One of the most fabulous trips that The Advice Sisters ever went on was a visit to Japan. The islands that make up the Japanese archipelago provide visitors with an amazing range of historical, cultural and epicurean options, for visitors. None of these may be as unique as those fon don the southern island of Kyushu. This month we received a notice that once again Ambassador Sumio Kusaka, Consul General of Japan in New York was inviting us to a presentation and reception at his lovely baroque style residence in Midtown. The event was held to ntroduce Americans to the food and culture of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands.
The program featured the lively and enthusiastic governor of Kunanoto Prefecture, Ikuo Kabashima. For those of you that recognize this name, it is probably because of the famous oysters that originate from this part of Japan. But while the oysters are important, Governor Kabashima used the event to introduce us to Kumamon, the official mascot of the prefecture. Kumamon, is a anime style black bear that graces literally thousands of products and events in Japan, and according to the Governor is fast approaching the popularity of Mickey Mouse and even Hello Kitty.
Based on the frenzy of the paparazzi when Kumamon made his appearance the governor may be correct. After the spectacular appearance of the giant bear mascot, you would think everything else would pale in comparison. But Kyushu really did not disappoint those reporters and guests that were present. Presentations were made discussing the natural and cultural features of the island, which feature everything from active volcanoes, to the city of Nagasaki, and the traditional foods and beverages of the island – particularly a unique spirit called Sho-chu, we were escorted upstairs to the Ambassador’s ballroom to sample some of the offerings.
We were delighted by the food display prepared by Chef Hakata Tonton, whose namesake restaurant graces Manhattan’s West Village. There were displays of amazing sushi, and the namesake Kumamoto oysters. In addition, Chef Tonton presented us with his take on the railroad bento-boxes that are so common in Japan. The food was beautifully prepared and presented, and as one can expect from a hoard of Journalists, was rapidly depleted. The oysters were particularly noteworthy. Kumamotos are small and sweet and are characterized by the bowl shaped, fluted shells. They are widely cultivated in Japan and the West Coast of the United States.
In addition to showcasing Kumamoto Oysters, the Kyushu reception featured six different Sho-chu liquors. While we must be honest and say that the tastes were too small to really derive solid tasting notes, and without a list on which we could take notes, the Advice Sisters cannot really discuss any of the products in detail. But we did find Sho-chu to be a very distinct liquor that is work adding to a well stocked bar. We were given a presentation by Mr Stephen Lyman, editor of kampai.us and one of the leading experts on Sho-chu in the United States. The liquor is distilled from a wide variety of local agricultural products including barley, rice, molasses, buckwheat, sesame seeds and even sweet potatoes (yams). The base used in the production depends on the part of Kyushu that the sho-chu is distilled. The base product be it barley or yams, is prepared in much the same was as saki rice, using the koji mold to break down starches into fermentable sugars. The resulting liquid is then distilled a single time using a device called a pot still.
Since the sho-chu is distilled just once, the final product retains a distinct character of the base ingredient. The sesame seed sho-chu had a distinct, nutty sesame taste, while the product distilled from barley resembled a light scotch. While we were intrigued by the yam based sho-chu, the strong taste was obviously one that is acquired over time.
Sho-chu provides an example of the character and diversity of Kyushu and its regions, and we look forward to learning more about this distinctive and flexible liquor at one of the regular sho-chu tastings that Mr. Lyman hosts at SakaMai on the Lower East Side.
This report was prepared by John Dunham, our enthusiastic wine and spirits writer.