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Book Review: Japanese Cocktails

Japanese Cocktails

Japanese Cocktails by Yuri Kato

Japanese cocktail recipes for beginners

Despite being home to some of the best bartenders in the world (by now many will have heard of Hidetsugu Ueno, bartender at the legendary Bar High Five or Kazuo Uyeda, purveyor of the ‘hard shake’) Japan is better known for its beer and its sake than for its cocktails. Even Japanese whisky enjoys a higher profile thanks to Bill Murray and a certain Suntory Limited.

Enter Yuki Kato. In her new book, Japanese Cocktails, Kato makes the case for Japan to be taken seriously as not only a cocktail loving culture, but also as a destination for those seeking to experience the unique flavor of ingredients like ume, yuzu and shiso.

The book is organized into four sections: sake cocktails, shochu cocktails, whisky cocktails, and cocktails made with other ingredients such as rum or vodka. Along the way, we encounter Japanese standards such as the Hinomaru (sake and umeboshi), the Oolong Hai (barley shochu with oolong tea) as well as curios like the Tokyo Dome (barley shochu, apple juice, lemon juice and ginger ale) and the Oyaji (whisky soda with the additions of a slice of orange and maraschino cherries).

From the outset, Kato demonstrates that she is able to discuss Japanese concepts of balance and seasonal produce in a way that is readily accessible. Although raised in Japan, she understands her audience may not be familiar with ingredients such as shichimi togarashi (a Japanese mixed spice) and writes for those with little or no knowledge of Japan or it’s drinking culture.

“Drinking,” she writes in her introduction, “is an intrinsic part of traditional Japanese family culture. Many homes include a well-stocked liquor cabinet with Japanese whisky, Scotch, bourbon, sake, and shochu. Sometimes you’ll find a case of domestic beer, but alcohol like wine or chu-hai, canned cocktails, are not typically kept on hand.”

Here, Kato also points out some of the essential differences between Japanese cocktails and their western equivalents. She notes that Japanese cocktails are, by and large, light on alcohol. She quite rightly observes that “It is not a Japanese custom to drink without eating, so there are not many bars that serve alcohol without food in Japan. Paring food and cocktails may be new in some countries, but not in Japan”. Readers may be forgiven, then, for wondering why Kato did not complete this thought by adding food pairings to her recipes.

The recipes themselves are, on the whole, mercifully straightforward. Those seeking a challenge, however, may want to look toward the Hotate-zake (“In a small saucepan over medium heat, add butter, scallop, and rosemary and heat for 1 to 2 minutes”) or the Bubble Shooter (remember to marinate those salmon eggs overnight!)

Alongside are brief snippets of cultural background, and while well chosen, there’s not a great deal of depth. There are passages on baseball in Japan, Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market and cherry blossom season, but few of these go beyond the tourist brochures. Nevertheless, there are also some great little tidbits of information scattered throughout the book, such as the fact that the Kamiya Bar in Asakusa, Tokyo lays claim to being the oldest bar in Japan (1880).

The book’s structure make a good deal of sense – the four sections are easy to navigate and let’s face it, this is the kind of book you dip into rather than read from cover to cover. Still, international readers might question which cocktails are commonly found on Japanese menus, which are unique to particular Japanese bars, and those that are Kato’s own original recipes.

Japanese Cocktails’ credits afford copyright to Suntory International Corp. As a result, some parts of the book feel like an ad campaign. Unsurprisingly, this is particularly the case in the whisky section, where the history of Japanese whisky may as well be the history of the company.

Japanese Cocktails is a good English-language introduction to the world of Japanese drink culture. Those new to sake and shochu are going to want it on their coffee tables. Those with a serious interest in the history of Japanese cocktail culture, however, will be hoping Kato’s follow-up explores the subject in greater detail.

Japanese Cocktails
Mixed Drinks with Sake, Shochu, Whisky and More

by Yuri Kato
Illustrated, 96 pages
Chronicle Books, 1,384 yen

Japan Booze Blind: Oktoberfest

Host Christopher Pellegrini samples some of the many beers on offer at the 2010 Oktoberfest in Hibiya Park, Tokyo. But which was his favorite?

Tokyo Bites: Oktoberfest

Despite some unseasonably wet weather, Christopher Pellegrini joins in the revelry at this year’s Oktoberfest in Hibiya Park, Tokyo.

Recipe: Negitoro maki

An easy recipe for negitoro maki that can be adapted to suit your own taste.

Norimaki is the ever-popular type of sushi which comes wrapped in nori (seaweed). This particular recipe has tuna inside, but you could just as easily fill your norimaki with other ingredients. Indeed, the American California roll is essentially norimaki with avocado.

For this version you’ll need a makisu (bamboo rolling mat). Naturally, makisu are easy to come by in Japan (here they’re available from supermarkets and even 100 yen shops). Elsewhere, you should be able to buy one from any good Asian grocery store.

Negitoro maki

Negitoro maki combines the sweetness of maguro (tuna) with the sharpness of asatsuki chives.

Ingredients

  • 2 go sushi rice (refer to the chirashizushi recipe)
  • 5 to 6 sheets of nori (seaweed)
  • 400g of (preferably fatty) tuna
  • 10 asatsuki chives

Method (makes 5 -6 rolls)

First, prepare sushi rice according to the chirashizushi recipe. Next, mince the tuna with two kitchen knives until it becomes a rough paste and thinly chop the asatsuki chives.

Toast a sheet of nori by passing it over a high flame to make it crispy and dry.

Set the makisu (bamboo rolling mat) onto a flat space. Place the sheet of nori onto the mat and then gently spoon some of the sushi rice onto the seaweed. Spread it over the sheet, leaving 3 cm uncovered at the top and bottom.

Place some of the minced tuna and a pinch of the chopped asatsuki onto the rice (if you’re worrying about quantity, aim for roughly 1/5 to 1/6 of each ingredient per roll). Now dab your finger in water and run it along the edge of the seaweed (the area that isn’t covered). Lift the edge of the bamboo mat and the nori sheet together nearest you, and bring over to meet the far edge of the sheet. Gently press the bamboo mat around the roll to shape it.

Finally, slice the roll into 6 – 8 equal pieces. Use a moistened cloth to clean the knife after each use.

Repeat this process 5 – 6 times.

Tokyo Bites: 2010 Thai Festival

Rachael White reports from the 2010 Thai Festival in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo.

Tokyo Bites: 2010 Thai Festival from Japan Eats on Vimeo.

Recipe: Fresh Strawberries & Japanese Whiskey Sabayon

Rachael White explains how to prepare this delicious seasonal dessert.

As an expat in Tokyo, finding recipes that make one feel “at home” can be challenging. Many recipes westerners are familiar with require the use of an oven (not a common appliance in most Japanese kitchens). This recipe for fresh strawberries with whiskey sabayon fits the bill for a dessert that is: 1) simple to make with basic ingredients that can be found in Japanese grocery stores and 2) does not require an oven.

Strawberries & Whiskey Sabayon

Strawberries & Whiskey Sabayon: All of the ingredients are commonly found on Japanese grocery store shelves. Photograph: Rachael White

If you have a stove, a whisk, and a little time, you are more than equipped to make this impressive French dessert with a little Japanese flair. Sabayon, or zabaglione in Italian, is a southern French dessert made with egg yolks, sugar, and wine. The ingredients are whipped like crazy to form a light, foamy, creamy topping for fruit, cake, etc. In this case, Japanese whiskey and a touch of vanilla extract replace the wine. Sake would be an excellent substitute as well.

This time of year is especially good for strawberries in Japan. Although they can be found year round in some grocery stores in Tokyo, spring time seems to be when these ruby-red jewels are perfectly sweet and delicious. If they are purchased outside of the season, the texture tends to be hard and the inside is white and nearly tasteless. So, carpe diem and seize the strawberries, friends!

Ingredients (Makes 4-6 servings)

  • 8 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup Japanese Whiskey
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 pints strawberries, hulled and quartered

Method

Combine the whiskey, vanilla and sugar in a bowl. Whisk to combine. Put the egg yolks in a medium glass or aluminum bowl. Add the whiskey mixture to the egg yolks and whisk lightly until the egg yolks are just broken. Place the bowl over a double boiler over medium heat. *Note: If you do not have a double boiler it is OK! Just find a heatproof bowl that will fit in the top of a small/medium saucepan.

Fresh Strawberries & Sabayon

The most famous Japanese strawberries come from Tochigi and Fukuoka prefectures. Photo: Rachael White

Fill the saucepan/double boiler with about 2 inches/5 centimeters of water. (Make sure the bottom of the bowl is at least an inch away from the surface of the water. If it touches the water, the eggs will scramble.) Whisk constantly for 10-12 minutes until the egg mixture has almost doubled in volume and is light and foamy. The color should change from egg yolk yellow to a light, creamy, pale yellow color. Remove from the heat and the double boiler.

Divide the strawberries into 4 dessert bowls. Spoon the sabayon over the strawberries and garnish with mint leaves.

Restaurant Review: Plik chee fah 2 (Shinjuku)

Reliable Thai, only a few minutes walk from Shinjuku Station.

One of the quirks of living in Tokyo is that some types of cuisine are ubiquitous, while others are virtually ignored. There are numerous French bistros, Italian pizzerias and Chinese fast-food joints, yet finding a decent bowl of Vietnamese pho or Malaysian laksa can prove difficult. And don’t even get me started on the dearth of Lebanese or Moroccan food.

Pad Thai

The lunch menu features such dishes as Pad Thai, tom yum goong and green curry for under 1000 yen

Thankfully, good quality Thai cooking is well represented. From the casual charm of Shinjuku’s Bankirao to the upmarket Mango Tree in Marunouchi, lovers of lemongrass and chili needn’t go far to get their fix.

One of the most popular is Plik chee fah. Hidden away on the 5th floor of an unremarkable building on the west side of Shinjuku Station, Plik chee fah serves up good quality renditions of familiar favorites – curries, noodle dishes and spicy salads. The restaurant is especially popular at lunchtime, when it packs in the crowds of (mostly) young professional women.

Like so many of Tokyo’s other Thai restaurants, this 5th floor loft space isn’t much to look at. Plastic tablecloths protect the furniture from falling debris and the window curtains appear to have seen better days. Nor does it stand on formality – although the soundtrack of Thai pop is for the most part unobtrusive, the same cannot be said for the widescreen television which gets switched on mid-evening. All this, of course, is part of the charm, but probably not ideal for that intimate candlelit dinner.

The weekday lunch menu (11 am to 3 pm) consists of a dozen or so ‘sets’, including standards such as kao man kai and tom yum goong, for under 1000 yen. On the weekend, the restaurant serves up a lunch buffet between 11 am and 3 pm. On a recent visit, the minced chicken and basil proved especially popular (I apologize to anyone standing in line behind me).

As one would expect, the dinner menu is more comprehensive. It contains all of the classic Thai dishes one usually comes across in Tokyo: pad Thai (1200 yen), fried morning glory (a tad overpriced at 1200 yen) and popia tod (spring rolls) for 1000 yen. There are also a couple of surprises: Chiang Mai’s signature dish, kao soy (1300 yen) and a wide selection of salads, including yam wun sen (spicy noodle salad – 1200 yen) and yam mu yaw (Thai sausage salad) for 1300 yen.

We decided to take things slow and to start with drinks and the yum wun sen. The waiter, however, had other ideas. Service was extremely fast. Our salad arrived only moments after ordering, and seemed none the worse for it. A riot of flavors accompanied the first mouthful. First sour, then salty, then sweet. The perfectly cooked texture of the squid and shrimp was impressive.

Next, we decided on the kao soy. Essentially a chicken noodle soup, the Chiang Mai original balances different textures (soft noodles/a crispy noodle garnish) and flavors (sweet coconut milk/spicy chili). We found Plik chee fah’s version went overboard with the coconut milk. Thick and glutinous, it was a little too sweet. This could have been helped by a dash of lime juice, but like many other South East Asian restaurants in Japan, a side dish of lemon substituted for lime.

If you’re looking for satisfying, unpretentious Thai, Plik chee fah will not disappoint. On leaving, the staff thank you twice, in both Thai and Japanese.

Now what’s “That was delicious” in Thai?

Directions: Plik chee fah (2) is located on the 5th floor of Meiko Building in Nishi Shinjuku. To get there, walk out Shinjuku Station’s Odakyu Exit and proceed down the hill toward Seibu Shinjuku. On the left side of  the street you’ll see a large pachinko parlor. The restaurant is located in a small building in the street to the rear.

Tel: 03-5326-8588
http://www.plikcheefah.com/
5th Floor of the Meiko Building, Nishi Shinjuku.

Recipe: Asian-style roast chicken salad

This Southeast Asian dish is incredibly simple to make. The salad employs one of the great flavor combinations – sesame and roast chicken.

It also contains nam pla, the aromatic Thai fish sauce, which adds depth to the flavor. If you don’t have any on hand, you can substitute nuoc man, the Vietnamese version of the same thing (although in Japan, nam pla tends to be easier to find than nuoc man – I buy mine at Seiyu supermarket).

Serve with with rice noodles such as pho.

Asian-style chicken salad

Asian-style chicken salad

Ingredients (for 2-3 people)

  • 250g chicken breast
  • 1 tablespoon of sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons of roasted sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon of fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc man)
  • 2-3 fresh lettuce leaves
  • 1 green pepper
  • 1/4 of a red onion

Method

Break the lettuce into bite-sized pieces by hand. Thinly slice the onion (against the grain) and cut the green pepper in half and then into thin strips.

Place the vegetables into a bowl, then pour just enough water to cover them. Add 4-5 ice cubes to keep them crispy. Leave these in the water for about ten minutes, then drain.

Sprinkle a pinch of salt and 1 pinch of pepper over the chicken breast and let it sit for for 5 minutes. Next, dribble a teaspoon of Thai fish sauce over the chicken and let it sit for another 5 minutes.

Spread the sesame oil over the chicken breast with a cooking brush (or use the back side of a small spoon). Dust the roasted sesame seeds over both sides of the chicken.

Preheat the oven to 210 degrees Celsius (410 Fahrenheit) and place the chicken on a tray covered in baking paper. Cook in the oven for 20-25 minutes.

When the chicken has finished cooking, take it out of the oven and let it cool. Once ready, tear the chicken into bite-sized pieces by hand. Plate the vegetables and then decorate with the pieces of chicken. Garnish with coriander (cilantro to those in North America) and a piece of lemon or lime.

May ’10 Magazine Roundup

What’s new in Japan’s food magazines? Marcus Lovitt conducts a whirlwind tour of Japan’s culinary rags. This month: dancyu, ELLE à table, Syokuraku and Ryori Tsushin.

May's ELLE à table

May's ELLE à table

Foreign visitors to Japan frequently complain about the limited number of western breakfast options available. And let’s face it: pre-dawn sushi at Tsukiji or a bowl of soba at a train station aren’t for everyone, especially if you have young children in tow.

For those not enamored of chain coffee shops (Excelsior, Starbucks or the ever-smokey Dotour) the only options appear to be expensive hotel restaurants or to pick something up at a local bakery.

It’s an unfortunate fact that Tokyo lags behind other major cities when it comes to breakfast options. While there are plenty of great independently-owned cafes, few open before 10 or 11 am. Why? Most Japanese eat at home, or skip the meal altogether in the rush to catch that train to work.

Things may be changing, however. Much has been made of Australian chef Bill Granger’s latest venture, bills in Yokohama. Renowned for his Australian-style breakfasts, Granger has attracted a lot of attention for his focus on Aussie staples such as Eggs Benedict and buttery pancakes.

Acknowledging the western predilection for a morning dose of cholesterol, this month’s dancyu (860 yen) is all eggs, done every which way. The magazine introduces restaurants offering classic egg dishes (boiled, scrambled, fried) as well as some of their recipes (eggs Benedict, egg sandwiches, huevos a la flamenca and puddings).

Another of dancyu‘s themes is seasonal vegetables – spring cabbage, spring onion, asparagus, green peas, and tomato fruit. The magazine includes seven recipes which make the most of what’s now available in Japan’s grocery stores.

ELLE à table (720 yen), meanwhile, looks at the latest French restaurants to open in Tokyo. The editors write that since the end of 2009 Tokyoites have enjoyed an increasing number of reasonably-priced French establishments. Rents have decreased because of the recession and young chefs are finding it easier to open their own places. ELLE writes about eight casual French dining options. They also focus on 3 locations: Nishi Azabu; what ELLE calls the ‘Art East Area’ (the area around Bakurocho and Asakusabashi) and ‘Ura Ginza’ (Higashi Ginza and Shintomicho). Finally, the magazine profiles seven new restaurants renowned for the quality of their food.

Syokuraku (860 yen) fills much of its May edition with those delectable dumplings, gyoza. The editors recommend gyoza restaurants based on five categories: fried gyoza, large gyoza, crispy gyoza, boiled gyoza and gyoza served on a frying pan. The magazine also visits Utsunomiya and Hamamatsu, two Japanese cities which are famous for the dish.

Finally, this month’s Ryori tsushin (980 yen) examines ‘sake for wine lovers’. The magazine explains how to approach sake by showing a comparison between sake and wine. They also suggest restaurants which provide a high-quality sake line up as well as food. Elsewhere in the magazine is devoted to dashi. Based on the notion that dashi is one of the key elements of Japanese cooking, the editors explain how to cook this combination of konbu (kelp), katsuobushi and water. They also present six dashi-based recipes.

And also…

Otoriyose, the practice of ordering regional specialties online via sites such as Rakuten, is currently a major trend. All of this month’s magazines go out of their way to list websites where readers can purchase items such as gyoza (Syokuraku) and pâté (ELLE à table). The latter magazine even introduces a bar in Ginza (named chikappa) focused on otoriyose from Kyushu.