acids, which are the foundation of umami. But what is umami? We often hear that word mentioned with regard to Japanese food but also to Western ingredients, too, these days, and it’s considered one of the five basic tastes. It’s the savoury flavour found in kombu, as well as in other ingredients. Previously there were only four basic tastes, but kombu possessed a taste that could not, until the recognition of umami, be included in any taste profile. This savouriness has since become the fifth basic taste.  It is a vital ingredient of dashi stock, along with bonito flakes, and is at the heart of Japanese cooking.

Turning Japanese Kombu thrives in cold nutrient-rich water. Hokkaido has the benefit of ‘oyashio’ - one of the Sub-arctic ocean currents. Because of this, the Pacific side of the island is an excellent producer of kombu. There are only four main kombu varieties that are suitable for making the celebrated dashi. Kombu that is soft and easy to prepare has less umami, so is used for cooking rather than for stock. Kombu that is tougher and thicker takes longer to cook and is umami-rich, and so is used for dashi stock.

Mr Hayashi closed the event with these sage words: ‘The dishes we demonstrated didn’t have any butter, cream or oil. It is a characteristic of Japanese cuisine that without those three elements you can still satisfy your stomach. The benefit of the Japanese way of eating is to suppress salt and fat intake in dishes by introducing umami into one’s cooking. Obesity is a big issue around the world, but I believe strongly that the Japanese way of eating has a lot to recommend it, and that’s why chefs like ourselves have a responsibility to send a message so people can lead a healthier life. For our fellow-chefs in European countries, I’d like to send the message that the Japanese way of cooking and eating by using umami can inspire them and allow them to create more wonderful dishes.’

We in the West have much to learn from Japanese food and drink producers. Yes, this is evidently a healthy cuisine but it’s also a delicious one. Flavours have both depth and delicacy and dishes take advantage of seasonal vegetables as well as fresh fish. Sake is becoming more popular and is being paired with western foods as well as traditional Japanese fare. I see a solid future for Japanese restaurants and food and drink products around the world, and events such as this should become more frequent and should be supported not only by ex-pat Japanese in the food and drink industry, but also by those of us who want to learn more. Congratulations on a worthy culinary event.

Turning Japanese
Learn more from the following sites:

Visit Japanese Culinary Academy here.

JETRO London (Japan External Trade Organisation)
MidCity Place,
71 High Holborn
London WC1V 6AL

Phone: +44 (0)20 7421 8300
Visit JETRO here.


Sozai Limited
5 Middlesex Street
London E1 7AA

Phone: 020 7458 4567
Visit Sozai here.

food and travel reviews

Crunchy Chicken (or Pork) with Yutaka Panko Breadcrumbs

by Chrissie Walker

It seems like anything fried in breadcrumbs is a winner with the whole family. The trick is to present moist meat with plenty of flavour and crunch. Yutaka Panko breadcrumbs certainly help with texture - sealing in those delicious juices and seasonings.

Here is a spicy coating to enhance the natural flavour of either chicken or pork. The quantities of the seasonings can be varied to suit the tastes of your family but this is a guide.

Yutaka

Ingredients:

1/2 pkt Yutaka Panko breadcrumbs
1 tsp to 1 tbsp salt or to taste
1 tbsp dried mixed herbs such as Herbes de Provence
1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp hot paprika
1 tbsp garlic salt
1 tbsp onion granules
60g plain flour
2 eggs
8 chicken thighs or 6 large pork chops
Oil for frying

panko

Method:

Combine the flour with all the herbs and spices and mix thoroughly. Spread on a plate.

Put the breadcrumbs on another plate.

Crack the eggs and put in a shallow soup plate, and lightly whisk.

Take each chicken thigh or chop and press firmly into the flour to coat well. Dip each of these into the beaten eggs and return to the flour for another coating. Return to the eggs and then into the breadcrumbs ensuring they are fully covered with the crunchy crumbs.

Heat a wide frying pan with enough oil to cover the bottom. Heat on a medium setting.

Place the coated meats in the oil but don’t over-fill the pan. Fry for several minutes without moving the meat. Check that the pieces are dark-golden brown before turning onto the other side. Cook for another 5 minutes, lowering the heat if the crumbs are starting to become too dark.

Oven bake:
Heat the oven to 180°C; place the meat on a non-stick baking tray. Gently brush with vegetable oil and bake for around 30 minutes.


food and travel reviews

Japanese Curry – traditionally cubed

japanese curry We might think that Japanese curry is a new invention. Perhaps Japanese tourists discovered the recipe for curry on recent trips to the Subcontinent. But, no! It’s a tradition adopted from the British Navy and has been popular for a century or so.

If one visits Japan and has the opportunity to stroll around a supermarket then it’s evident that Japanese curry has been whole-heartedly adopted. It comes in sachets and, just as often, cubes called curry roux. It’s there stacked on shelves in many varieties and is eaten with rice …with a spoon!

We don’t have to travel as far as Japan to enjoy a real Japanese curry, as Yutaka Japanese-Style Curry is now available in the UK. It can be used to top rice or breaded chicken or pork but many Japanese prefer the old-fashioned recipe of curry prepared with onion, carrot and potatoes. This makes a comforting and economic meal …and yes, it really is Japanese.

Ingredients:

1 large onion
1 medium carrot
2 medium potatoes
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
800ml cold water
100g Yutaka Japanese-Style Curry

For serving: steamed white rice

japanese curry

Method:

Chop all the vegetables into small pieces.

Add the oil to a large saucepan.

Gently fry the vegetables on low heat until the onions are lightly browned and the potatoes and carrots are beginning to soften.

Add the cold water and bring to a boil.

Turn down to a simmer for 10 minutes or until the vegetables are thoroughly cooked and tender.

Add all the cubes of Yutaka Curry to the saucepan. Stir until the cubes are fully dissolved and the sauce thickens.

Pour the finished curry over cooked rice.

Chef’s tip: You can also make this curry successfully in a pressure cooker.

Open a printable recipe page here.

food and travel reviews

Rafute - Okinawan braised pork belly

This is one of my favourite ways of eating pork. Rafute is flavourful, tender and moreish. It’s a dish popular in Okinawa in the far (very far) south-west of Japan. It’s traditionally made with two local staples – Awamori, which is Okinawa’s celebrated spirit, and the island’s brown sugar, which is often made into candy.

Rafute I have substituted Japanese sake or western vodka for the Awamori which isn’t very readily available outside Japan, and I have used dark brown sugar instead of the classic Okinawan sugar, kokuto, which I have never found in London. The flavour will be a little different from the original dish but it will still be delightful.

Ingredients:

1 kg piece boneless pork belly, skin on
250 ml dry sake or vodka
125 ml dark soy sauce – preferably Japanese
120 g dark brown sugar
130 ml mirin
8 thin slices fresh ginger

To serve: English mustard or French grain mustard, and soy sauce.

Method:

Place the pork belly in a large saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Boil for 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat, discard the water and rinse any scum from both pork and saucepan. Return the pork to the pan and cover with cold water. Place over medium heat and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook for 1 hour. Or place in a slow cooker (crockpot) and cook on High for 2½ hours.

 Remove the pork from the pan or slow cooker, reserving the cooking liquid, then cut the meat into 5 cm squares. Place the pork pieces in another saucepan and add the sake or vodka, soy sauce, sugar, mirin and ginger. Add enough of the reserved cooking liquid to cover the pork by half a centimetre. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 1½ hours or until the pork is very tender. Remove the pork and keep warm but continue to cook the liquid to reduce a little. This should take 5 or 10 minutes. 

Arrange the pork pieces in a warm dish and pour over the braising liquid (you can freeze the remaining liquid for future use). Serve with Japanese vegetables and tofu, with mustard and extra soy sauce on the side.

Open a printable recipe page here.

food and travel reviews

Umami: THE FIFTH TASTE

It’s a buzz-word these days: Umami. It’s a very familiar taste, flavour, sensation on the taste buds but we have only relatively recently put a name to this savouriness, this deliciousness. That’s umami; but how is it viewed with regard to sake?

Umami Umami was originally a Japanese word and it’s all about a particular taste: of ingredients, of foods and drinks, and that includes sake. These days it’s considered by some to be a recognised flavour just like sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Parmesan cheese and tomatoes are very Western ingredients that can be described as having umami, just like some sake.

Umami is often associated with amino acid content. Glutamic acid is one of the main types of amino acids giving the umami flavour. This was discovered back in the early 1900s. Sake has much more of this than wine, which has 10-90g per litre, while sake has 100-250g per litre. Sake is considered rich in umami and pairs well with foods displaying those same characteristics. Umami in a sake is not always welcomed, as a surfeit can present undesirable ‘off notes’. Dry, light sake often lacks very much umami and would work well with fresh and lightly dressed salads, some vegetarian dishes and delicate fish dishes. Sake styles with an evident umami content pair with raw or lightly fried fish, and some miso-based and mild cream-based sauces.

Umami: THE FIFTH TASTE is a beautiful guide to that elusive taste, that confuses some people to the extent that they still don’t believe it actually exists. With forewords by two world-renowned leaders in the culinary industry, chef Thomas Keller and food journalist Harold McGee, this book offers examples, recipes (including umami sweets by Regis Cursan and Keiko Nagae), history and many striking pictures by Akira Saito to illustrate the theme, and information on the science behind the recognition of umami taste. The volume also includes interviews with Michael Anthony, Heston Blumenthal, Alexander Bourdas, David Kinch, Virgilio Martinez, Nobu Matsuhisa, Yoshihiro Murata and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino. A creditable line-up of gastronomic worthies.

Research has confirmed that our mouths contain taste receptors for umami’s savouriness. There are numerous examples of the appreciation of umami from all over the world. Marmite is one of those and I think it truly demonstrates the flavour profile of umami, albeit in a rather strident and un-Japanese way. August Escoffier, the celebrated 19th-century French chef, isn’t known to have been a lover of Marmite but he recognised that there was a savoury fifth taste. He incorporated this into stocks and it was this that was to become instrumental in his rise to fame. This isn’t a new flavour. It’s always been there but now we can put a name to it: Umami – the fifth taste.

Umami: THE FIFTH TASTE
Published by: Japan Publications Trading Company
Price: £25
ISBN-10: 488996391X
ISBN-13: 978-4889963915


food and travel reviews

Food Sake Tokyo

Food Sake Tokyo Tokyo is a vibrant modern city but tradition is still evident. We might be looking for the latest technology in Akihabara or fashion and pop culture in Takeshitadori but we all need food and many of us need sake and that’s found all around this sprawling town if you know where to look for it.

This compact and sturdy volume, Food Sake Tokyo, takes the reader on a culinary adventure through more than a dozen neighbourhoods to discover the best, the most intriguing spots showcasing the local food and drink scene. Yes, every guide book will devote a few pages to restaurant suggestions and even a mention of the town’s signature dishes but for a true food and sake lover that only teases. Food Sake Tokyo will be a worthy pocket companion of the dedicated gourmet.

The author, Yukari Sakamoto, was the first non-Japanese (she’s an American of Japanese extract) to pass the test to become a ‘shochu adviser’. She has taught classes on food, wine, and shochu (Japanese distilled spirit), and has offered culinary tours of Tokyo’s shops and markets. In Food Sake Tokyo Yukari introduces unfamiliar ingredients, traditional dishes, and culinary culture that make Tokyo such a mecca for food and sake lovers. She leads the reader to the best and most exciting food that Tokyo has to offer, explaining and sampling along the way. There is plenty of information on where to find the best knives (a souvenir for the serious home sushi chef), the indispensable lacquerware and pottery for displaying your Japanese cooking skills, and those kitchen gadgets that are both functional and beautiful.

We who appreciate sake will be looking for the opportunity to taste and buy the national beverage. Other visitors will be new to the world of sake but would likely enjoy the chance to learn more in situ. Yukari has penned a glossary of sake terms that will help when selecting an appropriate bottle or with understanding more about bottles with which you might be presented.

Food Sake Tokyo has a whole section on suggestions of where exactly to drink sake. Sometimes sake producers will display their products and offer free tastings. Many breweries have guided tours but mostly in Japanese so take your own interpreter. A sake student will be entranced by the smells of sake brewing. Izakayas (small Japanese pubs) have a range of Japanese drinks including sake which you can enjoy with traditional dishes and very local company. There are plenty of suggestions here and also for Standing Bars which are great for a quick sake fix but without the comfort of chairs. Less casual drinking and dining options are listed aplenty for those who are looking to push out the gastronomic boat.

Food Sake Tokyo
Author: Yukari Sakamoto
Published by: Little Bookroom
Price: £19.99
ISBN-10: 189214574X
ISBN-13: 978-1892145741
food and travel reviews

Salmon with Wasabi-Cream Sauce

   by Chrissie Walker

This is a versatile recipe than can be made when you are home alone, or increase the quantities and you have a dinner party for six. It’s simple, with few ingredients.

Ingredients per person

1 salmon steak or fillet
10g butter
½ - 1 tsp wasabi (available from Japan Centre)
2 sachets Shimaya Kelp Dashi Stock - Powder (available from Japan Centre)
2 tbs double cream
2 or 3 cherry tomatoes, halved
¼ pack Soba noodles (available from Japan Centre)
½ tsp powdered seaweed, made from 4tbs of shredded seaweed (available from Japan Centre), for garnish
Green vegetables as a side dish

Salmon with wasabi Put a quantity of shredded dried seaweed in a spice/coffee grinder and process to a coarse powder. Use ½ tsp of this per portion of fish as a finishing garnish, and seal the rest in an air-tight container for future use as a sprinkle on fish, salads and noodles.

Bring 1 litre of water to the boil and add 2 sachets of Shimaya Kelp Dashi Stock - Powder. More stock will be needed if you are preparing this dish for more than 2 people.

Heat a frying pan over medium heat and melt the butter.

Add the tomatoes and salmon, skin side down, and gently fry till the fish is half cooked and the skin is coloured. Turn the fish and cook on the flesh side.

As soon as the fish is cooked through and coloured remove from the pan along with the tomatoes. Keep warm.

wasabi salmon Add the noodles to the boiling stock and cook for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile add ½ cup of stock from the boiling noodles to the frying pan and deglaze. Add the cream and wasabi and mix thoroughly. The sauce should bubble and thicken. If it looks too thick then reduce the heat and add more stock.

Drain the noodles and arrange on a serving plate, and top with the salmon. Sprinkle over a little of the ground seaweed and spoon the sauce and the tomatoes around. Serve with green vegetables such as steamed broccoli.

Tip: Reserve the stock in which the noodles were boiled to use as a soup base, with the addition of some cooked vegetables or tofu, to go with the salmon tonight or for tomorrow’s lunch.

Visit Japan Centre here

food and travel reviews

Yuzu Cupcakes with Matcha Tea Frosting

Looking for Japanese flavours in a dessert but using traditional Western techniques? This could be the recipe for you.

Yuzu Cupcakes with Matcha Tea Frosting are little fancies that would be a welcome addition to a very English afternoon tea, but they use very Japanese Yuzu juice giving a citrus tang; and then there is the equally iconic matcha tea which I have added to a 7-minute icing recipe.

Yuzu cake For the cupcakes:
110g butter, softened
110g caster sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
110g self-raising flour
1 - 2 tbsp milk

For frosting:
50ml water
150ml granulated sugar
2 egg whites
¼ tsp cream of tartar
1 pinch salt
½ tsp vanilla
1 tbsp fine matcha powder (available from Japan Centre)

For Yuzu syrup:
30g sugar
30ml water
30ml yuzu juice – or to your taste (available from Japan Centre)

Method for cakes:
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F.
Fill a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cupcake cases.
Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until pale. Beat in the eggs a little at a time.
Fold in the flour using a large metal spoon or spatula, adding a little milk until the mixture is of a dropping consistency. Half-fill each of the paper cases.
Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, or until golden-brown and well-risen. Cool on a wire rack.

Method for the frosting:
In a heatproof bowl whisk together water, tea, sugar, egg whites, cream of tartar and salt. Ensure the tea is dissolved.
Put the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water; beat constantly, preferably with an electric whisk, until the mixture holds stiff peaks. This takes between 5 and 7 minutes.
Remove from the heat and transfer the frosting to a cool bowl. Beat until the frosting is cooled, about 2 minutes.

Method for the syrup:
Combine water and sugar in a small pan over a low heat. Allow the sugar to dissolve. Add the juice to your taste. Allow the syrup to cool.

Assemble the cakes:
Prick each cake with a skewer. Spoon over the syrup. Swirl over the match tea frosting. Serve with green tea.


Visit Japan Centre here.

food and travel reviews

Wasabi Chocolate Truffles

This recipe is embarrassingly simple but will likely get you a heap of compliments. Anyone who enjoys a dab of wasabi with their sushi will appreciate the heat, the spice and the flavour of these truffles.

wasabi truffles 100g dark chocolate (70% or the best quality you can find)
100ml double cream
10g butter
1 - 2 tsp wasabi paste or to taste (available from the Japan Centre)
Cocoa powder for dusting

Break the chocolate into small pieces.

Gently heat the milk but don’t allow it to boil.

Put the chocolate, butter and wasabi into the warmed milk and stir till the chocolate is melted and everything is combined. Put aside to cool.

Use a small cookie scoop or a spoon to shape the truffle mixture into balls. Roll in cocoa powder to coat.

For extra flair add some edible glitter, pearls or beads.

These make an ideal end to a Japanese meal, served with hot coffee or green tea, for a meltingly-luxurious finish.

Visit the Japan Centre for more Japanese ingredients.


food and travel reviews

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Restaurants:

Chisou - Knightsbridge

Ichi Sushi & Sashimi Bar

Ichiryu Hakata Udon House

Inamo – St James

Inamo Techno Restaurant

Itsu - Notting Hill Gate

Shoryu Ramen – Soho

Soseki

Tsunami - Charlotte Street

UMU of Mayfair

Interview: Hisashi Taoka of Kiku

Interview: Ryosuke Mashio – UMU Head Sommelier

Interview: Chef Yoshinori Ishii of UMU

Culture and Travel

Sake

Food


Ichiryu Hakata Udon House

Ichiryu Ichiryu Hakata Udon House is from the same stable that brings you Japan Centre and the chain of Japanese restaurants, Shoryu. Ichiryu is a well-placed eatery on New Oxford Street, and even after just a couple of months it’s enjoying a loyal following of office workers, shoppers, and I hear it’s been discovered by a chef or two!

This is a light and contemporary restaurant and it pays creditable attention to detail. It’s the little things that one notices front of house that indicate how a restaurant is run. Chopsticks are uniformly parallel to the edge of the table. Serviettes are paper but they sport the company logo indicating an element of pride. The high bar table has handbag hooks which are a thoughtful touch; but there are more regular tables for those of us with no balance skills. Service is friendly and periodically animated with shouts of welcome and farewell punctuated by drum beats.

Tak Tokumine, who founded Japan Centre in 1976, has a passion for the food of his hometown of Hakata in Fukuoka prefecture. In fact this town is famed for noodles. As the name suggests, Ichiryu Hakata Udon House specialises in handmade noodles. Those noodles are indeed handmade as one can watch hands actually making them. Surely noodles don’t get fresher than that.

The noodles in question are Udon. These are celebrated for their chewy texture. All Udon are not created equal but of all those I have tasted recently, these are most to my taste. Well, perhaps the word taste isn’t quite correct: I really mean that they are to my texture with the preferred degree of bounce.

Ichiryu Ichiryu sells noodles but they do need to be floating in something, and in this case it’s a light and well-flavoured broth. Even this varies from restaurant to restaurant and from company to company. I have had delicious noodles that are coated by a much thicker white soup made from simmered bones and that’s wonderful, but the Ichiryo broth showcases the noodles and the garnishes rather than filling one with a soup as thick as sauce.

We started our meal with matcha tea to which I have become addicted over the past few years. Here presented in the largest tea bowls I have ever seen. This vibrant green liquid is becoming more popular worldwide as it offers greater health benefits than does regular leaf tea. One ingests the whole leaf rather than just drinking the liquor resulting from the traditional tea-brewing process.

Ichiryu My guest ordered Udon noodles with a garnish of Niku Beef. The marinated shaved meat was deliciously savoury and tender. Courgette tempura was our choice of side dish. It offered a light crunch from the batter enrobing the quarters of vegetable that still retained their form and natural flavour.

I grazed on Gyoza which are pot-sticker dumplings and well worth trying. There was the usual soy condiment, but this time with yuzu paste which was outstanding with deep citrus tang complementing the rich filling of the dumplings.

Hakata buns are here with various fillings. These, I believe, originated in Taiwan and are an Asian sandwich. The fluffy folded bread held, in our case, some fresh and flaky cod. One of these would make a substantial nibble with drinks but three would constitute a full meal. Chicken Cutlet is a simple dish which was elevated to the memorable by the associated spicy sauce. The coating was crunchy and the meat moist.

Ichiryu Dessert of mochi filled with ice cream is undoubtedly Japanese but is becoming popular internationally. It’s that agreeable combination of chewy ricecake surrounding an ice-cold filling. At Ichiryu the dessert arrives as a trio of sesame, matcha and yuzu-flavoured mochi. Kids will love this.

Ichiryu Hakata Udon House doesn’t put a foot wrong. The food is comforting, the ambiance relaxing, and it offers value for money.

Ichiryu Hakata Udon House
84 New Oxford St
London
WC1A 1HB

Email:  info@ichiryuudon.com

Visit Ichiryu here

Opening hours
Mon - Sat: Noon - 22:30
Sun: Noon - 21:30

food and travel reviews

Shoryu Ramen – Soho

Shoryu Ramen - Soho
Shoryu Ramen launched in November 2012 and has already been recommended in the Michelin Guide of 2014 and 2015. It has fast become a small but reputable London chain. They specialise in, well, ramen of the Hakata tonkotsu style originating in Fukuoka, Kyushu, Japan’s southern island. Hakata tonkotsu broth is a classic thick and rich pork stock. The ramen noodles are thin and straight (known as hosomen) and just the right texture to hold the celebrated soup. They offer the traditional version of the dish here, but also some variants which presented an epicurean adventure to this Japanese noodle-lover.

Noren curtains hung at the entrance of the Soho branch of Shoryu Ramen and a hungry queue of soon-to-be diners waited on the other side. It’s always refreshing to find Japanese restaurants frequented by ex-patriate Japanese. Shoryu has competition all around but is certainly ahead of the field in many respects. The décor is traditional pale wood, a paper lantern in a corner, an open kitchen, black-clad staff who hold the promise of fast service. A restaurant that prides itself in a quick turn-round.

The menu offers the expected ramen noodles but also some alternatives that will gladden the hearts of those who love the silky texture of tonkotsu but would periodically enjoy a different flavour profile. It also sports a creditable array of unmissable starters andShoryu Ramen - Soho a surprisingly good selection of Sake.

We ordered a carafe of Taru sake. I am a Sake Sommelier and have been blessed by being able to try many different bottles, but this is unique. It is aged in wood and the essence of that barrel impregnates the brew. It’s full of distinctive character and charm. A must-try.

Shoryu Buns (gluten-free are also available) were the first of our starters. These steamed hirata-style buns are amazingly light. They are snowy-white with the Shoryu character branded onto each one. Shoryu means 'to bring good fortune' …so have a couple! They are served from individual wooden steamers and filled with barbecue char siu pork belly or soy-marinated chicken karaage or ginger salmon tatsutage. These buns looked impressive …and rather formal. They were flavourful and moist. A signature starter.

Hakata Tetsunabe Gyozas are another Fukuoka dish and they are moreish. A trio of pork and vegetable-filled pot-sticker-type dumplings arrived hot in a cast-iron pan. The stuffing was delicate and the dough a perfect texture. Morsels to nibble while waiting for noodles; but be warned – those bowls of ramen are substantial!
Ramen runs to around £10 - £12 a portion but that constitutes a full meal. There are numerous garnishes included in that price; other restaurants offer a list of toppings as extras. Shoryu use Burford Brown eggs to make nitamago (soy-marinated soft boiled eggs with glistening yolks); these, along with ginger, slow braised marinated pork, caramelised black garlic oil, kikurage mushrooms, spring onion and nori seaweed are all included unless otherwise stated!

My guest ordered Dracula Tonkotsu which was a dark soup with the deep-roasted notes of garlic in every guise.Shoryu Ramen - Soho This was a hearty bowlful with warming complexity. This might not be the choice for a quick before-business lunch but it’s an exceptional dish on other occasions. Very different from the original Tonkotsu.

I chose Curry Ramen. This is also a very different dish from the white-broth Fukuoka staple. The soup was rich with spice but not to the extent of heat overpowering taste buds. There were generous chunks of karaage chicken, nitamago, nori seaweed, menma bamboo shoots, naruto fish cake and a garnish of chopped spring onion. This curry soup isn’t a faux-Indian curry but something that has evolved as a truly Japanese preparation. It was a delicious and substantial bowl and one which I can highly recommend.

Truffle Mochi was my guest’s dessert. Japanese sweets are about texture rather than overwhelming sweetness. Mochi is a traditional favourite and is made from rice flour producing a rather elastic dough. In this case the mochi was filled with a matcha (green tea) truffle. Delightful with a cup of Japanese tea from a beautiful pot.

Shoryu Ramen Soho is vibrant and traditional but pushing the culinary envelope away from the ubiquitous white broth. I was impressed with service, sake list and the food. I will return to try more from the menu – both food and drink.

Shoryu Ramen SohoShoryu Ramen - Soho
3 Denman Street
London
W1D 7HA

Mon – Sat: 11:15am -midnight
Sun and Bank Holidays: 11:15am - 22:30pm
Last orders 30 minutes before closing

email: shoryu.soho@shoryuramen.com

Visit Shoryu Ramen here



Japan feature

Ryosuke Mashio – UMU Head Sommelier

Ryosuke Mashio – UMU Head SommelierWe are spoilt for choice in London. We have restaurants of every ethnic hue. It’s a cosmopolitan city and food reflects our diversity. Japanese restaurants are more in evidence that ever, and acknowledged as one of the finest is UMU of Mayfair.

The very address hints at the quality to be found within. Chef Yoshinori Ishii has a deservedly high reputation as the skilled exponent of the elaborate, beautifully presented and seasonal kaiseki cuisine. Not all Japanese restaurants are created equal. One can snack on sushi on almost every corner, it seems; ramen noodles are providing big bowls of steamy comfort; but UMU is polished and extraordinary.

Along with exquisite food, UMU diners are invited to peruse a creditable wine list but there is also Japanese sake …and a lot of it. Sommelier Ryosuke Mashio is the man in charge of the sake cellar as well as the wine cellar, and the wall at the end of the dark wood-bedecked restaurant is decorated with coolers filled with sake bottles sporting attractive and, for me at least, indecipherable labels. UMU does, in fact, boast the largest selection of sake in Europe.

Many sommeliers are old, dusty and intimidating but Ryosuke Mashio is part of that new breed of beverage specialist. He is young, enthusiastic, energetic and knowledgeable. He didn’t have a passion for sake from babyhood. His family don’t own a sake brewery, and his career in sake started, ironically, in London.

Ryosuke came as a student with very little English. ‘Seven years ago I came to London with just one guide book about the city. I checked where I had to go from my arrival at Heathrow to the youth hostel where I was going to stay. It was at Canada Water.’ He still remembers the route and recounts that he was relieved and happy when he reached his own little room.

What had encouraged Ryosuke to come to London? ‘I wanted to live and work in an English-speaking country. I chose the UK for no particular reason. It was my first time outside Japan. My family didn’t have anything to do with sake or wine or even the restaurant industry and, to be honest, at that time I didn’t have much experience either. But when I came to this country I really wanted to be a sommelier. I had good bar-tender skills as I had worked in a bar in Tokyo when I was 20 so I had knowledge of spirits, gin, vodka and cocktails but I didn’t know much about wine and sake.

‘I was looking for work and I noticed an advert from this restaurant. They were looking for an assistant sommelier. I applied for the post but they were looking for someone with experience to fill that high position. I didn’t have the appropriate knowledge but I still wanted to be a sommelier. Naturally the restaurant management refused me so I started working as a commis waiter instead, to gain some relevant work experience in the restaurant. I was not even a proper waiter! I was just moving the food from the kitchen to the table where the real waiter would serve the guests. It was boring and it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to be involved in the drinks side of the business.

‘I asked if I could extend my hours. I was a student and was only allowed to work 20 hours per week. I spent extra non-work hours at the restaurant to learn more about drinks. I started with bar-tending and joined the team at the very bottom, and after four years I had the position of sommelier; then I became assistant head sommelier and then head sommelier.’

Ryosuke Mashio – UMU Head Sommelier That really seems good progress through the ranks but it takes hard work as well as passion to become a respected sommelier. ‘I went to the Wine & Spirits Education Trust for wine study and then I took a Sake training course as well. Serving wine and sake in the restaurant relies more on my experience from working here. Talking with my group head sommelier and assistant head sommelier has given me lots of knowledge. We have very good clients and they always order something special so I have had the chance to try exceptional sake and wines that I have never tasted before and thought ‘Wow, this is the wine I have read about in my books and now I am trying it here in UMU.’

‘I think it’s most important to actually taste wine. If you go to school you are given 3 or 4 different types of sake or wine to taste but every day on the restaurant floor I have the opportunity to try 10 or 20 different bottles of sake or wine and you grow to understand how it tastes, how it looks and you can make comparisons.

It’s difficult even for sommeliers to recognise the different styles of sake sometimes. It’s easier with traditional European wines. We often have sommelier competitions between us here in UMU. We have blind tastings and with wines it’s not hard to recognise what they might be. But it’s a different matter with sake. It can be quite tough to recognise a particular bottle from a particular brewer. I can tell that the sake is a specific style like Daiginjo (super premium sake) for instance but it’s much more difficult to define where it was brewed. It’s easier to recognise a vineyard and winemaker.’

Diners at some chain sushi bars sometimes only have the choice of a couple of different styles of sake: Hot or Cold. Things are improving and now more Japanese restaurants are offering sake lists. I was curious as to whether UMU guests were adventurous with their choices. ‘To be honest I think that 75% of sales are still for wine, and only 25% for sake. The customer has usually already decided what he will drink before he reaches the restaurant: “Tonight I am going to have a nice bottle of white wine,” although sometimes it might be “Whenever I go to UMU I always drink sake.” It’s more expensive than wine so it’s quite a challenge for me to sell sake to people who know nothing about it. I suggest a bottle at a reasonable price but good quality. Everyone knows what to expect from wine but they don’t have much idea about sake, they might have heard about it from a friend but often people don’t want to take the chance. What I try to do is allow people to try just a little sake that I would offer as an alternative to their usual wine.’

UMU is famed for its food and selection of the finest sake. At the last count they could offer more than 130 bottles of sake. Ryosuke hopes to increase that already-creditable number to between 150 and 160 bottles in the near future. But have attitudes in the UK to drinking sake changed over the years? ‘Gradually things are changing. We at UMU offer plenty of opportunity to taste sake. Unfortunately there are some restaurants that stock inferior quality sake. It can be easy to drink but the next day might find the drinker with a headache. That’s how the myth has evolved that sake is as strong as vodka: they think it’s distilled, and will likely give them a hangover, so they avoid drinking sake again.’

Ryosuke Mashio – UMU Head Sommelier Sake is misunderstood. It’s called rice wine but it’s brewed, more like beer. The first-time sipper might well expect a fruity ‘wine’ as that would be their only point of reference, but it has a distinctive flavour derived from rice and other ingredients, along with the famously soft water of Japan. It’s difficult to describe. Ryosuke agrees. ‘People don’t know what sake is. It’s described as rice wine but it doesn’t taste like that and it’s not an easy comparison. When we talk about sake we must use wine terms. The wine industry is long-established here. For me the characters of wine and sake have to be described using the same terms.

‘I have a combined sake and wine list. When I have new sommeliers at UMU they have good knowledge of wine but they don’t know much about sake. I always tell them to use the same terms they would use when talking about wine – aromatic, dry, sweet – all the words we use for wine we can use for sake. We can close the gap between wine and sake by education and promotion. The first step is to allow people to enjoy, and then encourage them to return and perhaps try another variety of sake.’

Ryosuke Mashio is a quietly spoken young man with an engaging manner. He is a sake match-maker and educator. He understands UMU diners, his cellar and the striking food of Chef Ishii. Sake might not be the cheapest meal partner but a perfectly chosen sake enhances food in remarkable fashion. A good sommelier can transform a delicious dinner into a memorable experience, and in this Ryosuke has his unique niche.


UMU
14 - 16 Bruton Place
Mayfair,
London W1J 6LX
Phone:+44 (0)20 7499 8881
Fax:+44 (0)20 7016 5120

Monday to Friday
Lunch 12.00 - 14.30
Dinner 18.00 - 23.00

Saturday
Dinner 18.00 - 23.00

Visit UMU of Mayfair here
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