The Nagano region of Japan is famous for its soba noodles. The area’s soil has all the necessary nutrients to produce high quality soba noodles or Shinshu Soba. During our culinary tour of Japan, we make a stop at a quaint, soba dojo (school) in the high elevations of Yamanashi. Here we learn the art and craft of handmade soba noodles. While that might sound intimidating, the class is one of the most loved activities of the tour. If you go, you’ll discover, it’s not has hard as it seems.
A Little Soba History
Like boulbase and bbq and other great foods, soba noodles were born in the kitchens of the working class. Under the feudal systems in Japan, farmers grew both rice and soba crops. Much of the rice crop was used to pay taxes, and the soba crop kept for themselves. Like its counterpart Udon, ground buckwheat was simply mixed with water and made into dough then cooked in hot pots, grilled or simply eaten as a porridge. During the Edo period, 1603 and 1868, of Japan, knives became widely available, and people began making noodles from the dough.
Making Soba Noodles
The basic recipe for soba noodles is simply buckwheat flour and water, but that can be difficult to work with. Often the buckwheat flour is mixed with other ingredients to change the flavor, texture and to make the noodles less brittle. At the Soba Dojo, you’ll see your instructor add in a little white flour to make the noodles a little easier to work with. Often mountain potato is added to enhance the flavor and texture of the noodle. This was the style we used at our restaurant for many years. Overall, aroma, texture and taste is what makes a good soba noodle.
One of the best things about visiting Japan is a chance to try many different kinds of sake with your friends. You’ll find the sake to be very fresh, vibrant and the perfect companion to whatever you maybe eating. In Japan, sake is referred to as ninhonshu as the word sake is a general term for alcohol. So if you’d like to order sake with your meal, it’s easier to just ask for nihonshu.
Understanding sake can bit a bit confusing at first glance, but with a little knowledge you’ll find yourself understanding the different grades and gaining richer appreciation of the suitableness and complexity sake.
Sake is an alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. The term brewed is notable since it is beverage, similar to beer, that is made from a fermentable grain, rice in this case, water and yeast. The modern sake that you enjoy at your favorite restaurants has been in production for about 1000 years.
Most available sakes will have an ABV ( alcohol-by-volume ) ranging from 12 to 18%. However, the vast majority are around 15-16%, making sake very similar to a heavier red wine in alcohol content. Unlike wine, the fermentation process allows sake to reach a higher natural ABV of around 20 percent. At this level, the alcohol can be overpowering, making it difficult to notice the complex the flavors and aroma, so it is normally diluted with water to a level of 15-16 percent.
Sake is a wonderful beverage to enjoy with all kinds of food, but it pairs especially well with Japanese food. While the types and grades can be a source of confusion at first, no knowledge is necessary to enjoy sake and explore its flavors.
Sake Ingredients: Water, Rice, Koji & Yeast
All alcoholic drinks that we humans enjoy have very simple origins. Yeast is added to some type sweet liquid and the process of fermentation will convert the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The production of sake is similar to beer in that the starches present in the grains are converted to sugars. However, the process of making sake is much longer and involves many more steps than beer.
Because of the simplicity and purity of sake, water is very important. A pure supply of water with the right amounts of minerals will yield the highest quality sake. Nowadays, brewers have a better understanding of how minerals in the water affect the flavor of sake. Generally speaking, mineral rich waters will produce sake that is full bodied and strongly flavored, while ‘softer’ waters will produce sake that is clean and bright, but with a subtle finish.
Just like the grapes for wine, the type of rice used in sake making will leave its mark. The rice used in sake making has is not the rice you eat, but a special kind of rice that is larger and contains more starches. It also needs to easily absorb water. Different types of rice do change the flavor of sake but it is not as pronounced as it is in the wine world. Consequently, sake is not categorized or labeled base upon the underlying rice variety.
The yeast used will have a big influence aroma and taste. Up until modern times, sake brewers relied of the natural yeast present in the air for brewing. The Brewing Society of Japan distributes and maintains the collection of yeasts for sake. There are more than 18 different strains of yeast used in sake production, and new yeasts strains are always being developed.
Koji or aspergillus oryzae is the mysterious ingredient used in sake making. It’s presence in the brewing process has a outsized influence on the final flavor and aroma of the sake. A portion of rice is inoculated with spores of aspergillus oryzae in a heated room over a period of time. The result is a sweet, aromatic rice kernel that will be added at various stages of the brewing process.
Sake Classification & Rice Milling
The above graphic describes how sake grades are classified by how much of the outer portion of the rice kernal has been removed. The outer portion of the rice contains fats and proteins that will cause undesirable flavors in the final product. So the outer layer of the rice is milled away before brewing. Generally, speaking the more rice that is milled away will result in a more expensive, more complex sake. However, each category of sake has its own unique style and varying levels of quality within those styles.
Junmai vs Non Junmai
Junmai sakes is pure rice, water, yeast and koji and Non-Jumai sake has an addition of brewer’s alcohol, usually during pressing. This addition is sometimes used to extract volatile flavor compounds from the rice and improve the taste. However, the addition of alcohol is also used to cheapen the cost of mass produced sake.
Understanding the Labels
Tokubetsu means special and it is added to the label of to indicate the extra effort and cost require to brew the sake. An example of tokubetsu might be milling the rice to ginjo levels but keeping within the style of a junmai. Even though the sake could legally be graded as a ginjo, the brewer will label the sake a Tokubetsu Junmai.
Kimoto or Yamahai
Yamahai and Kimoto are older traditional methods for raising the ph level in the starter batch by the cultivation of lactic acid. The result is a more refined fermentation process. The two methods are similar but the Kimoto method requires more tedious mixing with poles. These processes will take longer to make the sake but result in a richer flavor with more umami.
Nigori sake is unfiltered sake that contains some of the rice present from the brewing process and is creamy and cloudy. Nigori’s are fuller bodied, sweeter and make a fine starter or dessert sake.
We usually don’t see high end nigrori’s, because the presence of the rice tends to over power the subtler flavor profiles found in premium sake.
If you ever travel to Japan, at some point you’ll most likely find yourself eating some type of noodle dish. There are noodle shops on almost every street corner selling everything from cheap bowls of udon to fine dining restaurants specializing in artisan, handmade noodles. Ramen, a chewy, alkaline pasta served in a rich, creamy pork stock is now popular across the world.
Late in the evening at izakayas across the town, the word “Shime” is the term used to describe the act of eating a bowl of noodles after a long session of drinking and socializing.
This is the first of several guides on Japanese noodles you’ll find in Japan, and this one is all about the udon.
Udon Noodles-Thick and Chewy Wheat Noodles
Udon is a popular, hearty noodle made from refined wheat flour. It is believed that the ancestor of Udon was a dough made with flour, water and salt and was brought to Japan from China around 1200. Around the time of the Edo period (1603 -1868), people started to serving strips of udon noodles in a soup stock.
The people in Kagawa prefecture take great pride in being number one in the country for consuming and producing Udon noodles.
The recipe of Udon has not changed much since it first arrived to Japan from China. Today, udon is still made from wheat, salt (2-6%) and water. The ingredients are combined and undergo a kneading and maturation process to bring out the most flavor and texture. The texture and the chewiness of udon is called Koshi, the more Koshi the better the Udon. After this process the dough is rolled out, folded and cut into noodles with the desired thickness. The most common way of eating Udon is to serve it in a traditional dashi soup stock with toppings such as tempura, seasoned tofu, poultry, mushrooms and other vegetables. In the summer, it is common to eat chilled udon along with a savory dipping sauce.
There are many types of udon noodles such as somen, sanuki udon, inaniwa udon, kishimen and hiyamugi. These are all wheat noodles in the family of udon but differ in thickness and length.
Making Nabeyaki Udon
Below is a dish called Nabeyaki Udon and the recipe adapted from former the Tanpopo Noodle Shop. This dish is served in traditional Japanese earthenware and cooked directly on stove top. Perfect to serve on a chilly winter night (in Minnesota). We’ll start by making a few essential stocks and seasonings that are widely used in Japanese cooking.
Dashi Recipe (出汁）
Dashi forms a foundation for Japanese soup broth, miso soup, ramen soup and sauces. It is very simple and this recipe consists of only three ingredients: water, kelp and smoky, shaved bonito flakes. Because of its simplicity, the quality of ingredients used and the method to make dashi is crucial. In addition, unlike our western counterpart chicken stock, dashi has shorter shelf life and does not freeze well as its aroma diminishes rapidly over time.
1 gallon water
10-inch piece dried kelp
40-50 grams dried bonito flakes
In a stockpot soak kelp in cold water for 2-3 hours.
Slowly bring the water to a gentle simmer and turn off heat as soon as it starts to boil.
Add bonito and steep for 15 minutes.
Strain the dashi through a sieve to remove bonito flakes and use.
Kaeshi Recipe (かえし）
Kaeshi is what is added to dashi to make tsuyu, soup broth for noodles. This kaeshi recipe has only two ingredients; equal parts mirin and light soy sauce. Using light or thin soy sauce (usukuchi) is recommended for the best flavor and color.
In a large stock pot, heat equal parts mirin and light soy sauce, gently mix and let it mature in room temperature for a day or so before using. This will results in more complex smooth flavor with no “sharp edges”.
Tsuyu-Soup Broth for Noodles (汁）
The soup broth for noodles is called Tsuyu and is easily made by mixing the dashi and kaeshi.
Mix four parts dashi and one part kaeshi to make delicious soup stock to serve with udon or soba. Enjoy.
Nabeyaki Udon Recipe
Now that you’ve got your dashi, kaeshi and soup stock made, you are now ready for the final step. At this point, you’ll combine everything together and cook on the stove top. There is a a lot of freedom to be creative with Nabeyaki, so feel free to experiment with different ingredients and toppings. Enjoy!
8 oz cooked udon noodles
Tsuyu (see recipe in Soba section), enough to fill a single serving nabe bowl
1 piece shrimp tempura
2 pieces cooked chicken
2 pieces sliced kamaboko fish cakes
2 slices tamagoyaki or 1 raw egg
2 pieces simmered shiitake mushroom
Chopped green onion and wakame for garnish
Shichimi pepper as needed
Add pre cooked udon in a single serving nabe bowl.
Fill ¾ of the nabe with Tsuyu. Place the nabe directly on stove top and turn the heat high.
When udon is warm, arrange all topping except shrimp tempura and green onions, on top of Udon.
When tsuyu starts to boil garnish the dish with green onions shrimp tempura then put the cover.
Japanese Whisky is hot stuff right now. In fact, I learned first-hand during a recent trip to Japan, how hard it is to get your hands on certain premium whiskies. As I write, distilleries large and small are ramping up production to meet the surging demand and interest in Japanese Whisky.
All this attention can be traced back to the early part of this century when Japanese whisky began earning international acclaim, In February, 2001, Whisky Magazine organized a blind tasting competition, and the Yoichi 10 year Single Cask won the highest honors. Curiously, about the time Japanese whiskies were winning fans at international tastings, the domestic market was in a slump, and most of the distilleries, big or small, were cutting back on production. And this pretty much explains why it’s darn tough to get your hands on a bottle of the 25 year Single Malt Hakushu unless your prepared to tap the equity in your house.
The Fascinating History of Whisky in Japan
While Americans were the first to bring whisky to Japan during during Commodore Perry’s opening of trade, the style and soul of Japanese whisky is positively scottish.
The latter half of the the 19th century in Japan, known as the Meiji Era, was a time of profound social and economic change. During this period, imported whisky become available in Japan – for those who had the money. After mock versions of whisky using shochu, a locally distilled liquor usually made from sweet potatoes, started selling well, serious attempts were being made to produce a locally distilled whisky.
The father figure of whisky in Japan is a man named Masataka Taketsuru. His fascinating life served as the inspiration for a widely popular television drama in Japan. Aftering growing up in the family sake business, he earned a degree in chemistry and fermentation, and infuriated his father by taking a job in the rapid growing industrial alcohol industry instead returning to the family business.. As you can imagine, for this time period, he was pretty much a rebel.
Taketsuru was eventually dispatch by his employer to learn how to make authentic whisky in Scotland. While in Scotland Taketsuru gained an apprenticeship at a distillery, produced a legendary notebook on making scotch and fell in love with a local girl name Rita. They quickly married and returned to Japan to pursue his dream of making whisky. Taketsuru was soon working with Shinjiro Torii of Suntory Whisky, and was instrumental in establishing the first distillery at Yamazaki. He eventually left Suntory to establish is own whisky company, Nikka, in Hokkaido.
One of the main stops on our culinary tour of Japan, Hakushu is located in the pristine mountain wilderness of Yamanishi and is surrounded by a large nature and wild bird sanctuary. Shinjiro Torii believed this was essential to preserving the environment and quality of water as this is the most important ingredient for good whisky.
Tours are available almost everyday except for major holidays. The distillery has hiking trails within the bird sanctuary, a restaurant with an outdoor patio, tasting bar, gift shop and is also home to the Suntory Museum of Whisky.
Surrounded by mountains and at the intersection of two rivers, Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery is the birthplace of whisky in Japan. It is located between Osaka h4and Kyoto. In 1984 the single malt Yamazaki was released, and the distillery now produces a 12, 18 and 25 year single malt as well as limited releases.
Tours are available and the distillery is known for its library of 7000 bottles of unblended malt whisky on display.
Located on the northern island of Hokkaido at a latitude similar to Toronto Canada, the Yoichi distillery has mountains on three sides and the sea of Japan on the other. Taketsuru was well aware of the difficulty starting getting a distillery off the ground, so he wisely set up an apple juice operation to keep the company afloat until the whisky was ready to sell.. The company still produces apple juice and apple brandy but at a different location. The distillery resembles a little village and each step of the whisky making process takes place in a separate building.
Guided and self-guided tours are available at the Yoichi distillery.
The highest distillery in Japan is located in Nagano prefecture between the southern and central alps of Japan. This location was chosen for its cool temperatures, slow maturation and soft water. Tax reforms on malt and a slump in demand hit the distillery hard in the early 90’s and production was paused for nearly 19 years. However, the pot stills were dusted off in 2010 and the company is now producing smooth and elegant whiskies. Thirty minute tours are available.
How to Drink & Taste Whisky
Like wine, tasting whisky starts with a look at the color and the aromas of its nose. You can drink whisky straight, but adding some water will open up the whisky and reveal some of the more intricate flavors such as caramel, wood, smoke, dried fruit, and spice. Most whisky in Japan is consumed with just ice, as a combination of whisky and soda water known as a highball or with a little water and ice ( mizuwari).