Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Golden Pepper

Recently, we received an inquiry about Ogon pepper, a golden pepper which we brought back from our first trip to Japan and wrote about a couple of years ago. The reader asked what kind of pepper it was and how to get seeds, so we decided to research the Ogon pepper and share our findings.

The Ogon pepper (ogon togarashi 黄金唐辛子 or ogon bansho 黄金蕃椒) is known to be the spiciest pepper in Japan. Its shape is like that of a bird chili with a yellow color. Some Japanese websites postulate that Kento-shi, the Japanese envoy to the Tang Dynasty, who brought it from China in the year 809. This theory is not widely believed however.

The more widely accepted belief is that the chili pepper originated in Central and South America and that most likely, no chili peppers existed in China or India until some time after Christopher Columbus found the species in
1492 and brought it back to Spain. It was from there, through trade with the East, that it spread throughout India and then Asia.

Japanese historians believe that chili peppers were introduced to Japan by Portuguese merchants. Another story is that a Portuguese missionary introduced the chili pepper to Otomo Yoshishige, a daimyo (feudal lord) in Kyushu in1542.

From that time forward, the Japanese people cultivated the the chili pepper for use as medicine.
It is recorded that 100 kinds of peppers were grown in the mid-18th century and that during the Meiji period (1868 -1912), there were 52 types of chili pepper in cultivation. At that time, Japanese chili peppers were of high quality, highly valued, and exported overseas. However, as greater industrialization in Japan began a migration to the cities in the1960's, farming became less attractive, and cheaper peppers from overseas took the place of those that had been grown domestically. Today, most of the chili's in Japan come from China.

So, when did the Ogon pepper come to Japan? We couldn't pinpoint the exact date but there is record of the Ogon pepper in an historical text called "Bansho-fu" (chili pepper category book) written by Hiraga Gennai (1729-1779). In "Bansho-fu," Gennai compiled information on 72 varieties of chili pepper along with beautiful illustrations of each. He referred to the Ogon pepper as "sashiage" in his book.

Hiraga Gennai was a kind of Japanese Renaissance man. He was a pharmacologist, student of western medicine, physician, inventor, and author. Gennai was born into a low-ranking samurai family in Kagawa-ken. His interest in natural science started while working in the medicinal herb garden of his lord. He went to study Rangaku (Dutch medical studies) in Nagasaki, then to Osaka to study herbs and finally to Edo (Tokyo). There he met a group of doctors and scholars studying empirical science. His inventions include the Erekiteru (electrostatic generator), Kandankei (thermometer), and Kakanpu (asbestos cloth). His most important book is "Butsurui Hinshitsu," the book on the classification of various materials published in 1763. As was often the case with enlightened men of genius, his ideas were thought to be eccentric. After being largely unappreciated for his intellect, his life took a fateful turn when one day, he got into argument with one of his pupils and accidentally killed him. Gennai spent the rest of his life in prison and died there.

Back to the original question of where to buy Ogon pepper seeds. From looking at various websites and blogs, it seems that they can be purchased in Japan at any home center or garden store (places that sell seeds and plants). If you'd like to bring the seeds to the U.S. however, it takes a bit more time and planning.

Bringing seeds to the U.S. is not simple. Many countries have strict rules on which plants or plant products can be brought in or out. The reason is that each country wants to protect their own native plants from new disease or the spread of pests. An example of this is the Asian long-horned beetle infestation which was discovered in New York City in 1996. Officials believe that wood packing material from China in 1980's carried the beetles, and that they then spread quickly within the U.S.
Although a number of fruits and plants are prohibited from being brought into the U.S., seeds are usually permitted.

To bring the seeds into the U.S., one must visit a Plant Protection Station (PPS), which are located throughout Japan and submit them for inspection after which the PPS will issue an Official Phytosanitary Certificate. So, it is possible for the Ogon pepper to make its way to America.

We can only hope that sooner or later, we may be able to buy Ogon pepper in the U.S!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Sake with Friends

The evenings throughout the week in Tokyo were reserved for delving into the multitudinous opportunities to indulge in drinking sake and eating some of the best food made to accompany it. Fortunately (and not coincidentally), my Tokyo-based friends share this passion (three of them being bloggers on the subject, and one a world-renowned sake guru) so choosing places to go to partake were not an issue. On separate evenings, Melinda and her husband J.P., Etsuko-san and her husband Ted, Hitomi-chan and sister Hanayo-chan, and John all led me to extraordinarily fine sake and drink. The photos will attest to it!

Etsuko-san and Ted took Hitomi-chan and me to Yoshimoto in Shinjuku where we ordered flight after flight of jizake to drink with Chef Ohara-san's exquisitely prepared sashimi and his own sake-friendly creations. The Kishi sisters and I discovered Ishii, a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of Yamagata prefecture where we ate the tenderest, most flavorful, crispy, and light tonkatsu (pork cutlets) imaginable.

My final day with John Gauntner was a tour of sake "through the drinking glass" (as our friend Melinda has perfectly named her blog about eating and imbibing in Tokyo). After attending a tasting of the sake of about twenty breweries from Shimane prefecture, John and I made a brief stop at the Hasegawa Saketen in Tokyo Station to pick up a bottle of Izumo Fuji Ginjo, an artisanal sake discovered at the tasting, then hopped back on the train and set out for my sake purchasing Mecca, Ajino Machidaya. Two trains and a zig-zagging twenty minute hike later, we reached our destination. It was all that I had hoped it to be and more with all sorts of small production premium sake to bring back to enjoy with our nihonshu-loving friends in NYC. Kimura-san, the owner and shacho, introduced us to two of his recent koshu finds and generously offered a package of wonderful organic mugi (barley) miso.

After an hour of fascinating conversation and drink, he drove us to the railroad station and sent us on our way back to Shibuya for an izakaya dinner by Chef Kawanairi at Nakamura that put the perfect cap on the perfect day.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sawanoi Brewery

The following day’s brewery visit took me in a completely different direction, to Ozawa Shuzo in scenic Sawai, nestled among verdant mountains about two hours west of the city, but still in Tokyo prefecture. This time, a pleasant five minute walk through the picturesque village led me to my destination, the kura that brews one of my favorite sake, Sawanoi Kiokejikomi Iroha Kimoto Junmai. My guides Kubo-san and his assistant were gracious and informative, making sure that I saw the cedar tank (kioke) used in making the aforementioned brew, the underground springs that are their two water sources, and a wall of koshu (aged sake) vintages dating back 20 years.

Another highlight of the visit was a perfect lunch at their fabled tofu restaurant perched serenely just above the rapids of the Tama River. As my server presented each in a series of delectable tofu dishes, I sipped from the flight of four Sawanoi sake that I had pre-selected while gazing at the natural beauty of the tableau spread out before my windowside table. Even as rain began to fall, it only enhanced what couldn’t have been a more peaceful and relaxing experience!

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Wonder of Wataribune Rice

Accompanied by our friend Melinda, I set out early the morning following the SSI awards event for Huchu Homare Shuzo in Ishioka, a small town in Sonoma-like Ibaraki-ken, about an hour and a half north by train from Shinjuku station in Tokyo. On our arrival at Ishioka station, we were greeted warmly by the smiling shacho-san (brewery President) Takaaki Yamauchi. As he drove us to his family-owned brewery, we discussed the local effects of the typhoon which had made landfall in eastern Japan the day before, destroying several older buildings nearby. Fortunately, no harm had come to any of the inhabitants! (Aside from high winds which temporarily shut down rail service, the much-anticipated typhoon had been a non-event in Tokyo).

Following a welcome of tea and sweets in the ancient reception room, Yamauchi-san led us on an intriguing tour of the kura. We then tasted the full line of Wataribune nihonshu as he described the history of the brewery and how he had come to use the unique Wataribune strain of sakamai (sake rice varietal) to make his sake. It seems that a former high-ranking Ministry of Agriculture official who had retired to the locale, about twenty years ago suggested that Huchuhomare consider resurrecting the long-ago used pure strain. Only problem was that all they could find was about 15 grams of seeds in the seed bank. Not a lot to start a rice field with! Nevertheless, they planted it, collected the seeds each year and eventually cultivated a sufficient supply for sake brewing.

The story came to life quickly as our next stop was that very rice field itself which surrounds our lunch destination, the homemade tofu and soba restaurant owned and operated by, you guessed it, the gentleman who brought Wataribune to Yamauchi-san!

Monday, October 19, 2009


Earlier this month, I traveled to Tokyo to receive The Sake Service Institute’s (SSI) Honorary Master Sake Sommelier Award (Kikizake-shi) on behalf of SAKAYA. Since it was the 10th Anniversary of these awards, there were a number of luminaries from the worlds of sake, journalism, and Japanese hospitality in attendance at the three-hour event which featured a Shinto ceremony, awards presentation, and dinner.

As one of three America-based honorees along with True Sake's Beau Timken and T.I.C. Restaurant Group's Bon Yagi (owner of Sakagura, Decibel, Robataya, and a number of other Japanese restaurants in NYC), I was thrilled that our efforts to promote enthusiasm for sake and its linkage to Japanese culture were recognized, and honored to have been included among such distinguished (and far more accomplished) company.

Accompanied by Hiroko’s dear friend Hitomi, who met me at my hotel dressed in a beautiful pink kimono, I found the event to be a curious mix of glitz and traditional ritual. At one moment we’d be bathed in swirling lights from a mirror ball with blasting disco music, then a few minutes later, silence would be broken by mournful chant from a Shinto priest. It was truly East meets West. We shuttled back and forth between a reception room where we met and conversed with the other honorees, SSI dignitaries, and their friends and family to photo sessions, and the ballroom where the Shinto ceremony and awards dinner took place. During the dinner, we were called to the stage to accept our awards, traditional scrolls bearing our official kikizakeshi plus a medal of honor which would put a military commendation to shame, while those in attendance ate or watched (or both).

What I found interesting was that although it was a sake event, the beverage was but a bit player in the grand scheme of things. It was available in the reception room during our down time between shuttling and a small glass was at each of our seats during the ceremony. I purposely didn’t drink it as I anticipated a “kanpai” at the conclusion of the proceedings which never came. For dinner, there were four sake servings of about 2 oz. but no refills offered. Odd, I thought for an event dedicated to promoting service of the brew!

What there was in abundance were appeals for money. Each of the honorees had been responsible for a “donation” to the Shinto shrine from which the priest had come to perform the ceremony. There were also envelopes and forms given to each person soliciting donations for the SSI foundation. Finally, after the awards were given and as dinner segued into dessert, there was an auction of sake, shochu, and other donated items to raise money for the same(?) foundation. I couldn’t help but get the feeling that fund-raising, may in fact, have been the point of the event.

The balance of the trip was devoted to: visiting sake breweries Huchuhomare Shuzo and Ozawa Shuzo, the makers of Wataribune and Sawanoi respectively, a sake yeast focused tutorial tasting at Japan Prestige Sake's Okanaga Club with sake master Dr. Koichiro Mori, exploring the Tokyo food and drink scene with friends Hitomi and Hanayo Kishi, Melinda Joe, J.P. Mudry, Ted O’Neill, Etsuko Nakamura and a day of tasting sake from Shimane prefecture, sake shopping, and izakaya drinking with friend and mentor John Gauntner.

Recognition from SAVEUR's Sites We Love

We were delighted to receive an email from Saveur magazine, that Itadakimasu been selected for our post about our experience at Araki (a sushi place in Tokyo) as as one of their "Sites We Love."

Many thanks to SAVEUR for the recognition and support! If you haven't had a chance to read the post, please check it out at your convenience.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Summer Surprise: Heirloom Tomatoes and Yamahai

August is the height of tomato season so we've been indulging ourselves at every opportunity. Due to several factors including a wet June and July, there has been much discussion and angst about a blight affecting much of the tomato crop in the Northeast this year. The result has been a surge in price, particularly with heirloom tomatoes. Current prices at the Union Square Greenmarket range from $6 to $8 per pound. Because we look forward to this late summer treat so much and want to support the farmers in their hour of need, we continue to buy them but are more careful about weighing them before we buy.

However, even the high price has not discouraged us from purchasing our beloved summer favorite heirloom tomatoes.
This year, we experimented with pairing our tomatoes with different types of sake. Since tomatoes have an abundance of umami, we thought that there would be a natural affinity for an umami-laden Yamahai junmai sake. For our choice of Yamahai, we decided on Kuro Obi Do Do Yamahai Junmai from Fukumitsuya brewery in Ishikawa prefecture. Usually, we like to warm this sake to further awaken its earthy, rich, creamy character. But this particular food pairing, coupled with the August heat and humidity suggested that giving this brew a slight chill in the fridge was the way to go.

We were delighted but not surprised to discover that the Kuro Obi Do Do and tomatoes were a sensuous, palate-pleasing match. The pairing of the sweetness and slight acidity of tomatoes and the earthy flavor of Yamahai danced a seamless tango in our mouths. The mozzarella we had added to the salad also played perfectly off the lactic elements that are the hallmark of Yamahai sake.

So don't wait for the fall or winter to drink Yamahai (or its cousin Kimoto) sake, its umami makes it a wonderful complement to some of summer's best produce, locally grown tomatoes!

(For a complete selection of Yamahai and Kimoto sake please visit SAKAYA.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Kelly Choi at SAKAYA

We were thrilled to receive a phone call from Kelly Choi, the host of WNYC’s "Eat Out New York" telling us that she wanted to come to SAKAYA to do an interview about “how to navigate a sake shop.”

As agreed, she arrived with her camera crew at 11AM on May 20 and two hours later, we had wrapped the session which was to be distilled down to a two-minute segment. It initially aired the following week (and may still be running…we’re not sure). Please click here to check it out for yourself.

Our hope is that we were able to create some new interest in premium sake and that we offered some advice to help make it a bit easier for viewers to explore and indulge themselves in the pleasures of this intriguingly complex beverage.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wedding Anniversary

Our biggest question of the month of June is "what do we eat at our wedding anniversary?." Trying to save money due to the bad economy, we decided to stay home and cook for our special night.

We celebrated 4th year anniversary of our wedding on June 10. For this special occasion, Hiroko spent few days preparing the dinner for the night. We started with slices of seared beef tong, followed by two slices of homemade tofu accompanied by nice cold "Victory Prima" beer from Pennsylvania.

Now the dinner starts! Soup de jur was Spanish style Almond soup. Made with almond, cumin, saffron, it has mysterious flavors.

The dinner was followed by beef carapacio. She purchased beef from Japanese butcher on Great Jones Street. They have a machine to slice beef thinly for the sukiyaki beef, so they sliced the less marbled loin butt. She placed the beef on the plate and pour a hot consomme over the meat so that the meat will slowly cook from the liquid. She drizzled the sesame dressing for an additional flavor.

Our main course was two style of marinated tuna. Inspired by Maguro Zuke Don (marinated tuna on the rice) she read in Oishinbo comic book and red wine marinated tuna from a cookbook by Japanese wine sommelier Shinya Tazaki, she prepared the two type of tuna, one is marinated in soy sauce, and the other is marinated in wine and soy sauce mixture. For Japanese version, she made simple sushi rice, and for wine version, she mixed the rice with red wine reduction and red wine vinegar.

Lastly, our dessert was Green Tea Tofu Jelly. Using the soy milk Hiroko made for tofu and green tea powder she bought from Kajitsu, the Japanese vegetarian restaurant on 9th street, she mixed the soy milk, green tea powder, and sugar with kanten (agar agar) and gelatin. The green tea powder is such a good quality that the result of the jelly is very aromatic and intense.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Rick on Japanese TV

We were finally able to get the video of a Japanese news program on sake produced by TV Tokyo Network. It's about an 8-minute segment in Rick appears as a sake specialist in New York. The response to the show from people who saw it air in Japan was terrific. We received emails from several Japanese brewers asking us to carry their sake at our store and were visited by some others whose sake is not yet available in the U.S.

It is exciting to be recognized as ardent supporters of nihonshu by those whom we revere for creating and producing beautiful beverage!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Day 4 ... The Rice's Tale

Imagine if you will, a journey through time and space that begins with an intensive abrasion of your skin. While still smarting, you're jet-sprayed, dunked, and held under water until you've shed whatever residue remained from the abrasion. "Whew! Glad that's over with," you think as you lie down and rest for the night.

But early the following morning before you know what's happening, you're in the hottest Turkish bath you've never dreamed of. Ouch! With great relief you're allowed to cool off while being transported somewhere by conveyor belt. Suddenly, without warning, you're sucked into a hose and flying at warp speed until...splash! You've been shot into a tank of yeasty smelling liquid.

Such is the sakamai"s tale.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How do they sleep at night? VERY well thank you!

How do they do it? There are so many tasks and so few kurabito. Our Mukune International Sake Brewing Program intern team of six has doubled the work force at Daimon Shuzo. The experience of the last day and a half has given me an immense appreciation for the efficiency of the operation of this sakagura. To say that the craft of sake making is arduous and demanding would be an understatement. But the real difference maker is the coordination, timing, and teamwork.

We've washed, soaked, steamed, and cooled rice for a variety of uses (and we'll do more). We've made and moved koji. Made boxes and labeled bottles. Washed and cleaned our equipment and the materials used in the process. We'll do that many times more as well. Along with the physical, we've also be given an inside look at the science and management of the process. It is astounding what the full time kura team accomplishes in creating and packaging a variety of different sake (each with it's own unique "recipe" requiring different logistics and timing). All is seamlessly integrated following a flow of steps that bends and turns according to time, temperature, and taste.

At the figurative end of the day, we've had a literal taste of the satisfaction that a toji feels as he samples the free run sake that is the first to flow out of the Yabuta (the machine that presses the fermented mash and yields the fresh undiluted, unpasteurized sake). At the literal end of the day, we've also experienced the blissful exhaustion that comes from a labor that produces such an exquisite beverage. I know that I've never slept so well.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Mukune Sake Internship, Stairway to Heaven

Rick is at Daimon Shuzo, Osaka, Japan, participating sake internship program. Here is the report....

Within 10 minutes of our arrival at the Daimon Shuzo kura, we were immersed in the transfer of koji from wooden box-like trays to a burlap lined, wire mesh-based variety. We were smelling, smoothing, and yes, even tasting the almost styrofoam-like grains of rice that were now in a state of saccharine transformation due to the effects of exposure to their koji-kin invaders. With apologies for the lack of specific terminology, it was the experience of immediate entrance into the world and craft of sake brewing that was singularly exhilarating.

Our welcome from Shacho (President) and Toji (Brewmaster) Yasutaka Daimon was at the same time, warm, gracious, and enthusiastic. "Fasten your seat belts!" he exclaimed as he smiled at us from the top of the stairway. And then, there we were, up to our eyes in koji.

The subsequent exploration of our new home ultimately led to a steep, well-worn wooden stairway which led to our sleeping quarters. Looking straight up into the eaves of this ancient structure, I was struck by the feeling (realization?) that I was exactly where I most wanted to be. The stairway symbolized that point of entry from one world to the next.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Our Valentine's Day Heart Beet

Since we've been married, we've had a tradition of beginning our annual Valentine's Day dinner with a heart-shaped beet rosti (shredded beet pancake) that we christened the "Heart Beet." .

Beets are a great source for folate, manganese, potassium, fiber, and carbohydrates and we enjoy eating them cooked, raw, and roasted. We also enjoy eating beet greens which Hiroko usually sautees with garlic, salt, and pepper.

For Valentine's Day, Hiroko quickly prepared the beet version of rosti with chopped rosemary. She grated a beet and mixed it with chopped fresh rosemary, salt and pepper, and flour which serves as the adhesive that bonds the shredded beet mixture. It is best to grate the beets in the sink as everything in the vicinity tends to end up red.

Once all ingredients have been combined, shape the mixture into whatever form you'd like and place it in a pan of hot "shimmering" olive oil. After a couple of minutes, turn and cook the other side.

Not only is it a romantic dish, it's simple and delicious too!