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 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!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Sake and Mirin

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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.

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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.