Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Homemade surprises

Before I start forgetting the exact tasting details, I need to talk about an eau-de-vie that my uncle poured for me in Shanghai. It was a homemade, distilled liquor, that our relatives from Ningbo made. Completely brewed from sweet rice, it was clear and clean.

The nose was incredible. So fragrant, so sweet. Completely blew me away - the purity of it was amazing. On the palate, it was so clean and smooth. Really, there wasn't a hard edge at all. Nice spiciness on the finish, although not remarkably long. But my goodness, the smoothness was just incredible. Consistency like thick cream in the mouth, but a very cleansing and pleasingly light finish.

Just a few days ago, remembered that there were jars of wine in our fridge. Jars of homemade mulberry wine, also produced by the same relatives. We brought them over a few years ago, when going through customs was still only slightly nervewracking. These relatives picked very ripe mulberrys from their own vineyards, and placed them in a fiery 60% alcohol Chinese liquor. The trick with these is that over time, the alcohol is absorbed into the fruit, and the alcohol in the liquid isn't all that strong. People use this drink for medicinal purposes, but it is so delicious.

Light pink in colour, but with a syrupy consistency. On the nose, it has this beautiful floral aroma, with lots of sweet berries and just a bit of spiciness from the liquor. On the palate, it is overwhelmingly like bitter dark chocolate and candied fruits. Incredible. Not a very complex wine, but has a long long finish, incredibly silky in the mouth. Eating the fruit is quite a different experience. The mulberries retain their natural sweetness and acidity, but the alcohol adds such a strong kick to it. If you're not careful, 5 of them will knock you out.

Unfortunately, with the problem of finding good fruit, we probably won't ever be able to find this kind of wine. The quality is stunning. I suppose there's no point in just leaving it in the back of the fridge. Might as well enjoy it while it's still alive and fresh. What an incredible experience, for both these wines. The mulberry wine is to some degree, a more simple process, but the eau-de-vie was such a wonderful surprise. Such clarity!

Recap - Shanghai

Shanghai for me changed a lot this time. Perhaps because for the first time, I got a really good sense of what it's like to live there.

The food was amazing, as always. A few vegetables were in season, so we had a lot of greens that you can't find anywhere else. A trend is spicy dishes, which was an interesting take on local ingredients. Dinner at my uncle's place was memorable, as it always is. A mark of a true chef is when you can take the same ingredient, prepare it two seperate ways, and yet express the inherent qualities in each.

I drank a lot of Chinese red wine. Allegedly, they're 100% grown and produced in China. And they were awful. Obviously manipulated to remove all traces of tannins and structure. Hideous use of oak chips and staves in place of barrels. Just an artificial tasting product, something which deserves to be poured down the drain. But in a country where tolerance for alcohol commands a higher level of respect than an appreciation for it, who gives a shit?

I am shocked by some of the things that I saw. I love Shanghai dearly - it's my hometown, I'm 100% authentic Shanghainese. The majority of my extended family is there. But I don't think I could ever live or work there.

Recap - Tokyo

Returned from my trip on the 20th. Just havn't felt like posting. Spending time in Tokyo and Shanghai, especially, was really emotionally draining. The family is going through a tough time.

The highlight of my trip was the food. In Tokyo, we had a lot of kobe beef, sashimi and sushi. As well as wine. The selection in some wine shops is impressive. Especially the store in Ginza I visited. A lot of top first and second growth Bordeaux.

The beef was exquisite. Marbled fat, tender, flavourful...you'd think that something so fatty would taste greasy but it wasn't. The fat melts in your mouth, giving you flavour but also at the same time being light and delicate. The meat was so tender, I literally cut it with a butter knife. Seared both sides for 2 minutes each, just add pepper. The Japanese eat it with soy sauce and wasabi, which is how I did it. Delicious.

The fish here, was of course amazing. Incredibly fresh, the tuna especially was stunning. Rich and tender. The most memorable fish we had was also the scariest. Nagasaki Fuku, or puffer fish. The blood and organs were incredibly poisonous, so the restaurant needed a license to prepare it. We had the fish several different ways - as sashimi, as hotpot, and in a porridge. Interesting how the fish retains its character in all the methods.

My cousin Kazu, is a big wine drinker. When I'm around. We had a lot of Spanish wines, Southwest France...the best for me was an Italian, something that I've never had before either. It was a Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio. I read somewhere a long time ago about what the name means. Loosely translated, it means "The Tears of Christ". Look up the story behind it. It was a wonderful wine - earthy, dusty, hot, spicy - the kind of wine that was so true to where it was from.

I did buy a bottle of Japanese red wine back with me. Yes, they do make red wine. Don't know how it's going to be, but it's made out of a blend of indigenous grapes. Should be interesting.

Unfortunately, Mount Fuji remains elusive to me. We went to Hakone the day after I returned from Shanghai, and it was so foggy we were literally driving in a cloud. Drove up to the highest road, about 2000 or so metres, and could see nothing. It was amazing though - only 5 degrees, snow and ice everywhere. I picked up some volcanic rock. Red and porous, really interesting.

I tried to pick up my Japanese again. It's tough - the subtleties of the language make even saying thank you seem ambiguous. It all depends on context.

I came away very impressed with the people, and the culture. But to me, there's too much emphasis on outside appearance. Everyone is well-mannered, perfectly groomed, well dressed. It's too tiring to be Japanese.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

5.12 Sichuan Earthquake

I was in Shanghai at the time of the earthquake. I felt it - it happened at 2:28 pm, and Shanghai experienced it around 3. I was reading, at my uncle's 21st floor apartment, when I suddenly felt incredibly dizzy. The room felt like it was literally spinning in circles. I thought it was the really heavy lunch we just had, so I ignored it. It only lasted for maybe 5-10 minutes. Until we got a call that a massive earthquake had just occurred on the other side of the country.

The tv stations started reporting on the earthquake around the clock. The images were horrific, heart-breaking, and emotional. The death toll was catastrophic. And what made it worse was the news that entire schools had collapsed, burying hundreds and thousands of children inside.

So please, do what you can to help. Whether that's donating money, clothing, food...whatever you can. The government's response has been swift and is worth applauding - I know because I witnessed first hand. The Premier has been decisive, inspiring, strong - I was very impressed.

Please help.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Back in Yokohama city

I arrived back in Tokyo this afternoon. I'm heartbroken to leave my grandparents and Shanghai. But what can you do, except live your life. Feels great to be back in Japan, welcomed with a wonderful sukiyaki dinner and a bottle of 2003 Marques de Riscal DOC Rioja Reserva.

Going to Hakone tomorrow, hope the weather turns out to be ok.

Lots of things to catch up on, when I get back home. Of course, I'll need to talk about all the wonderful food and not so wonderful wine I had in Shanghai. And everything else.

Monday, May 5, 2008

In Shanghai

We arrived in Shanghai yesterday morning, right before noon. Went to the hospital soon after. It's impossible for me to put into words how I'm feeling. It's painful to see someone you love and respect lying there like that. I don't want to talk about it.

Went to a restaurant specializing in Hunan cuisine. Spicy foods, but quite different from Sichuan cuisine. No peppercorn and less spices. Absolutely delicious. We had stone pot soups, clear broths cooked with herbal medicines. Then a sauteed frog meat dish, filled with chili peppers and chili oil. Followed by greens, cooked in oil and seafood soy sauce. We finished with a hot cast iron plate of duck tongue. The restaurant was packed, which was a good thing. I have a hard time trusting an empty restaurant's food. Each dish was perfectly seasoned, spicy but not numbing, each allowing the primary ingredient to shine.

The mall where the restaurant was had a wine shop. I went in, and was pleasantly surprised. Compared to when I came last, Christmas 2006, the selection of wines has improved dramatically. It featured many of the more obscure Bordeaux appellations, such as Moulis and Lussac St-Emilion. Would have loved to try, but the prices are still very forbidding.

I'm having a difficult time in Shanghai. It's been shocking, what I've seen here. You think you know a place well enough, but...