Japanese Drinks – Shochu!

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

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

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

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

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

Rice mold, or koji

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

Honkaku shochu

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

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

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

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Sake and Mirin

sake

We’ve talked about the five basic elements of Japanese cooking so far in this series, showcasing salt, sugar, vinegar, soy sauce and miso in ryori no sa shi su se so. But we have yet to explore sake and mirin, both of which are essential to Japanese cooking, and are the topics of this month’s post.

Sake and mirin are alcoholic liquors that are both imbibed and used as ingredients in cooking, similar to the way wine is used in French cooking. Both sake and mirin were originally cultivated as drinks–sake as a sacred offering to the gods, and to be enjoyed in ceremony by the Japanese people— and mirin as a popular aperitif among the upper classes. Today, their culinary uses have permeated all of Japanese cooking.

sakagura

A sake brewery

Sake, or nihon-shu, is a rice wine made from rice, spring water, rice koji and shubo. The technique for making sake was originally introduced to Japan from China, around the same time that the rice plant was introduced. The entire brewing cycle is overseen by a brewmaster, or toji, who carefully orchestrates the multiple steps that go into producing this wine. Rice from the last harvest in autumn is typically used to make sake, and once it is milled, it’s washed, soaked and steamed until the texture is ready for cultivating koji. Koji is a fermentation agent made by mixing the fungus Aspergillus oryzae to the steamed rice and allowing the enzymes from the mold to convert the starches in the rice to fermentable sugars. After about 48 hours, one part koji is then mixed with three parts steamed rice and placed in a temperature controlled tank or vat. A special type of spring water is used in sake brewing, containing very little manganese and iron, and containing high quantities of potassium, magnesium and calcium. This special brewing water and shubo, or yeast, is added to the koji rice mixture, allowing the yeast to consume the sugars created by the koji, and turn them into alcohol over the course of approximately three weeks. When the toji believes the brew temperature, sugars, alcohol levels and acidity levels are just right, the mixture is poured into cloth bags that are placed neatly in a pressing tank, which compresses the mixture and drains the liquid sake out of the base of the press. The sake is aged for up to four months in refrigerated tanks, after which it is either pasteurized or kept cool and packaged for sale.

Sake is powerful stuff. It’s got up to a 20% alcohol concentration!

Mirin is sweeter, and milder. Brewed in a way similar to sake, mirin is made with glutinous rice (instead of the rice used for sake), koji, and shochu (a type of distilled spirit), then fermented up to two months. The shochu suppresses the production of alcohol in mirin, so the final product is contains less of it than does sake. Two types of mirin are generally available: hon-mirin, also known as real mirin, and mirin-fu chomiryo, also known as mirin-like condiment, which has virtually no alcohol but a similar flavor.

A bowl of mirin (photo credit: Badagnani)

A bowl of mirin (photo credit: Badagnani)

Both sake and mirin are wonderful ingredients in Japanese dishes. Sake is often used to tenderize meat, poultry and seafood, eliminates unpleasant odor and draws out the natural flavors of the foods it is cooked with. Mirin can firm up meats and seafood, and add a touch of sweetness and sheen, especially to glazes and sauces, such as teriyaki sauce.

While mirin is almost exclusively used in cooking, sake is still a beverage enjoyed from the beginning to the end of a Japanese meal. Grab a small cup and pair it with Chanko-Nabe, a one-pot stew flavored with sake and mirin, or Teriyaki Yellowtail, marinated with sake and mirin.

As always, we’d love to hear about your experiences as a beginner with Japanese cooking, so leave us a comment below.

 

Essentials of Japanese Cooking:  Miso

We continue our Essentials of Japanese Cooking series this month with a feature on miso… the so in ryori no sa shi su se so. Miso is a fermented paste made from soybeans, salt, either rice or barley, and a fermentation starter called koji. Used in miso soup, as a marinade, in dressings and sauces and a variety of other dishes, miso is an important staple in the Japanese pantry.

Miso is said to have originated in China, as early as the 4th century BCE. It was introduced to the people of Japan by Buddhist monks who traveled from China and brought many new ideas that inspired and informed Japanese food culture. The way Japanese people began to produce miso refined it into a few varieties, each with a distinctive flavor and nutritional profile, texture and umami (the rich and savory taste of glutamate-based foods).

miso01

Four main varieties of Japanese miso are available at most grocery stores in Japan, along with a few specialty gourmet types. The main varieties include rice or ‘kome’ miso, which is the most commonly consumed variety, barley or ‘mugi ‘miso, pure soybean or ’mamemiso, and blended ’awasemiso, made with two or three types of other miso pastes. Each of these pastes are fermented from a few weeks up to three years, and the lighter varieties are more mildly flavored than the darker ones.

Specialty miso pastes including hatcho miso, an all-soybean paste with a medium sweet/strength/saltiness profile, saikyo miso, a golden yellow paste with a naturally sweet, low salt flavor, and moromi miso, a chunky miso with the grains of rice or barley only partially crushed. Each of these specialty miso pastes are used in particular dishes, and not in general preparations such as miso soup or grilled fish.

Miso is high in protein, the B vitamins, enzymes, Vitamin E, fiber, lecithin, isoflavones, peroxidase inhibitors and prostaglandins–all of which may help to nourish and regulate the body. Miso was a critical component of Japanese diets during lean times and famines, and it is still consumed almost daily by people in Japan.

misoshiru

Miso soup

Traditionally, miso soup is enjoyed first thing in the morning, as part of a Japanese breakfast, to cleanse and nourish the body. (We have a great recipe for tofu misoshiru on our website!) The soup is made using a miso koshi, or small metal strainer, to create an even, smooth broth. Miso is also used in marinades and as a glaze for meat, seafood and vegetables, but must always be added to a dish either before or at the tail end of cooking, so the beneficial nutrients and the delicate flavor in the fermented paste are not destroyed by heat.

Miso is most often used in marinades, sauces and dressings. When used as a marinade, miso helps to breakdown the proteins in fish and poultry, infusing them with umami and drawing out any acidity or bitterness from the animal flesh. Salmon and cod marinated in miso and then broiled are popular preparations for these healthful oily fish. Miso-Marinated Chicken Kushiyaki is a great way to broil chicken. When used in sauces and dressings, miso can be mixed with mayonnaise, ginger, sesame oil, honey, citrus and even spicy sriracha sauce. Miso is even used occasionally in simmered nimono dishes, called miso-ni, in which miso is blended with dashi, mirin, soy sauce and fresh ginger and then used to cook various meat and vegetables.

One of our favorite recipes using miso is Beef Miso and Rice on Salad Leaf. The miso is used to impart a rich flavor to the sautéed ground beef and rice! Try it and tell us how it worked for you.

In our next post, we’ll discuss cooking with sake and mirin, and give you some other great recipes to try out! As always, we’d love to hear about your experiences as a beginner with Japanese cooking, so leave us a comment below.