Table implements

Pork Belly

Beef Tataki and Wagyu



Te-makizushi making sushi and seaweed wrap

Green Tea Swiss Roll


Tempura batter courgettes


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John Farren

Meeting 386 - "A Japanese Evening"
Friday 14th August 2015

Speakers: Chris and Yoko Gutch    

Japanese Food and Drink
1. More about Japanese food
2. Ingredients
3. How to eat and drink the Japanese way
4. How to eat rice and use chopsticks
5. Japanese Sakes
6. Return to main text.
        The Berkshire Branch is a very open-minded group and is always ready to try something different. On this occasion it was our members Chris and Yoko Gutch, working closely with Charlotte Turner, who transported 37 members to Japan for a few hours to sample food & drink in a memorable and spectacular way.

       So "Japanese" means raw fish Sushi and are not all Sakes the same? Absolutely not, as clearly demonstrated by our three presenters. The evening structure was set around a tasting of seven different Sakes with eleven separate dishes selected to complement the flavours.

       Although Sake is often described as "Rice Wine", the process for producing it has more similarities with brewing a beer. Like barley, rice contains starch but little in the way of sugars. Also, it is basically dry and so the liquid has to come from water. The first challenge is to convert the starch to sugars and to ferment the sugars to alcohol. In the case of Sake, the first part is carried out by a mould called 'Koji' (technically aspergillus oryzae) and the second part by selected yeasts.

       A key part of the process is milling the rice after which it is washed and steam-cooked. Premium Sake is brewed with special rice in which the starch component (the shinpaku or "white heart") is concentrated at the centre of the grain, with proteins, fats, and amino acids located toward the outside. By milling the rice, one can remove some of the fats, proteins, and amino acids that lead to unwanted flavours and aromas in the brewing process. In general, the more you polish the rice, the higher the grade of Sake. Some Sakes use 100% of the rice, others 65% or 60% and for the higher qualities only 40% of the rice grain is used, 60% having been milled away.

       Koji is sprinkled on steamed rice and encouraged to multiply over a period of 3 days. A 'Starter Mix' is prepared by mixing some of the koji incubated rice with steamed rice, yeast and water, and allowing it to ferment for about 14 days. The 'Starter Mix' is transferred to a larger vessel for the main fermentation. More rice, koji incubated rice and water are added. Over the next three days two further additions of rice, koji incubated rice and water are added. The mixture then continues to ferment for a further 18 to 32 days when the fermentation stops. It is then pressed, filtered and blended.

       Another difference between grades of Sake is whether or not additional alcohol has been added during the fermentation process. This is added not so much to increase the level of alcohol in the final product but rather it is claimed that the use of alcohol in a very controlled manner helps to pull out from the fermenting mash more aromatic and flavourful compounds that are soluble in alcohol. The final alcoholic strength of a Sake is determined by dilution with water. This leads to the designation of 6 "Special Designated Sakes" of which we tasted 4 on the evening. Altogether 7 different sakes were tasted. These were drunk hot, cold or at room temperature depending on the course and recommendation of the maker.

       For me two Sakes stood out. Firstly the Honjozo Genshu Akashi-Tai at 19% alcohol is described as "The undiluted Honjozo Akashi-Tai (i.e. no water added) is a satisfyingly full-bodied Sake. This is the drink the brew masters reach for at the end of a working day. This is perhaps the most direct way to savour the full palate of our Sake. The flavour continues to mellow pleasingly over time." Secondly the Genmai Yamadanishiki Akashi-Tai 2012 at 17% alcohol is described thus: "The Genmai Akashi-Tai was first created in 2002 using the finest of rices for Sake - Yamada Nishiki - in an almost entirely unpolished form. Because unpolished brown rice was used, this Sake required extra special attention to detail, such as double-steaming of the rice. Bottled after being allowed to age, the Genmai Akashi-Tai will continue to grow in delicious complexity if allowed to age further. Newly fermented Sake cannot provide this kind of mature complexity of flavours. The 2012 vintage brings out all the nuances of fragrance and flavour inherent in rice."

       The food which accompanied the Sakes started with the most succulent and tender Beef Tataki which had been lightly seared and then marinated in a citrus sauce for 3 hours. Two types of beef were compared, both from Scotland; one was Wagyu, literally "Japanese cow" and the other well hung Scottish rib eye. Both melted in the mouth but the marbling of the Wagyu beef, the best known of which comes from Kobe, resulted in the finer flavour. These were served with Edamame beans whose contents are eaten directly from the pod and Ohitashi which is par-boiled vegetables (in our case spinach) dipped in dashi, a stock and Shoyu (Soy) sauce.

       Then came warm Buta no Kakuni, pork belly, which was delicious, followed by cold Tofu (Hiyayakko). A taster of battered courgettes preceded small chicken kebabs called Yakitori, followed by Gyoza ground meat and vegetable dumplings wrapped in thin rice dough (actually Chinese but very popular in Japan).

       At this point of the evening we switched from sake to Japanese beer (Asahi Super Dry, available from Waitrose and Tesco!) and/or Japanese Green Tea to accompany Sushi made from vinegared rice, vegetables and cooked seafood, wrapped in Nori dried seaweed (Makizushi), which was excellent. Sushi is often prepared from raw fish but many common varieties use cooked ingredients or are vegetarian. Raw fish sliced and served without rice is called sashimi. We were then supplied with squares of nori and a plate of various ingredients to make our own mini cones of makizushi, called Te-makizushi.

       Finally we were treated to two delicious desserts: a Matcha (powdered green tea) roulade, and a white peach (from Charlotte's garden) agar jelly.
       The etiquette for eating in Japan is very complex. For instance, when eating from small bowls, it is correct to pick up the bowl and hold it close to your mouth but larger dishes should not be picked up. You should always empty your bowl to the last grain of rice. Blowing your nose or burping at the table is considered bad manners and never refill your own Sake glass, always refill others and let someone else refill yours. The rules for using chopsticks are also very well defined! (see the link)

       The tableware provided by our presenters matched the food perfectly and the tables themselves were decorated with origami pieces by Yoko and floral arrangements in the Japanese style by Coreen. Unfortunately we had, in the end, to come back to earth, or more properly Waltham St Lawrence, having experienced in one evening more styles of Sake, more Japanese dishes and learned more about an aspect of Japanese culture than seemed possible at the start. Our sincere thanks go to Yoko, Charlotte and Chris for all the very hard work and preparation which went into the event. This article can only offer a small window into what we experienced,
(Chris Graham)