I made my first trip home to Massachusetts in two years, and believe me, I did not slack off in the tasting department. I hadn’t had a chance to savor my favorite beers with some of my favorite people in what felt like ages, and I knew I had some serious catching up to do. Nonetheless, I felt like I was able to pick where I left off. Anything that wasn’t comfortingly familiar was immediately decided to be “exotic and interesting” by my Japanized mind, so every situation was a win. For a vacation in my own hometown, it couldn’t have been better.
I could write a good 5-10 posts on all the old hometown favorites I got to visit, but instead I’d rather focus on a place that was actually new to me: Armsby Abbey in Worcester. Worcester is a city I’m almost completely unfamiliar with, but the Abbey was a great introduction. Granted, they are newcomers, just having opened in the summer of 08, but they seem to have made a good impression on the locals so far. I was visiting my friend Erica, who goes to school in that city, and she insisted that this was the place to be. If I ever end up in a position to take a friend out in Worcester, I’m sure I will make the same decision she did.
This bar/restaurant really means in when it says its menu is artisanal. The beer menu changes regularly, and most of the cocktail menu, not to mention the entire food menu, is seasonal and made with local ingredients as much as possible.
My friends and I each ordered a beer sampler to start. Here’s what I got, from right to left: Bear Republic Double Aught (CA), Maredsous Blonde (Belgium), Unibroue La Terrible (Canada), and Lagunitas Olde Gnarly Wine (CA). We also ordered a pizza whose recipe included the Bear Republic Double Aught, and some flavorful toppings of asiago cheese, basil, zucchini, and a hint of lime juice. The beer was complementary enough to be good for washing down the pizza, but I thought it was a little thin on its own.
As for the others, I found the Lagunitas a little too sweet for my taste, even before having any food, but the Maredsous was lovely. The beer that won my heart that night, though, was without a doubt Unibroue’s La Terrible. It was the darkest ale I have ever seen; and it was rich and flavorful without feeling heavy, which is something of an accomplishment for a beer with more than 10% alcohol by volume. I’ve had a few other beers by Unibroue and have yet to try one I don’t like. I shared a bottle of their tripel, La Fin du Monde, later that week, and I declared that it was “a perfect beer.” Those Quebecois do seem to know what they’re doing. I liked La Terrible so much that I asked for a full-sized glass when I finished my sampler.
For dessert, Erica ordered pumpkin chocolate bread pudding, Hillary got a glass of the Abbey’s autumn sangria, and I sampled a little of each. The bread pudding was great, but the sangria stole the show. It required about 10 ingredients, almost half of which were fresh New England fruit, and it tasted like pumpkinpie-cranberrysauce-wine. It was a sight to behold. If you find yourself in central Massachusetts, stop by and have one for yourself before they determine anything “autumn” to be out of season already.
This summer was anything but extreme. It started out rainy and cold, got warm for a few weeks toward the end, and now lo and behold, autumn is here to stay. I could write a whole post about the beauty of autumn here in Aomori, but I’m not done whining about our wimpy summer yet. I only made it to the beach 4 times! And on one of those occasions, I had to leave without even making it to the water because the wind was kicking up a sandstorm. I’m still pouting about this even though the weather has been gorgeous, in that autumn way, for over a month now.
Weather aside, extremes aren’t always a bad thing in the sake world. I want to quickly introduce a few that I tried recently that hold their own at the far end of some spectrum or other:
Hanatomoe Yamahai Tokubetsu Junmai Muroka Nama Genshu – This sake, made in Nara, has the unusually high sando (acid level) of 3.2. The first thing I noticed was its sharp, almost cheese-like aroma, and the first sip proved complementary to that – a bit sharp or sour. It cools down a bit after a few sips, but I couldn’t get over the urge to drink this with cheese. Luckily the bartender had some on hand, and it was as delicious as I’d imagined. Despite the fact that it is such an atypical sake, I feel that this might be a good one to introduce to a skeptical westerner trying sake for the second or third time.
Houhai Patisserie - Houhai is local to Aomori; the brewery that makes it is in Hirosaki City. Patisserie’s superpower is, you guessed it, sweetness. It has a nihonshudo (measurement on a scale of sweet to dry, negative numbers being sweet and positive ones being dry) of -20. Just reading that number on the bottle is enough to give most sake drinkers a toothache, but I thought it went down pretty easy. I am a notorious sugartooth though, so I may need a second opinion. This sake was supposedly designed to be served with dessert, but given its incredible sweetness on its own, the thing I longed for when I drank this was actually something a bit more bitter, like dark chocolate cake. I would definitely like tobuy this again and try it out with different foods.
Kihaku no Karakuchi – And now for the final sake extreme for this post: dryness. In direct opposition to the previous sake, this one, hailing from Akita, has a nihonshudo of +25. Unlike many sake drinkers, I don’t get too excited over dryness for its own sake, but I really enjoyed this one. It wasn’t at all biting, it had a pleasant aroma and a disappear-into-thin-air mouth feel. I’m curious to see what the rest of the sake from this brewery is all about. Akita is home to many popular sakes, and happens to be just south of Aomori, so I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from me about Akita sake in the future.
This unremarkably gross-tasting drink landed in convenience stores all over Japan a week or two ago:
Shiso, for those not already in the know, is a “beefsteak plant”, a green or dark purple jagged-edged leaf that tastes great with sushi and many other things. It does not really go so well with high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners, carbonation, or cola.
I was attracted to the neon green color, reminiscent of a favorite childhood caffeine agent called “Surge”. Like most, I was disappointed. The worst part wasn’t the shiso flavor, or even the offensive sweetness that conjures up images of Arizona’s poor impression of green tea. It was the shock that came with realizing that the cola flavor was still there, even though the drink wasn’t dark. I’m not really a cola fan in the first place, but if you can make a cola-flavored drink that is clear (or green or whatever), why make it black? Seems so dishonest.
Moving on. After I downed about half of that bottle of soda, I decided it was high time to open something I’d been keeping in my fridge for a rainy day:
Now here is some real shiso juice, made fresh locally. Granted, this is a different type of shiso, but it’s still in the family. This too was surprisingly sweet, but naturally so, and much more refreshing than the Pepsi. It was a little too syrupy on its own so I poked a little further into my fridge and found an unworthy-on-its-own can of lemon chu-hai (mixed drink) and decided to experiment. Believe it or not, the combination was tasty enough to make me go back for a second glass, and Sam asked for seconds as well. Perhaps our tastebuds had been ruined after the Pepsi; maybe I’ll buy another can of lemon chu-hai and experiment on some open-minded friends. Any takers?
It’s time to discuss another iconic drink in my life.
Sake, the national drink of Japan, will from time to time come up on this blog. Maybe even more often than that, now that I’ve fallen in love with the drink and have commited myself to learning as much about it as possible. I’ll try to keep you up to speed. If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty of “what is sake”, check out this website for starters: John Gauntner’s Sake World.
A few months ago, I finally succeeded in finding a few ways to learn about sake while actually drinking the stuff. Books are nice, but nothing rivals actual tasting. Purchasing all those bottles for myself would be a big problem for my liver and my wallet, so other avenues were necessary. Official tastings and special events don’t happen as often in Aomori as they do in Tokyo (for some strange reason), but I managed to create one reliable outlet for my interest, and to stumble upon another more formal outlet as well.
The first involved a group of dedicated, friendly sake drinkers and enthusiasts. Since I live in hicksville, this was rather easy. There may actually be more drinkers in the big cities, but there are more people with free time on their hands out in the sticks. I rounded up 15 of my closest friends, bought 4 1.8-liter bottles of premium sake and we did our best, tasting and comparing and pouring each other more glasses… but our efforts were almost in vain, as I was left with two or three huge unfinished bottles.
The solution? A repeat party exactly one week later. Amazingly, everyone showed up again, and this time the only things left were some salad and less than a half-bottle of 天狗舞 (Tengu Mai), not a bad thing to have in the fridge for later in the week.
The second step in my sake education program was joining a sake tasting seminar. Apparently I finally hit the right search terms on Google: 地酒講座 (regional sake seminar). I came across a class taught in Aomori City once a month at a sake bar called 木馬 (Mokuba). Once a month on a Monday night, I get out of work a little early to race to Aomori in time for the 6pm class. We sit in the same place every time, with the same increasingly familiar and friendly faces, and take notes while tasting 5 sakes from the same region. At the end, the instructor and bar owner does a survey to determine the group’s favorites. My favorites are usually a little different from everyone else’s, but I think we would all agree that there are no bad sakes to be found anywhere in that bar.
Once every 3 months, the owner/instructor picks out 5 of the group’s favorites from previous months and holds a sake tasting contest. The prize? A big 1.8L bottle of *something*. Hmm, good motivation.
June marked my first attempt at such a tasting, and I was more than a little intimidated by the seasoned pallets surrounding me. But I did my best to take notes in my own system with my own strange and limited tasting vocabulary. My notes included gems like “powdery”, “noticeable rolling”, “def no movement”, “green scent” and “reddish”. While this is an almost completely useless system with which to discuss sake with others, I must have been doing something right: I won that big fat bottle, and it turned out to be 田酒 (Denshu).
Denshu is a sake local to Aomori and very popular here. Most restaurants seem to have it, but it is increasingly hard to find on sale at retail stores. It’s ricey and has a very light amber hue. It’s quite a treat when compared to the stuff you might get served if you don’t specify what you want when you order “sake”. This would explain why everyone exclaimed when Allison brought a bottle of it to the first sake party (it had been a gift from a teacher), and would also explain why my table was so impressed when I brought my contest winnings along to a charity event last weekend. Naoko, pictured here, said “this is weird, it’s starting to feel like it’s normal to tote around a bottle of Denshu!”. エライね。
As a new friend told me in an e-mail recently, “Ya know, sometimes, hanging out with strangers can be very hit or miss; however, on that fine Friday, it was hit after hit after hit.” I couldn’t agree more. I planned the whole thing almost blindly, knowing I wouldn’t be able to reconfirm or check the guest list or know who would show up until I arrived. And somehow it all worked out perfectly.
My job affords me trips to the east coast of the U.S. every so often, but I don’t get more than a few hours of free time while we’re there. Land in Newark at 4:30, arrive at hotel by 6:30, dinner at 7:30, free time starting at 8:30, lasting until 7am the following morning…after a shower and a quick reorientation to the PATH system, I was ready to head into town by 9:30. Texts and calls to my rented cell phone started pouring in but I ignored a lot of them (sorry guys). I knew we’d see each other soon enough so I decided to focus my attention on the fresh, non-airplane air and the loud, completely intelligible people around me.
It had been a full year since I’d been in the U.S. and New York, and the culture shock stung less this time. In its place was pure reverence for my home country and mother tongue, in all their dirty, cynical, brash and oh-so-offensive forms. And, it should be noted, New York feels quite laidback after Tokyo. And less smokey. And with better pizza. Ah, yes.
We decided to meet at the Peculier Pub on Bleecker Street, which some of us had stumbled upon the year before. With the just-right combination of noise and intimacy it was perfect for this kind of gathering. No reservations taken, but not so crowded that it was impossible to get a table. No obnoxious patrons, but also no one likely to be offended by our minor antics.
Since I wanted to spend more time chatting with friends and less time perusing the (very impressive) beer menu, I decided to settle on a few favorites: Brooklyn Lager, Blue Moon, and Dogfish Head Raison d’Etre. Of course, “settling” is hardly the appropriate word when I had been thirsting for beers just like these for a full year. Perhaps thirsting a bit too much. That last one in particular was rougher than I remembered and knocked about my poor delicate Japanese sensibilities: a beer with 9% alcohol content?! 無理！
My friends sauntered in one at a time or in pairs, bringing along surprise guests and dates, ordering beers, starting up conversations and flitting about to new ones. It felt like it was my birthday, and everyone else’s birthday, and our gifts to one another were ourselves. Knowing wonderful people who introduce you to more wonderful people is better than Christmas and better than the classy beer we drink.
When I got back to Japan, the memory of that evening felt like a dream. I had to look at it quietly out of the corner of my mind’s eye or it would disappear completely. Fortunately a few people had photographic evidence to remind me of how lucky I am.
Here’s to this time, to next time, and all the times after that!
Photos in this entry by Vichika Seak.
Winter officially ended last Friday, on a day recognized as important enough to merit a national holiday. But don’t tell that to Aomori. Vernal equinox or not, it won’t stop snowing until it’s ready to stop snowing, so you can quit asking “are we there yet?!”.
As long as the weather’s in denial, I thought I might as well avoid getting my hopes up. We’ve had a few days of wonderful-smelling rain and some cruel hints of sunshine, but blizzards still loomed in the forecast. This week saw yet another extension of white-grey skies and grey-white ground, so it couldn’t have been too inappropriate to drink some heavy, wintery-looking sake.
Sannohe no Donberi is, according to the bottle, a limited edition junmai-shu from a brewery in Hachinohe, on the eastern side of Aomori prefecture. Sannohe is a town nearby, probably the sleepy snow-covered village pictured in the label’s artwork. I have no photo of the bottle, but the milk-like sake looked pretty charming in my new pitcher and choko, I do think.
After a light shake, the reside from the bottom mixed around and, for the duration of the evening, never resettled. This being nigori-zake, it’s more or less unfiltered (or filtered through something with a lot of holes). The difference between this and a regular sake is a whole lot of rice mush.
So, how was it? Well… it’s not for me. My drinking partner loved it, more so than most sakes he’s tried, but I couldn’t finish even a single glass. Despite a rather light aroma, the first sip had a bitter kick to it, and the texture was thick enough to feel like lotion going down. A few gasps of floweriness bubbled up before being smothered back down into the muck, but it wasn’t enough to keep me sipping.
I’m not giving up on nigori-zake just yet, but maybe tonight I’ll pick a more reliable winter drink instead.
Like a theme song, some drinks can provide a backdrop for a period in one’s life. Elementary school: Juicy Juice. High school: Stash chai tea. My current workplace: muddy-looking sencha. On my recent trip to the Philippines, the drink of the week was San Miguel. The standard pale pilsen, contained in those distinctive stubby bottles, could be found just about anywhere for under $1 a bottle (usually closer to 60 cents).
San Miguel’s pale pilsen is like a reliable friend that never wears out his welcome. Refreshing, perky, a hint of hops, and a clean aftertaste that knows not to linger. It is the iconic beer of the Philippines, and proved that it can keep up with the grungy city life of Manila as easily as it can relax on the beach in Boracay. Truly, a tropical vacation’s jack-of-all-trades best companion, a perfect match for the easygoing human companions I was lucky enough to have along with me.
Since the rest of my vacation escapes expression, I leave you with this photo of the beach, taken a mere two minute walk from our $10/night hotel:
Could you ever get sick of this? I think not.
Photos in this entry by Vichika Seak.
This is not a very interesting or fun thing to drink. I went to the doctor’s office yesterday and though they found nothing in particular wrong with me (mild sore throat and earache) I was prescribed with the pile of items you see at left, and a printed list of instructions. 3 types of pills, a set of powder packets, and some brown liquid for gargling. I didn’t think I was old enough for such diligent medicinal attention, being that I was the youngest person there by about half, but maybe doctors’ habits die hard.
According to my prescription schedule, most of the medicines treat the same thing, and none of them had any really disturbing side effects, just drowsiness and red urine (?!), so I figured I’d give them a shot. The powder is about as pleasant to ingest as you’d imagine (washing down a throatful of dry yeast came to mind), but the pills are easy as pie. I haven’t had any stranger-than-usual dreams, hallucinations, or even slightly discolored bodily fluids, so that’s a relief.
While I was at it I decided to also follow the doctor’s instructions to wear a gauze mask to work. Everyone does that here, out of courtesy to those around them. I humbly applaud them for it, but I will never do it again unless someone forces me too. I don’t know if it works, I suppose maybe it does, but a full day of smelling my own ill breath, fogging up my glasses, and most disgusting of all, smelling the lingering tobacco that the mask absorbed from the nearby break room convinced me that sorry folks, it just isn’t worth it. Plus everyone looks at you like you have ebola. The upside is I got ALL the space I needed when walking down the hall. Next time I’ll just stay home, or forget to tell people I’m sick as I furtively swallow a fistful of pills with my tea after lunch.
My friend Brian and his girlfriend Satoko are an easygoing pair of foodies. They invited me and a few other local friends over for nabe, which is usually a very simple Japanese dish, perfect for a small party because everyone can bring something and preparation is minimal. Rather than the usual fish stock though, they blew my mind by replacing that with a homemade Thai-style curry (タイ風、not 台風、hardy har har) and just tossing our usual meat and veggies into the pot. I simply couldn’t get enough. I may have to learn to make curry, if I can get my hands on some coconut milk.
Between dinner and dessert we shared vacation photos, though I didn’t really have any because I spent the holiday here. Next time. Allison and Nori could have made a flipbook of their trip with their 600+ photos of California and Nevada. Brian and Satoko did make a flipbook, or a scrapbook rather, complete with adorable stickers and text bubbles. The highlight, however, was Nori’s 15-minute digital video recording of Allison’s parents’ house. すごい！わ、きれいな。。。And to be honest, I agreed with his reactions the whole way through. It’s been a while since I’ve set foot in an American house, and especially a new and spacious one. Sometimes America really does look like the land of plenty. Kitchens with more than one countertop? Living rooms with furniture above floor-level? Get out.
After our meal and show-and-tell, Satoko brought out some very pale and aromatic tea. To my nose it smelled like Fruity Pebbles, the cereal. A few sips didn’t offer anything more insightful, despite it being delicious: it tasted like lemon-flavored Pez without the sugar. The mystery tea turned out to be half jasmine tea and half lemongrass, a fruity-flowery and rather sweet combination to satisfy my sugartooth without giving me cavities. Brian grows lemongrass in his garden and said he had more than they could use, so the rest of us left with goodie bags of the unassuming stringy plant. Since then I’ve brewed a little pot of jasmine and lemongrass every night. I still think it tastes like Pez, but I’m happy to know that my teeth won’t be harmed.
6 or 7 years of curiosity, and 6 or 7 months of careful scheming and planning. How to best go about seeing the independent kingdom/Chinese tributary/Japanese colony/epic World War II battle site/American base/Japanese prefecture known as Okinawa? For a tiny place it was taking up a lot of mental energy.
Finally one day last month I decided to stop trying to plan an ideal trip and just go. I bought a plane ticket, picked a hostel and hoped for the best. For having been almost completely unplanned the trip turned out quite well. In my Japanese-style 3-day trip I managed to see a good deal of scenery and historic sites, learn a bit of the dialect, enjoy the music, and of course check out the food and drink.
If you link the words “drink” and “Okinawa” one of the first things you’ll hear about is the 60-proof rice liquor called awamori. Awamori is like shochu in that it is a distilled rice liquor, and different in the rice and mold used in making it. There are dozens of varieties to try and any good restaurant will have a long list to choose from. When I first tried some I thought it tasted like bacon, which is funny because Okinawans live on pork. With a little more effort and sampling I eventually came to the sophisticated description of “tastes like burning”. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t develop a taste for the drink on its own or with ice, but I happened upon a few combinations that I liked much better:
1. With shekwasha juice
Shekwasha （シークヮーサー）is a very sour citrus fruit native to the region. Its juice, when diluted a bit and sweetened, is a tangy and refreshing drink with or without awamori and would probably mix well in a number of cocktails. I ordered a large glass of shekwasha juice to rinse down the awamori I ordered with dinner, and gradually added the latter to the former. I didn’t see it on a menu anywhere but I’d be shocked if my invention were original. It was as natural a mix as the myriad combinations of shochu + sour item you find at bars on the mainland.
2. Infused with tiny “island red peppers” （島唐辛子）
Most of the restaurants I visited had bottles of コーレーグース (koregusu) on the tabletops. It’s a really simple condiment made from pickling small red peppers in awamori. By the time they are properly pickled, though, the peppers are much less red and at first I thought they were tiny carrots. I’m so cultured. However, adding a bit too much of the thin liquid to your soup dispels any thoughts of tame root vegetables. It’s something of a kick in the mouth even in small quantities, but the sour-hot flavor was a welcome addition to my Okinawan soba. I picked up a bottle to bring home figuring it would be a great thing to have on hand for those days when Japanese food seems painfully bland. I’m looking forward to using it on regular soba, udon, or in nabe. If I had a little more culinary talent I’m sure the koregusu could make a number of other dishes sing, but I don’t, so I bought extra to give to some foodie friends. Maybe they’ll let me mooch their ideas.
3. Mixed with herbs and honey, then used to drown a poisonous snake
I don’t think it’s uncommon to see pure shock-value items in tourist shops, or to find special bottles of alcohol with dead things swishing around at the bottom. Habu-shu （ハブ酒）is exactly what I described in the subtitle, although the “drowning” part is perhaps misleading. Whole snakes can be submerged in the liquid, and makers who prefer that method usually buy the snakes already dead (no word on the snake hunters who do their dirty work at the risk of death or paralysis though). Others prefer to freeze the snakes alive first, then gut and bleed them before submersion, to cut down on the rotting innards smell. And maybe also for the sense of danger.
The snakes gradually wake up, in spite of having no intestines or blood, and are none too happy to have been gutted and thrust into a tub of alcohol. This little guy seems to have gotten just such special treatment.
I tried a sip of the results of this strange labor just to assuage my curiosity, and found to my surprise that it was quite pleasant and sweet. It’s a good deal denser than regular awamori and would be a nice after-dinner drink or nightcap. Apparently the drink’s appeal to Japanese people is not the snake’s threatening mug, but the health benefits of its juices and “essence” and the 12 or 13 different herbs that are added to it. Some people even drink it in the morning before work. Hmm. I think I had been expecting something a little more raucous from a drink made of snakes. My animal-loving side may be ashamed, but I ended up buying a sample-sized bottle to bring home simply because I liked the taste. マーサン！