Monday, November 27, 2017

Drink WWII occupation booze today: Organic shochu made from cassava and taro

Island booze
Japanese consider drinking an essential part of culture, which as far as I'm concerned is proof of how civilized they are. During WWII, they went to great lengths to provide booze for their soldiers. For example, one of the highlights of diving in Chuuk Lagoon is seeing all the sake bottles that still rest inside the Japanese destroyers sunk there by the U.S. Navy. (You can, and we did, swim in through the torpedo hole and then walk up the stairs through the submerged ship -- if you bring your own air.)

Japan occupied what is now the island nation of Palau until they were dislodged in one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War, at Pelileu island, about an hour by speedboat south of Palau's main island, Koror. People still visit Pelileu to see the war remnants, such as the impressive cave structures the Japanese built beneath the island. While we were there, our fellow guests at Dolphin Bay Resort, a retired U.S. Marine and his military historian brother, found two Japanese bayonets in one of these caves, more than 70 years after the battle. (They turned them in to the local history museum.)

The greater attraction of Pelileu, however, is the scuba diving, which is up there with the very best in the world. We were wowed by it more than 20 years ago, and this year we were happy to visit again and stay with the same innkeepers, local expert Godwin and his Japanese wife Mayumi.

In fact, as in Hawaii, Japan may have lost the war but it has more or less won the island anyway. Most Americans don't know about the great diving in Pelileu, which is better than anywhere in the Caribbean. But Japanese know: there are direct flights from Tokyo to Koror. Mayumi told us Japanese tourism has fallen off in the last few years as non-diving Chinese tourists have flooded the island for the snorkeling, which also must be world-class as the light-blue water is so clear and there are astonishing schools of colorful tropical fish. But there is still plenty of Japanese-tourism infrastructure, which always means reliably clean rooms, and in this case also meant uniquely delicious shochu.

 I saw bats and big spiders, but no bayonets (or Japanese ghosts)
Our flight schedule meant we had to spend one night in Koror on our way to Pelileu, so we stayed at the Japanese-run Garden Palace Hotel, which has its own organic garden. For $12, we bought a 300 ml bottle of Shimachu Nagomi, made from organic cassava and taro grown on Palau.

Most Americans underestimate shochu. Generally about 25% alcohol, it's a distilled spirit most famous from Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. On Kyushu, which is mostly too hot for rice production and thus sake is unusual, shochu made from sweet potatoes ("imo shochu") is the main alcoholic beverage. Shochu is drunk before dinner on the rocks, with dinner on the rocks, and after dinner straight up. Good Kyushu shochu tastes of sweet potato.

Most shochu you see in the U.S. is not that interesting, as it is basically low-proof vodka, distilled from grain at an alcohol percentage low enough to allow it to be served in restaurants that only have a beer and wine license. Koreans have been more successful marketing their version, called Soju, to these restaurants: when you see cocktails on menus at places that have no bar, it's usually flavorless soju. Nothing wrong with that, but shochu can be much more.

I was excited to try the cassava-taro shochu for its uniqueness, but I didn't expect much because I don't particularly like taro: it's just too bland for me. But with Shochu Nagomi, this was a feature not a bug. It's not as intensely flavorful as a shochu made from sweet potato, but it does have a mild vegetable flavor that's mostly fresh potato with a green note. If you know kohlrabi, I'd compare it to that. (If you don't know kohlrabi, try steaming it and mashing it like mashed potatoes: it's pretty similar but slightly more interesting.)

Shochu Nagomi probably tastes similar to what the Japanese military drank during WWII on many of the occupied islands, but of course with modern technology it's cleaner than back then, and while drinking it we did not have to contemplate any more challenging battles to come than what to order for dinner. It was nice on the rocks at the end of a diving day in fish paradise.


Thanks to Harlan (left) and Chris for taking us to the sharks
By the way, divers only: if you should decide to visit Palau for the diving, I heartily recommend Dolphin Bay, the only nice hotel on Pelileu. All the good dive sites are around Pelileu so 95% of the divers, who stay on Koror, have to take a one-hour speedboat to and from the sites every day. We had a dive boat to ourselves most days, and we could get to Blue Corner, no joke one of the best dive sites in the entire world, in the morning before anyone else. When we surfaced after our first dive, six or seven other boats full of divers from Koror were already there, and we felt joy similar to the privilege of seeing a beautiful sunset when no one else is looking.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and Instagram @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


jo6pac said...

Well that's nice but how about some more pictures for us that will never get there, Please;-)

W. Blake Gray said...

Sorry Jo, but most of our best views were underwater and I don't take dive photos these days. Imagine lots of fish!