Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Let's awamori! Okinawa's native drink finds a home in San Francisco

Modern awamori production; not so different from pre-WWII (see below). Courtesy Voyagin
Yoshi Tome
Awamori is a really interesting beverage, historically and culturally. Yoshi Tome, owner of one of the most successful sushi restaurants in the San Francisco bay area, has decided to refocus one restaurant's menu to show it off.

Tome has owned Sushi Ran in Sausalito since 1986. The fine sake list at Sushi Ran has been, for many area residents, their first introduction to premium sake. But sake is not where his heart lies drink-wise.

Tome is from Okinawa, where awamori is the traditional drink of choice. He is a fan; he likes to relax with a glass of very well-aged awamori from his private stash.

Awamori suffered from World War II as much as any cultural product and has still not really recovered. But we have come to an era in liquor appreciation where what was once seen as its greatest weakness -- single distillation, instead of double -- may now have become a strength.

When Tome left Japan for the U.S., awamori was at its lowest ebb ever. Japanese made fun of it as firewater; a more primitive version of shochu, which was just beginning to rise in popularity.

This was an era when Japanese looked down on Okinawa in general. The onetime independent island nation of Ryukyu was annexed by Japan in 1868. U.S. forces took the islands in extremely bloody fighting in 1945 that killed one-third of the civilian population. The U.S. ruled Okinawa until 1972, when we handed it back to Japan. Okinawa had an independence movement (and still does) but Japanese in Tokyo tended to look paternalistically on the islands; not until the Okinawan music scene caught on throughout Japan did the islands really get respect.




An off-menu cocktail at Izakaya Sushi Ran
I started drinking shochu in Tokyo before this Okinawa appreciation era. Shochu and awamori are similar enough to be interchangeable on a bar list, but invariably the shochu experts in restaurants steered me away from it. The only times I tried awamori were because I was curious and ignored the warning to drink something smoother.

In fact, before World War II, awamori was extremely smooth. That's what modern producers are trying to reproduce, but it will take centuries to replace what was lost.

First, a brief primer on shochu and the popular Korean version called soju. Shochu and soju are not like sake, which is brewed from rice (sake is its own animal: it tastes closer to wine but is made more like beer.) Shochu and soju are distilled beverages; usually double-distilled. You have likely tried soju without knowing it if you ordered a cocktail in a U.S. restaurant that doesn't have a hard-liquor license. Korean businesses were way ahead of Japanese in creating export versions at 24 percent alcohol, to get bottles into restaurants licensed for beer and liquor.

Like vodka, shochu and soju can be made from any grain. Rice and wheat are common source ingredients. In fact, shochu and soju made from wheat are essentially low-alcohol vodka. When they're made from rice, they're made from short-grain rice similar to what you might eat with sushi.

The most interesting shochus are made from sweet potato ("imo.") Kyushu, Japan's southernmost main island, is too warm in winter for sake production, and sweet potato is a staple crop, so they developed a whole drinking culture based on imo shochu. IMHO imo shochu is one of the best-value beverages in the entire world of spirits: it's delicious, full of character, and not very expensive.

Okinawa is even warmer in winter than Kyushu, but they don't have a culture of using sweet potatoes. Nor do they grow short-grain Japanese rice. Instead, they have long-grain rice originally from Thailand, a country that had major cultural influence on the independent Ryukyu kingdom. It is believed the Thais taught Okinawans to distill this long-grain rice into awamori. They had to do so in the era before refrigeration, because sake or beer simply wouldn't keep.

Okinawans single-distilled awamori, even though that doesn't lead to as smooth a product as double-distilled, because for them, that wasn't the end of the process. Awamori was aged in clay vessels for additional smoothness. But the process didn't stop there either.

Most producers, and individuals, made awamori with a solera system. Say you have five amphorae of awamori. You drink from amphora 5 until it's half empty. Then you distill a new half-barrel's worth of awamori. But you don't put it in amphora 5. Instead, you pour half of amphora 4 into amphora 5, and half of amphora 3 into amphora 4, etc., and you pour the new batch into amphora 1. Thus what you're drinking has aged at least five years, but some amount of it might be many years older than that.

Awamori production pre-WWII.
In 1945, the fierce firefight for Okinawa destroyed all the existing stocks of awamori on the islands. Some people tried to hide their awamori in tunnels, but the fighting went underground as well. Some of those amphorae were said to have been in use for centuries. Those stocks were irreplaceable, and the culture of awamori suffered.

Awamori also suffered from the U.S. occupation because the locals had a chance to compare fresh-made awamori, without years of aging, with the whiskies favored by the soldiers. Not surprisingly, whiskey won out. The survival and then revival of the awamori industry was part of asserting Okinawan identity.

Tome didn't originally set out to create an Okinawan restaurant when he branched out into San Francisco. He opened Nomica on Market Street in 2016 and put chef Hiroo Nagahara in charge of the menu. Then last year, Nagahara decided to open his own place, leaving Tome with a Market Street restaurant that he thought needed an update.

Tome decided to call it Izakaya Sushi Ran, trading on the good name he has built in Sausalito. The restaurant is much, much cheaper than Nomica, which sold a $100 whole chicken in brioche. Only one dish on Izakaya Sushi Ran's opening menu was over $20.

If you like shio ramen, you'll love Okinawa soba
The short menu has a few Okinawan items. "Okinawa soba" is more like udon soup, but it's not the thick egg noodles that you'll remember; it's the delicious porky soup with refreshing notes of red ginger that I couldn't stop sipping even when I was full.

Goya champuru -- bitter melon stir-fried with spam, tofu, egg and bonito -- is a highlight because the restaurant makes its own spam. I often order this dish and this is one of the best versions I've had.  The kakiage -- tempura-fried patties of scallops, sweet onion, mushrooms and green herbs -- are crunchy and delicious.

But I went for the awamori. Tome has three awamori on the list, and a single awamori cocktail right now, but he was delighted when I was interested in trying more. He has some older awamori on the back bar that he might or might not sell you a drink of. The bartender will certainly mix you up some interesting off-menu awamori cocktails. Ask for the one infused with pineapple.

"Awamori is better in cocktails than shochu because imo shochu has too much character," Tome said. "Awamori fits into a cocktail better. You can still taste it but it doesn't overpower the other ingredients."

Miso wagyu beef with green apple and blue cheese
I tasted the three shochus on the list and most enjoyed Chuko, which is aged for three years in a clay pot. It's dense and grainy with good depth of flavor, and the mouthfeel is very gentle. I also liked the unaged Suiko much more than I expected to. It's fermented with mango yeast and has a noticeable hint of fruitiness. It's also surprisingly rounded in the mouth.

That has always been the challenge for young awamori: mouthfeel. Vodka producers triple-distill and then charcoal filter to produce a smooth beverage with almost no flavor. This was the drink of the '90s.

Nowadays, though, the era has swung around and people want their drinks to have character. The same crowd that prefers mezcal to Tequila might also prefer awamori to rice- or wheat-based shochu.

Honestly, though, the main "export" audience for artisanal awamori has to be mainland Japan. I drank these awamoris straight for the pure flavor, and then with an ice cube because I like booze with an ice cube. Though they're over 20 percent alcohol, I had them with my meal, the way I might have an artisanal imo shochu. There are plenty of restaurants in Japan that are already set up to accommodate the later -- this kind of drinking is particularly good with pork dishes -- but very few in the U.S.

On the plus side, you can drop by Izakaya Sushi Ran and, for $15, try out a beverage that barely survived World War II but is making a big comeback. I'm rooting for it.

(I would love to provide you with a link to Wine-Searcher to buy one of these awamoris to try at home. As of this writing, though, they are not available at retail in the U.S.)

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1 comment:

jo6pac said...

Thanks again for the wonderful education.