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The UPS box of bamboo shoots I ordered from Jeff Rieger at Penryn Orchard Specialties arrived at my doorstep within three days of placing the order. When I opened the box, I counted more than a dozen freshly harvested shoots, each weighing between a quarter-pound and a half-pound, covered in their dark bark with moist soil still clinging around them. I was elated by their earthiness and beauty. Like cherry blossoms, these terrestrial shooters signal the arrival of spring, which comes late in the foothill of the Sierra east of Sacramento, Calif., where Rieger’s farm is located.
I never expected I would encounter fresh bamboo shoots in California. The last time I ate good bamboo in Los Angeles was when my husband brought back a big, fat shoot from Japan in his suitcase. He had dug out the shoot from a friend’s bamboo forest. It was then cooked and packaged by his friend’s wife to bring back to me as a souvenir.
Rieger grows Sweetshoot Bamboo, Phyllostachys dulcis, which is the common name of an edible variety prized for its tender texture and sweet, delicate flavor. It is one of the many plants the previous Japanese-American owner of Penryn Farms, George Oki, planted that reminded him and his wife of Japan. They also grew Asian pears, peaches, plums, persimmons and mandarins.
Rieger has had the bamboo forest for more than 10 years, but he is just starting to go into the market with the bamboo shoots in the hope of getting chefs and cooks interested in using them as a culinary ingredient. So far, it has been a challenge because local chefs don’t know how to cook with them, even though it’s easier than one might expect. It didn’t take any effort on his part to sell them to me. I even asked him if I could come to his farm to dig the shoots out of the ground.
Harvesting bamboo shoots
Every morning during harvest time in May, Rieger goes out into the bamboo forest looking for young shoots less than 1 foot tall, at which point they are sweet and tender and good for culinary purposes. The timing of the harvest is important because, depending on the variety, bamboo can grow at a speed of 2 inches per hour — up to 4 feet in one day — and they harden quickly. Unlike some trees that take decades to mature, bamboo can fully mature in as little as three years.
Bamboo: A metaphor for life
In Asia, bamboo is often used as a metaphor for life. Bamboo is flexible, it bends with wind and snow, it doesn’t break easily and it grows straight up into the sky — good qualities you would want to see in a person. That is why the Japanese eat fresh bamboo shoots in the springtime, because it’s time for new growth. Digging bamboo shoots was an annual spring activity I did with my grandmother to celebrate these qualities of life, and it’s amazing that after all these years, I tell myself to be like bamboo when things get me down. I shake off what bothers me and spring right up.
Two popular bamboo shoot dishes
One of the most popular ways to prepare fresh bamboo shoots in Japan is to make rice with them or simmer the bamboo with fresh wakame seaweed in a lightly seasoned konbu-bonito based dashi stock.
Bamboo shoots are prized not only for their flavor and texture but also for their dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and low fat content. Some bamboos are inedible and contain toxins, but like mushrooms, you have to source the edible varieties and learn how to prepare them so you can get rid of the inherit bitterness in the bamboo shoot.
Tips for cooking bamboo shoots
The Japanese prepare bamboo shoots in two steps. First the outer layer of bamboo, the dark and hard bark, is peeled away until you reach the tender skin, which is pale and tender like heart of palm.
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You can use cooked bamboo in a variety of ways — in a stew, stir-fried, cooked with rice or in a salad. Fresh bamboo shoots are one of the most versatile ingredients you can use in your cooking, and they taste nothing like the smelly and flavorless water-packed bamboo shoots that come in a can.
Fresh Bamboo Rice
This recipe can be made in a rice cooker, donabe rice cooker or saucepan. Follow the rice manufacturer’s cooking instructions for optimum results.
2¼ cups short-grain Japanese rice, rinsed and drained
2½ cups dashi (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons Koikuchi soy sauce
1 tablespoon sake
1 tablespoon mirin
½ pound boiled bamboo shoots, thinly sliced into small pieces, about ⅛-inch thick
2 shiitake mushrooms from dashi stock, sliced thinly
Sansho pepper leaves, sliced shiso leaves, or roasted sesame seeds salt for garnish
1. Put washed rice in a rice cooker and pour dashi soup stock over the rice. Add soy sauce, sake and mirin and stir the rice.
2. Put the sliced bamboo and shiitake mushrooms on top of the rice.
3. Cook the rice as you would regular rice. When rice is done, serve in individual rice bowls.
4. Garnish with sansho leaves, shiso leaves or roasted sesame seeds and salt.
Konbu-Shitake Mushrooms Dashi Stock
Makes approximately 2½ cups
3 cups filtered water
1 piece of konbu, 4 inches long
2 dried shiitake mushrooms
1. Soak the konbu and shiitake mushrooms in water for four hours or overnight.
2. Bring to a boil in a saucepan over high heat. Just before liquid comes to a boil, remove the konbu. Lower the heat and continue simmering for another 5 minutes.
3. Turn off the heat. Save the mushrooms for the bamboo rice.
When Julia Cotts, executive director of the Garden School Foundation, invited me to teach a Japanese cooking class to the garden club at 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, I chose two classic Japanese dishes: miso soup and onigiri, or rice balls. Basic miso soup is made with seafood stock called dashi and seasoned with miso paste. Tofu, scallions and seaweed are familiar ingredients in everyday miso soup. Onigiri is a portable rice ball made with short-grain rice; it’s filled with a morsel of meat, fish or pickled vegetable and wrapped in nori seaweed.
What was different from my usual Japanese cooking classes was the choice of ingredients I was given to work with. “We will use the vegetables and fruits grown by the children,” Cotts explained. I was ready to discover new flavors for my miso soup and to teach how to make onigiri by hand.
The first things you notice upon setting foot into the elementary school’s garden are the beautiful pepper trees. They help diffuse the noise of the nearby freeway and filter the dust of the city. In 2003, a group of teachers and parents came up with the idea of turning the school’s old concrete parking lot into a community garden instead of paving it with new asphalt. Ten years later, the garden is thriving. A variety of winter root vegetables and leafy greens as well as herbs grow in the raised beds. One entire section of the garden is devoted to growing fruit trees. The kumquat and Satsuma tangerine trees have clusters of bright orange fruit ready to be picked. Bird feeders made from pine cones smeared with peanut butter hang on tree branches. I am enchanted with this garden. It reminds me of the garden in the novel “The Secret Garden” — one that has magical healing powers. Only this garden is real. It’s an exemplary garden where children can learn to appreciate nature and develop life skills by learning how to grow food.
For the cooking class, more than 50 children and parents, mostly Latinos, came to watch as I made miso soup and onigiris. Some of the parents only spoke Spanish, but the children were eager translators. “Hojas de Marisco,” someone said about the big kombu seaweed I dropped in the soup to make the dashi broth. Most of the children had seen seaweed washed up on the beach but never eaten it. “Seaweed is like a vegetable,” I said as I took the hydrated seaweed out of the broth. “It’s full of good nutrients like vitamins and fiber.”
I cut up the seaweed and passed it around for everyone to try. Some brought it up to their nose to smell. Some thought the seaweed felt rubbery. I loved hearing their reactions and giggles. “Don’t you sauté some onions in oil first?” asked one parent. “No, I don’t use any oil to make miso soup,” I said.
Next, I threw in a bag of dried bonito flakes, which look like wood shavings. The konbu seaweed was strange, but the bonito flakes looked even stranger. I strained the ingredients to finish the dashi broth. Everyone was entranced by the aroma of the amber-colored dashi.
Nontraditional ingredients flavor miso soup
To flavor the soup, the children harvested broccoli, kale, Swiss chard, cauliflower, lettuce and a variety of herbs like parsley, dill, oregano, chives, cilantro, epazote and savory — not exactly what I would consider candidates for making miso soup. But it was up to the children to decide, and let’s begin by saying freshness is the best ingredient for all cooks.
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They washed and chopped the vegetables and filled the stock pot all the way to the rim. I let the soup simmer awhile and then added the miso paste. It was the most colorful, complex and fragrant miso soup I ever concocted. Everyone tried using the chopsticks to pick up the morsels of vegetables from the soup. Some used them as a skewer. Who would have thought of using these herbs in the soup except the children who grew the foods in this garden?
A long soup line formed immediately, and everyone was drinking it with gusto. Some fathers gathered around the pot of miso soup asking for more. “It’s like menudo but healthier,” one father remarked. “This miso soup is so delicious,” shouted Cotts, who gave some to her toddler son.
We then moved on to making the onigiris with the rice I brought, and we decorated them with herbs, flowers, fruit and vegetables. The rice grains stuck on fingers, so I told them to dunk their hands in the bowl of water before handling the rice. Japanese rice is stickier than the long-grain rice Latinos are used to eating. Some children were already familiar with nori seaweed from eating sushi. Onigiris are like sushi’s distant cousin — another finger food, but without the fish on top. The pack of 50 sheets of nori disappeared in no time. Some children decorated the onigiris with nasturtiums and kumquats. I have never seen onigiris so colorful and original. I was relieved that none looked like Hello Kitty. Those few onigiris that were not quickly eaten sat on the vinyl floral tablecloth bathing in the sun with the loveliest expressions.
1 (6-inch long) piece of Kombu seaweed
4 cups filtered water
2 cups bonito flakes (Katsuobushi)
1. Take the kombu and make several crosswise slits in it using scissors.
2. Steep the kombu in 4 cups water over medium heat. Just before the water comes to a boil, pluck the seaweed out of the water. Discard or use it to make optional secondary dashi (see below).
3. Turn heat to low, then add 2 cups dried bonito flakes. Do not stir. Let the bonito flakes steep gently like tea for one minute. Turn off the heat.
4. Strain the mixture in a sieve lined with a paper towel or cheesecloth, and then the dashi is ready to be used for making soups and sauces. Discard the flakes or use it to make secondary dashi.
Variation: For added umami flavor, add one or two dehydrated shiitake mushrooms to the dashi. First, soak the dried mushrooms in 1 cup of water overnight. Add the soaking liquid and the mushrooms to the broth. Keep it in the broth to simmer. Follow Step 4. Discard the mushroom or slice it up and eat it with a little soy sauce or put it in your miso soup.
To make secondary dashi, combine the used kombu seaweed and bonito flakes with 4½ cups of filtered water in the same saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes, then strain. It is great for use in miso soup.
Makes 4 servings
This miso soup is made with turnips, snow peas and tofu. You can use a variety of vegetables in your miso soup.
4 cups prepared dashi, divided
2 baby turnips, thinly sliced
5 to 8 snow peas, veins removed
⅓ of a tofu brick, sliced into half-inch cubes
3½ to 4 tablespoons white or red miso paste or a combination of both
1. Pour 3½ cups of dashi into a medium-sized saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the turnip and snow peas and cook over low heat for 1 minute.
2. Thin the mixture with a half cup of dashi broth. Add enough to lend flavor without making the broth too salty.
3. Add the tofu to the broth. Bring to a simmer until the tofu is heated, about one minute.
4. Add the miso paste and mix thoroughly into the soup.
5. Divide the broth between four bowls. Garnish with scallions and serve.
Tip: Miso soup does not improve in flavor when reheated, so you will experience full flavor once all the ingredients are added.
Makes 4 onigiris
Onigiri molds come in different shapes and sizes. Moisten the mold and place it over a slightly damp cutting board to prevent the rice from sticking. You can also use your hands to mold the onigiris.
2 cups freshly cooked short-grain rice
Salt to taste
Onigiri mold, or you can use your hands to mold the onigiris
A small bowl of water to dunk your hands and mold
1. Season the rice with salt to your taste. Fill the mold halfway with rice and make a small dent in the middle and place the filling (see below) in it.
2. Cover the rest of the mold with rice and pack it in well without pressing too hard.
3. Turn the mold over to take out the onigiri. Dunk your hands in the bowl of water and moisten your hands lightly. Press the onigiri with your hand so it holds its shape.
4. Wrap the onigiri with a strip of nori seaweed or serve it plain or with furikake (see below).
Tip: Stick your wet finger into a bowl of salt and dab the salt on your palm before molding the rice.
• Umeboshi (pitted pickled plum)
• Grilled chicken
Sprinkle ideas for the top of the onigiri, called furikake
• Roasted black or white sesame seeds
• Various nuts
• Katsuobushi (bonito flakes)
• Nori seaweed cut into strips
• Shiso leaves
Top photo: Children in the cooking class taste the miso paste. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
The city of Saiki on the island of Kyushu in southern Japan is blessed by nature. In the surrounding mountains, farmers grow shiitake mushrooms, prized for their thick meat. The crystal clear sea is abundant with sardines, mackerel, squid and local fish whose names are not familiar to me. I was happily treated to both, though the main purpose of my visit to Saiki was neither mushrooms nor fish but mold. I came to visit Myoho Asari, the ninth-generation proprietor of the 300-year-old Kojiya Honten, whose family has been making koji. The process involves inoculating rice with A. oryzae spores, originally for miso, soy sauce and amazake and more recently for shio-koji, a koji-salt-based seasoning that has become trendy with Japanese cooks and chefs.
Fermented foods form the basis of a Japanese diet
Since ancient times, fermented foods have been the backbone of Japanese cuisine. The practice was developed to preserve food and enhance the flavor and nutrition of foods.
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The essential condiments in the Japanese pantry include soy sauce, rice vinegar, miso, sake, mirin, salt and sugar. What is uniquely Japanese is that all these condiments, with the exception of salt and sugar, are fermented foods made with koji. My Japanese kitchen would be incomplete if any single one of these items went missing. But when I heard about this new seasoning, shio-koji, I was curious. There is a Japanese tradition of pickling vegetables with koji, but why is koji salt that appealing to many Japanese consumers?
The visit to Kojiya Honten
Kojiya Honten is on a quiet street on Sendo-machi. Asari greeted me, wearing her signature samui, Japanese worker’s clothes, which she made by altering her mother’s old kimonos. A clean, white collar outlined her neck. Asari revealed to me that the collar was a fake snap-on type, and she was wearing a simple tank top underneath the samui. She laughed about it like a girl. I liked that she was practical and honest. Asari wears the outfit every day, except when she was recently honored by Oita newspaper for her cultural contribution as a koji maker. She wore a silk kimono for that occasion.
The struggle to persist and find a new market for koji
Once there were koji makers in nearly every village. However, in these changing times, it has become a rare profession, with only 1,000 artisanal koji makers left in Japan. When Asari took over the reins to help run her father’s business after her mother passed away in 2007, the business was not doing well because fewer people were making miso and amazake at home, and instead opted for cheaper, commercially made products. To keep the koji business alive, the Asaris supplemented their income, selling bento boxes and ice, and teaching math to local children. Asari researched old texts and cookbooks from the Edo period to see how koji was used in their daily cooking and began developing recipes for modern cooks. It was through hard work and persistence that Asari and other koji makers were able to diversify and expand the market for koji. Now, they are experiencing a resurgence of koji-based foods, particularly shio-koji.
Asari showed me the original muro, the dark and cave-like koji-propagating room made with clay walls and paved with large stones that remain from the days when the area was a loading dock. The steamed rice is inoculated with koji that used to incubate in the muro, but because of the danger of the roof falling from old age, they moved the operations to a modern building next door. The old muro will shortly undergo retrofitting to strengthen the ceiling.
Young and old koji makers work together to maintain tradition
It’s 2 p.m. at Kojiya Honten, and Asari’s 88-year-old father, Koichi Asari, a koji master, is supervising the koji-making. Three college interns from the Tokyo University of Agriculture are turning the steaming rice with large wooden paddles.
Ryotoku, Asari’s second son, who is now being groomed to run the business, inoculates the rice with koji powder and gives orders out loud, making sure the bag of steaming hot rice is transported to the koji-propagating room in a timely manner.
Asari’s father, who is the first son born in a century of mostly matriarchal lineage, spent three years in a labor camp in Siberia before he returned to Japan to take over the family business. He says the secret to longevity is to work hard and drink amazake — a koji-based non-alcoholic rice drink — three times a day.
Can shio-koji replace salt?
What I learned from Asari through this visit was not only about the nutritional benefits of Koji but also its versatility as I got to savor many delicious dishes. I learned shio-koji is a natural seasoning made of koji, water and salt. It’s a creamy, white liquid with a grainy consistency that tastes salty and sweet, and it can be made simply at home. When koji is used in cooking, the enzyme proteases break down proteins to produce amino acids, including glutamate. The amino acid is responsible for umami, which enhances the flavor of foods. Another enzyme, amylase, is known for its ability to break down starches into simple sugars, which ensures foods prepared with koji have a rounder and deeper flavor. With 50% less salt content, good flavor and high nutrient content, I can see why some people are swearing by it as the new “salt.” Shio-koji can be used to season and tenderize meat and seafood. Even a tough piece of meat can turn into something quite good. You can also use shio-koji in soups, salad dressings, even in your pancake batter instead of salt. How about ice cream with shio-koji? When I was sitting with Asari, we got to talking about all kinds of ways to use shio-koji, and the possibilities were infinite. What makes it most interesting for eaters and cooks, though, is that koji is a living food.
(From the Kojiya Honten website)
500 grams (17 ounces) koji
170 grams (5.9 ounces) sea salt
650 cubic centimeters water (2¾ cups of water)
1. Put the koji in a bowl and rub with your hands to break up any clumps.
2. Add the salt and mix thoroughly with your hands, rubbing vigorously until the mixture sticks together when squeezed.
3. Add just enough water to cover the mixture, stir and transfer to a clean, covered container. Keep at room temperature.
4. For the first week, stir once a day until the flavor settles. Stir from the bottom to bring air into the mixture. It takes seven to 10 days to reach full flavor, depending on the season. When it is done, the rice kernels are smaller and the fragrance is salty and sweet.
Golden ratio of shio-koji
(From the Kojiya Honten website)
Using this ratio will bring out the best flavor in foods: 1:10 ratio of shio-koji weight to total ingredient weight.
For each 100 grams of ingredients, use 10 grams (1½ teaspoons) of shio-koji.
For each pound of ingredients, use 2½ tablespoons of shio-koji.
For each half-pound of ingredients, use 4 teaspoons shio-koji.
When substituting for salt in a recipe: For each teaspoon of salt, use 2 teaspoons of shio-koji.
Green bean salad with shio-koji
(From the Kojiya Honten website)
The dressing is made with basic seasoning and aromatic ingredients. In our family, when making sesame-dressed vegetables, we use only sesame seeds and shio-koji. The delicious sesame shio-koji blends well with the simple flavors of the vegetables.
Makes two servings
For the salad:
100 grams of green beans
1 tablespoon shio-koji
For the dressing:
1½ teaspoons shio-koji
2 tablespoons ground black sesame seeds (White sesame seeds can also be used.)
Dried hot chili pepper to taste
1. String the green beans and cut into 5-centimeter lengths.
2. Boil water in a saucepan. Add the green beans and 1 tablespoon of shio-koji to the boiling water and blanch.
3. Remove from heat, drain and chill in cold water. Drain again.
4. Mix the dressing ingredients together. Add the green beans and toss.
Photo: Preparing steamed rice to make koji. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
Every December for the past 40 years, my parents in Tokyo have received a package of hoshigaki, dried Hachiya persimmons, in the mail from my old Japanese language tutor who lives in Ogaki, Gifu prefecture in the center of Japan. Eight acorn-shaped hoshigakis – perfectly uniform in size, their skin soft and smooth, with an earthy orange hue and dusted in a powdery white sugar — lay in a bed of straw.
As a girl, each time I opened the package, I was astonished by the beautiful presentation and the floral scent of the hoshigakis. My mother would brew some green tea and cut up a couple of hoshigakis into several pieces. We kids were never allowed a whole. The sweet-tasting fruit with a sip from a mildly bitter cup of tea made us feel momentarily like grown-ups. The artisanal hoshigaki, which the Tsuchiyas have been producing for more than 250 years, are called Gozen Shirogaki, or Imperial White Persimmons — named in honor of Emperor Meiji, who loved them. Gozen Shirogakis are highly sought after, commanding more than $10 apiece. I can’t recall being a particularly good student, but my family considers themselves lucky to be on Tsuchiya’s perennial hoshigaki list.
Discovering local hoshigaki in Southern California
I never imagined in my dreams that I could get artisanal hoshigakis locally in Los Angeles, where I have lived for most of my life. But a few years ago, I was at the Santa Monica Farmers Market and happened on the stand of Penryn Orchards, where I came upon boxes of hoshigaki made with Hachiya persimmons. Their earthy orange hue, dusty white surface and aesthetic presentation immediately brought me back to Tsuchiya’s hoshigakis. I bought a box and tasted one. The fruit was sweet and delicately chewy, with a lovely floral scent. I was absolutely delighted by the discovery.
Jeff Rieger, the owner of Penryn Orchards, a mustached man in a baseball cap wearing a sunburnt flannel shirt, described the flavor of hoshigakis as reminiscent of gingerbread. I smiled at his description because it sounded so American to me, but it rang true. It was also at the farmers market that I met his French girlfriend, Laurence Hauben, who explained to me that they made their hoshigakis entirely by hand, following the traditional Japanese method.
The history of Penryn Orchard goes back to 2002, when Jeff, a builder by trade, bought the 4.5-acre orchard in Auburn in Placer Country in the foothills of the Sierras from a Japanese-American couple, George and Micky Oki. Jeff was going to develop the land and sell it but fell in love with the old trees, including the nine varieties of persimmon trees; he resolved to become a farmer. With help from Laurence, Jeff grows 56 varieties of fruit — among them O’Henry peaches; Satsuma mandarins; Kousui Asian pears; Mutsu apples; and Hachiya, Fuyu, Chocolate, Maru and Gosho persimmons, to name a few — on about 300 trees in total and produces 400 pounds of hoshigakis.
The hoshigaki workshop
After being Penryn’s eager hoshigaki customer for several years, I asked Laurence, who gives regular cooking workshops at her house in Santa Barbara, to teach me how to make them.
I got 10 friends from Los Angeles, and we carpooled to Santa Barbara on a Sunday that couldn’t have been more beautiful and fall-like to be outdoors, to make hoshigakis. Unlike the commercially dried fruits that get sliced up and shriveled in dehydrators, hoshigakis are dried whole in open air. The drying involves a laborious, 40-day process. Laurence said that hoshigaki making is great for children because they learn to follow through with a project from beginning to end. I say many adults, including myself, could benefit from this practice.
We washed the persimmons; paired up the fruits that were more or less the same size; pared the tops off, careful not to cut off the stems; peeled the skin and strung the fruit using 21-inch-long twine. Some fruit came stemless, but Laurence had a solution for that. She drilled a non-corrosive nail into them and — voila! — they were good to go.
We hung the persimmons on bamboo poles to dry in a sunny room. Traditionally, hoshigakis are dried outdoors and brought indoors at night, but Laurence recommended drying them indoors in a sunny room to keep them away from dust, dirt and critters. Good circulation is important to prevent the fruit from molding. The white coat you can see on hoshigakis forms from natural sugar crystals that have been exuded from the persimmons by gentle and daily massaging, which also softens the inner pulp and holds their acorn shape. The white sugar crystals of persimmons are used in Chinese medicine for their beneficial cooling properties. Laurence showed us how to massage the persimmons by applying pressure on our hands.
The workshop included a lovely lunch of homemade Thai curry soup; a kale salad garnished with pomegranates, Fuyu persimmons, and walnuts; and a persimmon cake. Also, there were artisanal breads made by a local baker named Lily, who later brought over another batch of breads, fresh out of the oven, for us to take home. There was homemade cider, called Apicius, made by Remi Lauvand, a French chef who concocted the fruit-less cider from his mother’s recipe. He said the recipe was a secret. It was amazingly refreshing and tasted like herbs. Laurence’s hoshigaki workshop offered the best possible combination of Japanese, French and California cultures coming together elegantly in one place.
Back in Los Angeles, my persimmons are hanging in the sunny den in a place my kitten cannot reach. I have detected no mold so far, and the persimmons are beginning to soften with my daily massage. Progress is slow but solid. If I remain patient and thorough, which is my goal, I may just get rewarded with a light coat of white on my hoshigakis.
Photo: Hoshigakis, with their white covering of dried sugar crystals. Credit: Laurence Hauben
Every year, Takaaki Yamauchi, a seventh-generation sake brewer, organizes the planting and harvesting of Watari Bune, a prized but temperamental sake rice varietal. Yamauchi, who is the president of Huchu Homare, one of Japan’s most highly regarded microbreweries, enlists the help of more than 200 volunteers. He brought the Watari Bune tradition back from near extinction 21 years ago.
But this year, the 46-year-old Yamauchi opted not to hold the seasonal events. He was too busy repairing the damage done to his 150-year-old brewery by the March earthquake, and he couldn’t get enough planting experts to manage the volunteers who’d signed up to help with the harvest.
A visit to Huchu Homare found the brewery surrounded with scaffolding. Roof tiles had fallen and walls were cracked. The magnitude of the quake was not as severe as in the Tohoku region to the north, but Ibaragi prefecture, where the brewery is located in the Kanto region, was hard hit. Yamauchi was driving when the earthquake struck and almost flipped his car. He estimates that the brewery repairs will take at least two years, with costs exceeding the insurance coverage. Nonetheless he feels lucky; thanks to its skilled carpentry, the interior structure remained intact. Only 10 of 25,000 bottles were broken.
Radiation tests proved rice was safe
The five farmers Yamauchi contracts to grow rice for his sake on 8.5 acres of land were lucky too. While many farmers in the Ibaragi region had to deal with broken irrigation pipes and seawater that had seeped into their paddies, Huchu Homare’s growers planted the Watari Bune rice seedlings without delay. The irrigation water in their fields was tested for radiation several times prior to and during the growing season, and passed safety standards. Readings must be below 500 becquerels per kilogram to qualify as safe for eating. One hundred kilos of rice was harvested in the fall, and the grains were tested for radiation at the Univesrsity of Ibaragi. Tests for health hazardous Iodine 131, Caesium 134 and Caesium 137 were all negative. Huchu Homare was able to produce sake using native rice varietal Watari Bune without any interruption. This was a great relief to Yamauchi, who cares about remaining local.
The practice of making sake with Watari Bune sake rice started in the late 1980s, when Yamauchi took over his family’s business. Back then, not one of the 65 regional breweries in Ibaragi, including his own, were using native rice varietals. Wanting to forge a stronger regional identity and make sake the traditional way, he began looking for a local rice. One elderly farmer remembered a varietal called Watari Bune that was popular in the 1930s and made excellent sake. The grains were low in protein, high in starch. They were absorbent and retained good flavor — ideal qualities for brewing sake. Watari Bune was not an easy rice to cultivate. The leaves grew too tall, fell over easily. The plants were susceptible to diseases, bugs loved them and they took longer to grow than other rice –- 60 days instead of 40. The rice grew less and less popular with the Ibaragi farmers, until eventually they stopped growing it. As decades passed, some thought the varietal had gone extinct.
Lost and forgotten seedlings
Yamauchi found the frozen seedlings of Watari Bune in the gene bank of an agricultural research center in Tsukuba, Ibaragi. He asked the lab to give him seeds for research purposes. The research center gave him 14 grams, a mere tablespoonful. With the help of Toju Hotta, the research center’s agricultural advisor, Yamauchi cultivated the sake rice. While there was some trouble finding a rice farmer who would collaborate with the experiment, Yamauchi eventually found a local farmer who lent him 3.3 square meters of rice paddy to plant the seeds. With trial and error, Yamauchi and Hotta managed to produce the first 300 bottles of Watari Bune sake in 1990. Watari Bune is often referred to as the “miracle sake rice.”
Within a few years, the sake won several gold medals at the National Sake Competition. Watari Bune has earned rave reviews and maintains a cult status in the sake community for its lively, aromatic and balanced fruit flavor, one which Yamauchi characterizes as green apple. The sake is best chilled to about 5 to 10 degrees C (41 to 50 F), but it can also be enjoyed at room temperature. Decanting for a few minutes heightens its fragrance.
Whenever Yamauchi visits the rice fields of Watari Bune, he stops at the soba shop that stands adjacent to the paddies. Hotta, the now-retired agricultural advisor, is the noodle maker and proprietor. Everyone still calls him sensei, which means teacher. Yamauchi has a slurp of Hotta’s delicious artisanal soba and tofu, both made from hand-milling locally grown buckwheat and soy beans. On his last visit, Hotta apologized for not having the time to replace the bowls and dishes, which had been chipped during the earthquake, then brought out a jug full of Watari Bune. The two men made a toast to health and happiness, and to the prized native rice they took such pains to revive, and then let the smooth sake slide down their throats.
Zester Daily contributor Sonoko Sakai is a food writer and film producer, and blogs about Japanese home cooking and making soba noodles by hand. Her most recent film is “Blindness.” She lives in Los Angeles and Tehachapi, Calif.
Top photo: A bottle of Watari Bune sake.
Photo and slideshow credit: Sonoko Sakai
My relative, the late poet Shimpei Kusano of Iwaki, Fukushima, once wrote a poem that resonated with the idyllic place I remember the region to be. The entire poem consisted of frogs chorusing. Iwaki is near the epicenter of the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, as well as the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t pray for Japan’s recovery.
Health and safety are the primary concern. The latest food scare is connected to tainted beef from Fukushima cows. The cows were fed radioactively contaminated hay, and the meat eventually made its way to consumers because the authorities’ spot check system for radiation contamination was not functioning as we all thought.
My sister in Tokyo is worried for her 11-year-old son. His appetite is big. What is safe to feed a child? Spinach was on the watch list, but the the ban was lifted. What about carrots and turnips? Scientific words such as Cesium, the chemical element of atomic number 55, an extremely reactive metal, and becquerel, units of radioactivity, have become familiar to Japanese homemakers.
A history of calamity and regrowth
But this is not the first time Japan has faced calamities of such magnitude. My father was born in 1923, the year the deadliest earthquake struck Japan, killing more than 100,000. He survived the tsunami because a man carried him up into the bamboo forests where it was safe. During World War II, the Tokyo air raids turned the city into an inferno, incinerating the lives of another 100,000 or more. In 1945, two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki inflicted casualties estimated at more than 200,000.
Earlier this month, Japan commemorated the 66th anniversary of the attack on Hiroshima. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has pledged a nuclear-free future for the country. It is time we learn a lesson and reconsider our dependency on nuclear energy.
My father remained calm in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. He took the bullet train to Kyoto to view the cherry blossoms in April and to write haiku, as he does every year. Fortunately, Kyoto is more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) from the epicenter of the quake and everything there is safe, but for the first time, my father noticed, the tourists were missing.
According to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), 6.7 million foreigners visited Japan in 2007. In 2010, the number topped 8.6 million. As of this May, the figure plummeted 62%. Foreign celebrities have canceled engagements in Japan. Why take a chance?
A champion in Lady Gaga
But Lady Gaga thought otherwise. She threw a benefit concert in Tokyo for the victims of the disaster in June. She enjoyed the food and the city and told her fans that Japan is essentially safe, urging them to visit and help its recovery.
When I was back in May, a nationwide effort to conserve energy had begun. TEPCO, the electric company that runs the damaged nuclear power plant, is posting efficient ways to conserve energy on its website. The neon lights in Tokyo were dimmed. Many people switched to electric fans instead of air conditioning, and gathered in one room in the house so others didn’t have to be cooled.
Despite these difficulties, life in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, where my parents live, is vibrant again with young people. It relieves me to see them idly hanging out in front of 101, a fashion store, with their crazy hair, girly costumes and ridiculously high heels. I did a variation of that when I was a teenager.
Rumors, or fuhyo distort reality
If there is anything that can hurt the Japanese economy it is fuhyo, bad rumors, claiming that Japan is unsafe. Shortly after the earthquake, people driving cars with Fukushima license plates were being turned away from gas stations and restaurants in other cities in Japan.
To help people suffering from fuhyo, many Japanese are buying and eating food from the hisaichi — earthquake and tsunami-affected areas — that have passed the safety tests. With the recent beef scare, stronger inspections or quarantines will be necessary, but any gesture like this helps the country.
The U.S. consulate advises tourists that the health and safety risks to the land areas outside of the 50-mile radius of the Fukushima power plant are low, but asks visitors to take caution. From time to time, the ground still shakes, but this is common after a major earthquake.
As we enter harvest time, we will find out how the crops planted in the spring have fared. All we can do is pray that they are safe for eating.
No matter what happens, we can never give up hope. Despite their devastation, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are once again bustling cities. My nephew, who loves to fish, will spend a week on the island of Hirado in Nagasaki, visiting his grandparents. “Hirado,” he says, “has the best mackerel. The meat is sweet.”
I look forward to going back to Japan in the fall. I am already thinking about the chestnuts and matsutake mushrooms. I will book a sushi dinner with my father at Beniike, the local sushi bar in Shibuya where we’ve been going for more than 25 years. Maybe, if my father is in the right mood, he might share his latest fall haiku.
Japan is a beautiful country. Please visit.
This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor Sonoko Sakai is a food writer and film producer, and blogs about Japanese home cooking and making soba noodles by hand. Her most recent film is “Blindness.” She lives in Los Angeles and Tehachapi.
Photo: Sonoko Sakai. Credit: Alexandre Ermel