Japanese Drinks – Shochu!

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

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

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

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

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

Rice mold, or koji

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

Honkaku shochu

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

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

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

Japanese Drinks – Beer!

Long, hot days, summer vacation and baseball are the hallmarks of summer and in Japan, are best enjoyed while drinking an ice cold beer!

Japan ranks among the top beer consumers in the world, selling an estimated 718.5 million gallons in 2015 according to the Brewers Association of Japan. Five companies dominate the beer market in Japan, including Asahi, Kirin, Suntory, Sapporo and Orion. These five companies, along with craft breweries, produce the majority of beer in Japan, everything from traditional lagers and ales, happoshu or low-malt beers to new genre beers, which are brewed from non-malted crops.

And those beers are the siren song of summer.

Beer is enjoyed throughout the year, but the warmer days of summer inspire Japanese people to enjoy their beer in large mugs after work at Japanese izakaya pubs, at beer gardens with savory delicacies and served by beer girls at baseball games. Everywhere you can enjoy beer has a story… and the most unique experiences!

Enjoying cold, frosty mugs of beer at beer gardens is a uniquely Japanese experience. Open only during the summer, department stores host beer gardens on their rooftops in the evenings. Customers purchase entry tickets, which entitle them to as much beer and food (and sometimes dessert!) that they can consume during a specified time. Sometime these beer gardens even have themes, like the “Genghis Khan Beer Terrace” at the Odakyu Department Store in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Here they serve Genghis Khan Barbecue and all-you-can-drink Hokkaido beer. The highest beer garden in Japan–Beer Garden Patio 28—is located at a height of 453 feet on the 28th floor of the Osaka Rinku Gate Tower building. This beer garden caters to the exclusive gourmand, serving food prepared on order by famous chefs and a varied selection of drinks, not just beer. And one of the largest beer garden in Japan is held in Hokkaido’s Odori Koen. This beer garden can seat 13,000 people and has even more standing room! A few hours in the open evening air, with views of the city lights and airplanes taking off from the neighboring airport, enjoying a cold beer and good company sounds amazing!

If you are interested in learning about the beer making process, some of the major breweries have opened up their facilities to provide educational opportunities and to allow visitors to taste the full line of beers they offer. One of the popular destinations is the Asahi Beer’s Kanagawa Brewery, where you can get an English guide service. The factory tours dive into the process of brewing beer, and end with tastings!

The big breweries have also helped spawn the craft beer movement in Japan. Since the mid-1990’s small-scale breweries throughout Japan have begun making specialty beers, often using traditional methods and uniquely Japanese ingredients. One such brewery is run by brewmeister Momoyo Kagitani, the brewer of Loco Beer, and multiple award-winning brewer of craft beer. Ms. Kagitani has developed a Japanese version of the German kolsh beer, suiting it to local tastes and creating an international sensation. She carries on the tradition of brewing that reaches back to the mid-1880s, when Dutch traders setup their own mini-breweries in Nagasaki to serve their shipmates.

The next time you’re in Japan, enjoy a cold one at your local izakaya, beer garden or baseball game! And don’t forget to share your photos with us!

Japanese Street Food:  Yakitori!

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Who doesn’t love grilled chicken on skewers?

Yakitori is one of the most popular and ubiquitous types of kushiyaki found in Japan and in areas where Japanese food is popular. Yakitori are bite-sized pieces of chicken, skewered and grilled. In Japan, yakitori can be found at yakitori-ya restaurants, street food festival stands and more commonly, at izakaya, or bar and grill style restaurants.

Having them at a street fair or izakaya is quite an experience!

Generally paired with beer or sake, yakitori are perfect for after-work happy hour or after-party noshing. There are quite a few varieties of yakitori. One of the most popular ones is tsukune, which are ground chicken meatballs, glazed with a thin teriyaki-style sauce and often accompanied by shichimi pepper. Negima yakitori are small pieces of chicken thigh skewered on bamboo sticks with stalks of green onion, and occasionally salted or glazed. Without the green onion, these yakitori are called momo, literally meaning “thigh”. Kawa is a traditional yakitori preparation where chicken skin is folded and grilled extra crispy. Tebasaki are grilled chicken wings. Sunagimo are chicken gizzards, rebaa are chicken livers and nankotsu are breast cartilage… marinated, glazed and grilled to perfection. You can even get chicken heart, neck and hind end!

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Grilling yakitori is an art form. Binchotan charcoal is used to heat the grill, which is smokeless and odorless, and made from hard Japanese oak. The wood is fired at extremely high temperatures in an oxygen-poor environment and quickly cooled to make it smooth and long-burning. This charcoal is the best to grill with, as it doesn’t adulterate the flavor of the food.

Eating yakitori is half the fun. Skewers are usually ordered in sets of two or as part of a combination plate called moriawase. You pick your sauce or tare, or just have your skewer sprinkled with salt. Sometimes, ordering sides of boiled eggs, potatoes or vegetables rounds out the meal, but mostly yakitori are delicious with beer and sake and good friends!

Share your izakaya or yakitori-ya story with us… from here in the US or from your trip or stay in Japan. Then stay tuned for next month’s street food showcase!