Thursday, December 31, 2009

Shaoxing rice wine - learning the taste


This is part 2 of the Shaoxing rice wine series. Click here for Part 1.

Determined to investigate taste differences between different grades and producers of Shaoxing rice wine, the Yangs and I scoured the Bay Area for 5 bottles ranging from low-end $2.99 to the highest-end we could find 20-year-aged at $21.99:

1. Shaohsing Huadiao Rice Wine by Kuaijishan Shaoxing Wine Co, 17% alc, $2.99.
2. Nu Er Hong Rice Wine, Yuequan brand, 17% alc, $4.99.
3. Aged Shao Xing Rice Wine, Pagoda Brand by Zhejiang Celeals, Oils & Foodstuffs I/E Co., 17% alc., 8-year-aged, $5.99.
4. Shaoxing Rice Wine by Zhejiang Gu Yue Long Shan Shaoxing Wine Co, 18% alc, 8 year-aged, $5.89 for 500ml.
5. Kuaijishan Shaoxing Rice-Wheat Wine with Caramel color added, specially designed for state banquet, aged in china jar for 20 years, 15% alc, $21.99 for 500ml.

We then opened all of them at once and tried them at room temperature in 3 different ways: with a Chinese meal, by themselves without food, and blind. Our meal was fairly light - no heavy meats and sauces. We had oysters, dan dan mian (noodles with ground pork and shredded cucumber in chili sauce) and tofu custard dishes.



Here are my observations:

1. The wines did not go with our food at all. The spice was exaggerated by the wines, rather than balanced out (such as with Riesling). I suspect that the wines would match heavier Shanghainese food far better. After all, Shanghai and Shaoxing are only a couple-of-hour drive apart.

2. Non-blind, the more expensive wines were more lustrous and lighter in color, less bitter, more oily/viscous, more complex and fruity (but you cannot call these wines fruity, perhaps more like bitter-ish citrus zest or peel - they are very much in the Sherry / Madeira / Scotch camp of "non-fruitiness") with the most expensive wine having more intense yet finer flavor.

3. I finally started noticing slight but quite persceptible saltiness on all of them, with it being rougher and more obvious in the cheaper wines. It comes across more like savoriness than saltiness, but it's there, just like in a trocken Riesling. In fact, the cheap Shaoxing cooking rice wine has very strong salt flavor, while the drinking wines don't. I think that it would be an interesting experiment to use these better-quality drinking wines for cooking.

4. Tasted non-blind, we all agreed that the 8-year-aged Gu Yue Long Shan wine provided the best QPR (quality-price-ratio). But the real test was blind-tasting. While I easily identified the most expensive wine, everything else I got wrong. Tasted blind, I thought they all had similar texture. The cheapest wine had the darkest, muddiest, most opaque color, but while I could pick up on differences in flavors, I could not tell which one was better or worse.

5. Therefore, we concluded that the cheapest wine provided the best everyday QPR, while the most expensive wine was something worth having for special occasions.

Even higher end, 50- and 100-year old Shaoxing wines are available in China. I might try those some day soon. In the meantime, I will be searching for the best food-and-Shaoxing-rice-wine pairings in the Bay Area.

Click here for Part 3.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Shaoxing rice wine - meet the Yangs


You can serve him 2-buck-chuck or $100 bottle of fine Bordeaux, he will discern the differences, texture, flavor, concentration. He will appreciate a high-quality German Riesling with Chinese food. "Oooh, this is so much smoother!" he will exclaim with his eyes enlarged and voice raised in a moment of child-like discovery. It's dinner time. "Would you like some more Riesling, baya?" I'd ask my father-in-law. But no answer would really be necessary, his eyes already reaching for another pour of the Shaoxing wine.



Cheap and strange tasting, this is the wine of his childhood, the only choice of the local people in his hometown two hours away from Shaoxing city in the same Zhejiang province. A man who has seen the world, he can drink whiskey and vodka, sake and wine, but nothing will ever give him more comfort than warm Shaoxing rice wine, the finest in all of China. At $2.99 it could cost 10 times that much, and it wouldn't change a thing. And who am I to argue against the harshness of this wine or the roughness of his palate. For several thousand years this has been the preferred alcoholic beverage of the Chinese. As they say, if you can't beat them, join them?

"When we were children, my dad would pour his sons rice wine at dinner time when he was in good mood. Of course he would monitor us to make sure his boys would not drink too much. In those days, we were disciplined by our parents so much, we would never dare get drunk even as we got older. [Editorial note: China finally banned under-age drinking in 2006 over growing concerns of urbanization and children's independence.] The warmth of the wine and the flavor are so close to my heart, we didn't get to drink this wine in Canada and in most other places I lived, but visiting you here in California, one smell - and all those memories of childhood come rushing back. And later as I was entertained as a guest of honor for important occasions in China, in matters of state business and prestige, they could have served anything, but I always asked for Shaoxing wine, and they presented the best there was in my hometown, perhaps as much as $7/bottle (in retrospect), I never thought to compare or rate them, it just tasted soooo good. And it still does."

Let me see. Amber in color, Shaoxing is officially a yellow rice wine (huangjiu) - its best and most ancient example in the whole of China. Viscous on the palate, savory, nutty, mushroomy, olives, tree bark, the oxidized flavor reminiscent of Sherry.... 15-18% alcohol, strong, perhaps overpowering, yet by Chinese drinking standards, this is a low-alcohol drink (compared to baijiu liquor), of great gastronomic as well as medicinal value, driving cold energy out of your body in winter months, soothing blood, stomach, and nerves.

"When Rona was growing up, I started adding 3-4 preserved plums to the wine to sweeten it for her - she liked it that way, and I got used to that too. Perhaps one plum is enough, but I like it very sweet now." More fond memories of the family and the wine, intertwined.

It's hard for me to drink this. I don't like hard liquor, brandy or sherry. But maybe this would pair well with food? - after all, sherry does with certain dishes. I try it with wonton soup and indeed the savoriness of the wine is quite complimentary to the soup. It also works okay with glutenous rice steamed in banana leaf.

"Baya, have you tried more expensive Shaoxing wine?" I ask.
"I am sure, but I didn't care or keep track, I just enjoyed" he explains. "These wines can age for a long time - 8, 10, even 50 years. We have a tradition - when a girl is born, a few jugs of rice wine are made and buried underground, to be dug out and poured on her wedding day. This is called "nu er hong" (literally "red daughter", referring to a maiden on her wedding night) and the wine is often called just that. You can open it and keep it for a long time, but it will turn into vinegar after a while. But I never have an open bottle for more than 2 days - I can easily drink a whole bottle by myself." he says proudly.

But that's not necessary, as the whole family merrily help him out, Rona leading the way. It's funny, she could never drink this wine with anyone but her family. But when they are here, no grand cru Burgundy could tear her away from the warm, sweet, alcoholic, mediciney, bark-like Shaoxing wine. I may have to learn to like this wine if I am going to ever be really accepted into this crazy family.



Click here for Part 2.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Linda's Port


As I've said: "never say never to a wine". Just when I've given up on Port, comes this little number. Nothing like a divine gastronomic intervention to spur me into a learning frenzy. Hopefully some of that will rub off on you as you come around to this marvelous pairing. For most, Port is an easy drink - sweet and fruity, with an alcohol kick - I mean, what's not to like?! For me, after I got through my initial stages of wine affair, those turned into negatives that I usually try to avoid. Here comes the 3rd phase, when "bad" is good again - when you shed the preconceived notions and open yourself up to everything (even the darn California Cab, but that's a story for another day).

So as the coolest ever birthday party Rona and I hosted for our friend and wine buff Dan was moving into its closing stages (or so we thought!), my taste buds signaled to my eyes that it was time to scan for a desert pairing. About 40 fine bottles, including magnums were scattered all over Domaine du Chevsky - so finding the right target was not easy at first. Finally, man on a mission, as I zoned out the noise of the crowd, I saw it standing there. "What the heck - let's give it a try!"

The only other port I'd ever had that gave me a pause was 1863 Niepoort Colheita Port - the oldest bottling in the cellars of the port figure extraordinaire Dirk Niepoort - that I had the luck to try at a Martine's Tasting earlier this year. Naturally, my expectations were rather qualified at this point.

1983 is not old for port. A good vintage too - good enough to be bottled as a "vintage port" - all grapes from one year (in contrast to Non-Vintage and Tawny ports which are blends from multiple years, similar to non-vintage Champagne). 1983 should just about be excellent enough, age-wise, courtesy of Linda, who also brought the next item - the lucious looking chocolate truffle or whatever that is, posing so invitingly. Kanji characters on the chocolate box gave me further confidence - after my recent visit to Japan, I really do trust Japanese when it comes to sweets.

A bite of the chocolate and a sip of Dow's 1983 Vintage Port, and I forgot all about my aversion to Port-at-large. With the youthful fruitiness chiseled off with time, and no overwhelming alcohol punch I'd found in other ports, this wine's graceful age, measured fruit and scents of an old wine cellar beckoned me again and again, until the bottle and the chocolate box were empty. "This would be perfect for Valentine's Day!" I thought. I guess Forrest Gump was right after all. Life is like that box - you never know what you're gonna get, especially when it comes to Port!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The other side of Japanese culture


Japan - land of contradictions. Refined and healthy, as the stereotype would have it. But look deeper - rough and indulgent emerges. The culture that captivates me with its attention to detail and eye for quiet beauty, my first visit to Japan allowed me to see past the obviousness of the Japanese subtlety, and into the other side.

Food.

Kaiseki dinners, bento box lunches, sushi & sashimi on one side. Beautiful, light, healthy. Meet okonomiyaki with yakisoba. Omelet covered with thick layer of salty brown sauce and mayonaise, fried on a greased teppan grill, served with noodle stir-fried with bacon in melted lard. I suppose enormous amount of pickled ginger inside the omelet is aimed at neutralizing the ill-effects of the fat. Apparently a local favorite in Kyoto.


Fashion.

Kimono? Forget it. Japanese ladies these days are screaming to stand out. And in doing so, they all seem to look the same. Long brown-dyed hair falling over doll-like whitened faces, above-knee boots, 4-inch heels, and mini-skirt revealing plenty of baby-pale skin, regardless of the frost outside. Striking not subtle. In a country that seems to run on conformity and imitation, the devil lurks beneath. Mini-skirt uniforms for school girls. With sex appeal. Boarding school wear for boys. Professional men all seem to put on the same suit and tie - an army ready to take on the business world, they escape during lunch hour to a local 7-Eleven to catch the latest edition of a favorite manga (Japanese print cartoons).


Culture.

A slight nod, a quiet grunt; important is what is unsaid, not what is said. Profound etiquette and humbleness, non-drinking culture rooted in Zen Buddhism? Walk through downtown streets at night, and drunken Japanese suits are loud and stumbling. Ride a subway train during a busy hour, and a tidal wave of polite and very well dressed people will sweep you, pack you in the train like a sardine, people leaning on you more intimately than your kin, holding on to you not handrails. Doors open, another wave rolls in, you are packed even tighter, no arguments, no funny looks, no funny smells, thank goodness for that! At 5'7", I feel large and imposing. In our friends' car, they turn on live HDTV, perfect reception, at 5pm we watch Sumo tournament. For days, men-mountains collide to force the other out of the ring. Japan's ancient and favorite sport, fantasy and self-image of the inner giant in the psyche of the petite.



Architecture.

Traditional stark homes with clean lines and muted colors are relegated to museums and historic inns. Today, Japanese homes are modern and utilitarian, albeit space is at a huge premium, so rooms are compact. Awe-inspiring examples of modernity are seen everywhere throughout busy neighborhoods - colored glass facades of mega-malls, square mile cubes of "departos" (department malls), exquisite and anything but conformist business and shopping centers, Manhattan has met its match and then some!



Japanese are proud of their tradition, and it is perhaps that pride that gives them confidence to boldly go into the future. These contrasts and contradictions make Japan so fascinating. Repression needs expression. Conformity unites and focuses. Streets and air incredibly clean, people incredibly civil, technology incredibly advanced - Japan feels like the country already in the future, Tokyo the star age metropolis, Kyoto - its Zen counterpart.

One cannot draw generalizations from a single short trip. These are observations, not yet opinions. The culture anything but obvious, layers must be peeled off, time taken to understand and appreciate.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Iron Chevsky meets Iron Chef... almost


Did you know that Iron Chef Chinese Chen Kenichi, the longest tenured Iron Chef in the history of the legendary Japanese television series Iron Chef, has a restaurant in Tokyo? Sure you did. Chinese food is popular in Tokyo - seemingly the only foreign cuisine more popular than that is McDonald's. (Ok, well, maybe I am exaggerating... but only slightly.) As the son of Chen Kenmin, regarded as the father of Szechwan cuisine in Japan, the 53 year old Tokyo-born Kenichi is often credited for exceeding the skills of the father, likely fueled by the international exposure he got from Iron Chef. Combining authentic Szechwan flair with Japanese aesthetics and attention to detail results in the most mouth-watering presentation one can imagine. Rona has been captivated by Chef Kenichi's star performances on Iron Chef so much so that she got his cooking book and started making his recipes at home. What husband would protest such good fortune? Not me.

So naturally on our first stay in Tokyo we made the pilgrimage to Shisen Hanten in Akasaka neighborhood of Tokyo, to the only one of the many restaurants headed by Chen Kenichi where he personally cooks, where both his father and mother had cooked before him.

Because real Szechwan cooking is too spicy for Japanese, Chen Kenichi has modified the classic dishes making them more friendly to the local palate, sweeter and less spicy than the Chinese classics I'd come to love. Chen, clearly a wise man, offers both the original and modified versions at Shisen Hanten. So when ordering, we opted for one original and two Japanese-friendly dishes, looking to compare them to my wife's execution of the same.

Coming to the Iron Chef's sacred place in Tokyo, I had set my expectations on something majestic. In the middle of a night in a rather deserted neighborhood, after looking for the restaurant entrance for quite some time, we finally walked into a drab office building and were surprised to see the restaurant name located on the 6th floor. Once there, the interior design looked like a cross between a country club dining room (never an inspiring food site) and a canteen from the 1970's westernized Hong-Kong lounge (at least how I would imagine that) - pink table clothes, cheesy furniture, and a few business suits on corporate expense accounts, no doubt.

"This is gonna be good!" - I thought. "A place that looks as uninspiring as this must really be all about the food!" said the optimist in me. After all, we knew this was going to be the most we'd ever paid for Szechwan. Tokyo + Iron Chef is not a recipe for a cheap dining experience. "This had BETTER be good!"

Quickly scanning through the wine list, we gave up on the over-priced sub-par selection of Beaujolais, Languedocs, Chiantis and some random Bordeaux, and opted for a local Asahi beer. This was supposed to be foolproof - I had never gone wrong with the beer + Szechwan combo. But that's because I'd never had Asahi Super Dry with that - which in retrospect has got to be the worst lager I'd ever had - flavorless and light, it was the only beer ever to not go with Chinese. And to think that it's the most popular beer in Japan - boggles my mind!

First we ordered the chef's signature dish - chili prawns, made in the modified style to suit Japanese tastes.



The heavy sauce was made with bean paste, tomato sauce, minced garlic, minced ginger, stock, egg yolk, sugar, cooking wine, and rice vinegar. The prawns came out overcooked and tough, and the sauce while tasty, clearly was missing the spicy kick, and was too ketchup-like for me. Another disappointment, but from then on, things started looking up, with the next dish prepared in the traditional Szechwan style.



The mapo tofu was spectacular. Rona is the home master chef of mapo tofu, but let's just be honest - Iron Chef's creation was in a class by itself. While her sauce is lighter and plainer, his is deeper, more concentrated, more "beany", and with dramatically more intense and integrated ground szechuan peppercorns and chili oil. While she uses rough ground meat, his is completely blended in with the sauce. Oooh, it would have been heaven, if not for that damn beer.

Then came the trusty tan-tan noodle (aka "dan-dan mian") made in Japanese style. Dan-dan mian is another staple of my wife's home cooking. Chen Kenichi's father came up with the idea of turning tan-tan noodles into a noodle soup dish, since the dry seasoned egg noodles traditionally used in this dish weren't very popular in Japan. He refused to eat his invention himself, though. His son, however, prefers that version. Again, the chef outdid himself.



While it didn't have the punch of the classic dan-dan mian, it was a very complex and delicious soup. Made with soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame paste, chili oil, and onion-infused lard, with sautéed ground pork and Chinese mustard greens, we couldn't stop eating.


As misfortune would have it, the Iron Chef was not there that day. But his spirit was all around us (though it must have gone out for a smoke during the cooking of the prawns).

In the final analysis,
  • Iron Chef's 3 dishes cost us over ~$90 (Rona's home version - $15)
  • Asahi Super Dry dreck: ~$10
  • Kicking it up at the Iron Chef's - priceless!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Going off the beaten path for udon and tempura in Kyoto


A world’s great cuisine must have a noodle dish. Certainly, the French would realize sooner or later what the Italians, the Chinese and the Japanese have known for centuries. A simple noodle can be sooo satisfying. Of all the different kinds of Japanese noodle, when done right, udon is perhaps my favorite. The right place is usually not going to be in the middle of a touristy area, nor will it need to be expensive. The right place should be a secret, known by locals and guarded from foreigners, unless of course the foreigners have local friends who don’t mind driving them an hour away from the city center into the inner sanctum of the Kyoto suburbs, a place only for those in the know. Right? Wrong! Ok, not exactly.

Our friends know a good udon when they see one. Though hardly a proverbial hole-in-the-wall, they've been coming to Hanamaru for years. Since opening in 2001, Hanamaru has become Japan's largest udon franchise chain. The shop is located at the outskirts of Kyoto, as well as in over 260 other locations throughout Japan. Hanamaru specializes in Sanuki udon - Japan's most famous udon variety known for its chewy texture which originates from Kagawa - originally Sanuki - in the southern part of Japan. The thick, meaty, chewy ropes of dough are soaked in hot broth with a variety of delectable toppings thrown in – poached egg, fresh seaweed, fried bean curd, scallions. Offered with an assortment of tempura on a chilly November day, udon is heaven. The texture of the noodle and the subtle flavorings of the broth set apart the sublime from the ordinary. Bonito shavings, kelp, small dried sardines, and soy sauce are the basic broth bases. Crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, tempura is a perfect accompaniment for dipping into the broth. Deeply flavorful eggs, with rich and gooey orange-colored yolks and silky smooth whites, seem to be commonplace in Japan but not in the States. Floating in the broth or just sitting on top of the noodle, a poached egg provides a perfect textural counter-balance to the crunchiness of the tempura and the chewiness of the noodle. Octopus, mixed veggie, egg, fish cake, winter squash, chicken nugget as well as fried chicken, potato and beef croquette, and on and on – fried in a delicious tempura batter, warm the body and lift the spirit. No wine this time, just the steaming broth.


Mouse-over the slideshow to pause, rewind, or fast-forward.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Meditating Shojin-Ryori at Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto


An hour after arriving to Kyoto, as soon as we drop off our luggage at the Matsubaya Inn ryokan, we head for our first site – Daitokuji Temple. In the city famous for the breathtaking grander of its Zen Buddhist edifices, Daitokuji is quite a modest specimen. Then why?

But of course: Izusen!
This famous shojin-ryori establishment specializes in Zen vegetarian cuisine. Meandering our way through the twists and turns of the temple grounds, only peripherally taking note of the 700 year-old architecture, we finally locate Izusen, and are seated in a tranquil outdoor garden. Two kaiseki-style omakase tasting menus priced together at ~$90 boast a dramatic display of food, parceled into a progression of many small dishes.


Definition: Shojin Ryori
Type of vegetarian cooking introduced into Japan together with Buddhism in the 6th century. Shojin is a Buddhist term that refers to asceticism in pursuit of enlightenment, and ryori means "cooking." In the 13th century, with the advent of the Zen sect of Buddhism, the custom of eating shojin ryori spread. Foods derived from soybeans – especially tofu - and vegetable oils - including sesame and walnut - were popularized in Japan as a result of their use in shojin ryori.


Buddhist monks avoided alcohol, believing that it diminished clarity of consciousness. Right or wrong, to my delight, a glass of plum wine materializes, something of a shock to the Buddhist tradition, and music to my tastebuds. The plum wine is simple, clean, colorless, crisp, with just a touch of residual sugar, in some ways reminding me of halbtrocken Riesling, but with a delicate plum flavor. Just like Riesling, it is versatile, working well as aperitif, as well as with the meal, and as a digestif afterwards. This particular bottle is nothing like the syrupy and overly fruity examples I've tried in the past.

And with this, the parade of food art begins, all dishes delivered and documented in the order shown below to the best of my inspection.


Warm matcha (powdered green tea) and peanut mochi got the juices flowing.


Creamy yuba (tofu skin) and mushroom; seaweed, yuba, sesame


Chips: Japanese maple-leaf rice crackers, lotus root, Japanese yams, deep-fried yuba, and broad beans.


Roasted chestnut, green bean and sticky rice jelly, fried tofu with miso, fresh tofu, marinated mushroom.

Crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, ume - Asian plum (also known as Japanese apricot and Chinese plum) was simply amazing. Commonly pickled or preserved, here is appears to have been deep-fried fresh in a tempura batter and served hot.


Sesame tofu with wasabe and cucumber. It takes 10 years to learn to make a perfect sesame tofu. Tofu-like in texture and presentation, sesame tofu is actually made of a mixture of pulverized white sesame, water and kuzu ko starch. Sticky, soft, and a little sweet, resting in some sort of salty soy-based sauce, the taste reminded me of savory mochi.


Ume jelly, creamy yuba, sesame tofu, radish noodles, cucumber with wasabe, on a shiso leaf.


Creamy yuba, burrata-like.


Tofu in light glutenous broth with flower blossoms.


Yuba, boiled snow peas, maple leaf rice cake, stuffed fried tofu dumpling, kabocha (Japanese winter squash) in clear broth.


The fried tofu dumpling was filled with mushrooms, carrots, white soy bean, and ground tofu


Steamed yuba roll.


Steamed white rice and tea.


Bonito broth steamed rice with tiny mushrooms.

Mixed tempura consisted of mildly spicy green pepper (that tasted like a padrone), shitake mushroom, kabocha, and crispy rice noodle, which looked like a prawn head.


Light bonito and yuzu broth with tofu.


And for dessert - pear jelly and berry sorbet.



As the divine meal glided to its inevitable end, I meditated upon the wisdom of the ancient Buddhist monks. My first ever complete vegetarian meal – shojin ryori - was an eye-opening gastronomic awakening for all senses – truly a religious experience. I felt one with the tofu! And by the way, the LV bag is not mine.


For your convenience, I've included the full slideshow of the Daitokuji Temple visit. Enjoy!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Experiencing authentic robata-yaki in Tokyo


Shinjuku is a metropolis inside a metropolis. One of the liveliest neighborhoods in Tokyo, Shinjuku grows out of the Shinjuku station - the world’s busiest railway and metro hub. In a neighborhood that pulsates energy 24x7 like no other on earth, Hiro - a friend of a friend, led us to a quiet oasis of a restaurant – Ushi-no Yotare - a traditional robata grill, translated as “around the fireplace”. Hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the street, located in a cozy little space on a third floor of what appeared to be a hole-in-wall entrance, he took us back to an ancient time when a family sat around a sand pit or an irori – a charcoal-fired hearth, glowing coals in the center, grilling humble but sublimely satisfying foods. Historically inexpensive fare of the commoner, in Today’s Tokyo, a meal like this will run you about $80/person to start with, and can easily go up from there. The main ingredient of each dish is harpooned onto a wooden stick with one end tipped toward the hot coals and the other conveniently plunged into the sand. The ingredients are simply finished by the sizzling heat, and then served with umami-rich sauces that accentuate their natural flavors in a ceremony that is best enjoyed in pictures rather than words!

We thought an unfiltered sake - nigori - was appropriate for the meal. To my surprise (and eventual delight) the milky drink that appeared before us was much thicker and stronger than what I'd tried in the States. The inspection of the bottle confirmed 20% alcohol, about 5% higher than a typical sake I am used to. I learned that 20% is actually the norm, while the common 15% sake is actually diluted with water before bottling. Slowly sipping on this potent drink, thick of mushy rice pulp, quite sweet, with strong aroma of fermented rice, we eyed the artful cooking show developing before our eyes.


Mouse-over the slideshow to pause, rewind, or fast-forward.

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