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Sip like a Japanese

When in Japan, try sake.’ you’ve heard this line more often than you would care to remember. okay? so, here’s something different to sip when travelling to the land of the rising sun.

Dhiman Chattopadhyay        Print Edition: June 29, 2008

Being in Tokyo for less than 48 hours and still wishing to “soak in a bit of Japan” means you either travel at the speed of a Bullet Train and click pictures of everything that you stop to see, or simply take a cab to the city and check out how Japan’s well-to-do love to spend their evenings.

And there’s no better way to get acquainted with the spirit of the yen-powered Tokyo-ite than to share a few potent spirits with one, in an upmarket pub.

So, here we were on a breezy May evening, at a pub in Shinjuku West—one of Tokyo’s busiest business districts—ordering a glass of Umeshu for 7,500 yen (Rs 3,073; prices of almost everything in Japan will frighten you first up. Cabs charge a meter-down fare of 700 yen, for instance. But once you figure it out in US dollars or even in rupees, it becomes less frightening).

Umeshu: This is a classic Japanese liquor made from steeping ume fruits (Japanese plums), while they are still unripe and green, in alcohol and sugar. It has a sweet and sour taste, and an alcohol content of 10-15 per cent. What I ordered was the famous Choya Umeshu, while my Japanese host asked for another popular brand, TaKaRa Shuzo. Our bartender, Ihara Takagawa, told me that if I was up for it, he could whip up some cool Umeshu cocktails. Most Japanese restaurants serve stuff like Umeshu on the Rocks (Rokku) or Umeshu Sour (Umeshu Sawa). And if you are really adventurous, try what Takagawa made for me—Umeshu with a dash of green tea (O-cha).

Midori: Umeshu is by no means the only exotic alcoholic beverage that’s oh-so Japanese. If the notion of a bright green drink doesn’t put you off, check out Midori—a bright, green-coloured musk melonflavoured liquor made by Suntory. It is manufactured in Mexico, though it was made in Japan until 1987. Midori contains 20 per cent alcohol by volume and is extremely sweet. It’s usually used in cocktails; for example, in Midori Illusion, where Midori is mixed with lemonade, fresh lemon juice, pineapple juice or orange juice.

Awamori: Now, this one is for the really adventurous. Awamori is an alcoholic beverage unique to the Okinawa district of Japan. It is made from Thai rice, distilled and is 60 proof. Awamori is aged to improve its flavour and mellowness. I didn’t dare try this one, but the most popular way to drink it, I was told, was with water and ice. Awamori is expensive and bottles can cost as much as 50,000 yen (Rs 20,489) for an aged clay vase. Its cocktails are popular with women in Japan and ones like the flamecoloured Sakura (made with 40 ml Awamori, 10 ml of apricot brandy and lemon juice and a teaspoon of creme de cassis) are a rage.

Shochu:
On my second evening in Tokyo, I tried a glass of Shochu, which is Japan’s answer to vodka. A low-calorie drink, Shochu can be made from rice, though it’s commonly made from barley, sweet potato or sugarcane. In Japan, Shochu is typically mixed with ice (Shochu Rokku) or with hot water (Oyu-wari). A 60:40 ratio of water to Shochu is typical. Shochu is widely available in supermarkets in Japan. However, it is not yet sufficiently well-known to be available in duty-free shops. I did get to see a bit of the city as well, and with its giant malls, busy streets and a day-time population of nearly 20 million people, Tokyo did leave an impression on me. But not as much as the glass of Umeshu or Shochu did. Try it.

Make umeshu at home

Ingredients
1 kg green ume (Japanese plums)
1 kg rock sugar
1.8 litres white liquor like vodka or Shochu
(35 per cent alcohol)

Sterilise a large glass jar of about 4 litres by filling it with boiling water; rinse and dry carefully. Wash the plums, culling any fruit with bruises or broken skins. Dry them and remove the waxy bit in the stem end. Layer the plums and sugar in the jar and pour in the liquor. Seal tightly. Turn over the jar once a month until the sugar is completely dissolved. Umeshu is drinkable after six months and fully mature at the end of a year.

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