What Japan Wants to Put in Your Mouth

I had the privilege to attend Mutual Trading's trade show, showcasing the latest innovations in Japanese food, liquor, secret ingredients and restaurant hardware - if you ever asked yourself, "with all those robots, how do they not have a machine that makes sushi?" The short answer is: they do. The show fell on Oct. 1st, which they proudly proclaimed was "World Saké Day". Honestly, they could have said it was next week, and I would have believed that, but Mutual Trading boasts some credibility, now celebrating their 90th year of importing Japanese staples to Southern California.

Miyazaki Beef
While my focus was on their liquor pavilion, overall, the organization of the trade show was excellent. Two stages hosted speakers discussing how to sharpen Japanese blades, mainstreaming saké consumption in the U.S., and more, while every major food company from Japan offered product demonstrations (read: delicious samples). The sheer number of booths offering ramen was a clear indicator of Japanese food preferences in America, while fish, meat, and vegetarian/vegan alternative booths tried to impress restaurateurs hopeful to find the next, big trend. Dessert booths included matcha cheesecake, warabri mochi, and ichigo daifuku, but lacked any strategy or reason why the subtly sweet delicacies might entice your average patron to select them from a menu. Noticeably, sauces were another theme for many booths; flavored oils, a dash of this seasoning or that, promised to transform your common, Japanese dish into the new hot-selling ramen or Poke-bowl, and after trying each one, they may just do that! The final word on food goes to yuzu: The tiny, Asian citrus carries a mighty flavor residing somewhere between orange and lemon, somehow with a hint of honey, featured in many sauces, health drinks, and a few jams.  If anything holds the potential to sweep the country, yuzu gets my vote.

While the majority of booths were staffed by knowledgeable representatives from Japan, who knew their products intimately, the same could not always be said at the Liquor Pavilion.  Each booth varied greatly. Ryujin Shuzo Saké also offered samples of their Ozeno craft beers, with the brewmaster himself pouring, while at Japanese winery booth, Mercian, the men were both clearly native speakers of Japanese, but had no idea what they pouring!  Pointing to the word "Muscat" on a bottle, one proudly poured me a sample of red wine, explaining that it was red because it contained Koshu grapes (it didn't), and that Muscat was the style (it wasn't). Japanese wine is still a baby bird, struggling to take flight though, so it deserves taking note, that the Mercian wines I tried previously were watery and underwhelming, but on this occasion, I tried the 2013 AIAKANE and absolutely loved it. The fruity, tannin blend of Merlot and Muscat grapes hit on something promising. 
Clever Puns: "29"=MEAT, "94"=SKEWER
Another interesting duality were the sales methods. These people weren't here pouring samples to get attendees drunk, they wanted restaurant buyers to write their badge number down and order cases of their saké, wine, beer, etc. The Japanese style was clearly to be pleasant, pour whatever was asked, and answer questions when prompted - but mainly they let their product speak for itself.  A few had clearly adopted a Western style, bombarding attendees with market data, price points and proud endorsements.  On a linguistics tangent, the Kikumasamune rep I spoke in Japanese with was relatively reticent, but when given a question in English by the American behind me, he opened into a lively discussion of flavors and floral notes, mirroring the tone one uses at a wine tasting.

Using the number of booths as a market indicator again, two things were clear:

  1. Japan hopes sparkling saké will be the next Smirnov Ice, and
  2. Japan sees you like craft beer, America, and they make that, too.

While the vast majority of the booths still offered saké, many of those same booths had added some sparkling saké item.  The prize for most unique goes to a sparkling plum wine made with nigori (unfiltered) saké. Just like the Japanese desserts though, the roadblock I see preventing their spread is the lack of perceived "Japaneseness"; most Americans unfamiliar with sake will not venture into such unknown waters, while those who think themselves proficient, would feel the gimmicky aspect beneath the lofty pedestal they set sake upon.

Craft beer is my love. If Japanese wine is a baby bird, Japanese craft beer is fully grown and majestic, yet highly elusive, especially outside Japan. The majority of craft beer that comes from Japan is rooted in what they know - earthy, dry, and crisp pilsners. Despite a few standouts, most are well-crafted, traditional, and boring reiterations. Even the IPAs are mostly traditional, English-style, and could have been made from recipes written over a hundred years ago. Fortune truly favors the Japanese brewers who risk innovative, modern flavors, but with an ocean separating our two countries, and wave after wave of new domestic breweries, I will wish Japanese craft beer the best, but expect to see very little reach our shores, and even fewer from that category that I like personally.    

Cheers for reading, and kampai.

I also learned that, in America, "Kewpie" is called Q&B! The More You Know...


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