Monday, September 26, 2016

Rant: The "Best" Seafood Restaurant?

What is the best seafood restaurant on the South Shore?

Recently, the Atlantic Kitchen made that claim on their Facebook page, stating they were "The best family run seafood restaurant on the South Shore." To their credit, they have removed that statement from their Facebook page. The problem was that the restaurant wasn't even open yet, and may not open until October or November. How can you make such a claim when you aren't even open?

Declaring yourself to be the "best" restaurant in any category is arrogant. Of course you are biased, and aren't making an objective statement. If you want to prove the quality of your restaurant, then let your customers determine how you compare to other similar restaurants. They are the ones who make the ultimate decision, voting with their wallets and pocketbooks.

I've seen other restaurants claiming to be the "Best," such as various roast beef spots, and have even seen one claiming to be the best roast beef spot in the world! Why do these restaurants make such outrageous claims? Is there anyone who believes such claims? I just can't see the average person seeing such a claim and believing it. I can't see the average person choosing a restaurant because they see such a "best" sign outside of it. The customers should all know that such "best" signs are simply puffery. And unnecessary puffery.

Restaurants, drop the claims that you are the "best." Your efforts would be better invested in providing quality food and service, letting word of mouth and positive reviews to indicate the quality level of your restaurant. If anything, calling yourself the "best" could have negative repercussions, causing some potential customers to turn away from your perceived arrogance.


Friday, September 23, 2016

The Origins & History of Sake (Part 2)

8th Century

The Nara Period (710-794), reflecting that the capital of Japan was now the city of Heijō-kyō (modern day Nara), offered numerous documented references to Sake, establishing basic information we know about the history of Sake. Prior to this period, there was a lengthy tradition of oral history but also some written documents, such as the Teiki, but those documents are lost to us.

The oldest existing book in Japan, composed around 711-712, is the Kojiki, “Record of Ancient Matters,” which presents both history and myth. It is said to have been written by Ō no Yasumaro at the request of Empress Gemmei. It contains numerous references to Sake, including tying it into a number of ancient myths. For example, the text mentions that “The intoxicating liquor called sake was known in Japan during the mythical period…” which is indicative of a belief in the lengthy history of Sake within Japan.

The Koijiki relates the myth of Susanoo, the Shinto storm god, whose rebellion led to his banishment to Japan. While traveling through the Shimane Prefecture, Susanoo encountered an elderly couple with their young daughter. The couple claimed that they once had eight daughters but Yamata no Orochi, a terrible eight-headed dragon, had devoured one of their daughters each year. Susanoo stated he would help them if they granted him the hand of their daughter. They agreed and Susanoo enacted his plan to destroy the dragon.

First, Susanoo had a large fence constructed, with eight gates, and placed a table in front of each gate.  Second, he brewed a special Sake, an "eight-fold" or "eight-times brewed" Sake called Yashiori no Sake. Then, Susanoo waited for the dragon to come, hoping his trap would succeed. The huge supernatural beast eventually showed up, and each head drank one of the vats of Sake. The dragon became intoxicated and then fell asleep. At that moment, Susanoo then took his sword and played the mighty sleeping dragon.

There are a number of other Sake references too in the Kojiki. There is the term “Sakabe” which rougly translates as "liquor tribe," referencing a family that brewed Sake for Imperial dinners and feasts. There is more specifically a reference, Uda no Sakabe, the "liquor tribe of Uda." There is another reference to a “waiting-liquor.” In addition, you'll find the term, Machi-sake, which refers to Sake that is produced for an absent friend by those who are awaiting his return. Machi-Sake is later mentioned again in a number of poems in the Man'yōshū.

Another fascinating passage seems to indicate potential Korean involvement in the existence of Sake in Japan. During the rule of Emperor O-Jin, thought to be around the late 3rd or early 4th centuries, a Korean man, known as Nim-pan or Susukori, visited the Imperial Court of Japan. Susukori allegedly came from Kudara, an ancient kingdom of Korea. Susukori produced Sake for the Emperor, who was thoroughly impressed with the results, stating: "I have become intoxicated with the august liquor distilled by Susukori. I have become intoxicated with the soothing liquor, with the smiling liquor." It is certainly possible that the Japanese learned about Sake brewing from Korea.

During the Nara period, around 713, the Empress Gemmei ordered each provincial government to submit an extensive report on agricultural, geographical, and historical information as well as the myths and legends of the area. These reports became known as Fudoki, and those written during the Nara period were more specifically known as Kofudoki, “Old-Fudoki.” The Kofudoki were compiled over a roughly twenty-year period, and some reference Sake. Unfortunately, we only have fragmentary information about some of these Kofudoki so are likely missing a number of Sake references within those documents.

The Harima-no-kuni Fudoki (714/715 AD) was one of the first completed Kofudoki and concerns itself with the area now within the locale of the Hyōgo Prefecture. Many of the Sake references within this document have to do with various place names, such as the following:

Several buildings were added to the palace grounds. The site of the sake brewery became the village of Sakaya.”

There is also a place called Saka Yama in this village. During the time of Prince Ohotarashi a spring of wine issued forth at this place. That is why it was named Saka Yama (wine hill). Whenever the farmers became intoxicated with this wine, they fought each other wildly. Hence, the prince ordered that the spring be plugged. Later, in the year of Kanoye Uma (670), someone reopened the spring. The water of this spring still retains the flavor of sake wine.”

Sakawino: Sakawi was named after a well dug for a sake brewery. Prince Homuda constructed a palace in the village of Ohoyake, dug a well, and established a sake brewery in this field. Therefore, the place was named Sakawino (field of the sake well).”

The princess had a sake brewery built nearby. This site was named Sakata (sake field). Once one of the brewery barrels overturned and was emptied. Thus, the place came to be called Katabukita (overturned field). (Near the brewery site was a place where) young girls (processed sake) by crushing rice.

There are three dales in the village of Shimo Kama; Usuwi Tani, Mitani, and Sakaya Tani. The place where the god Ohonamuchi pounded rice was named Usuwi Tani (mortar dale) and the place where' he set his winnow was named Mitani (winnow dale). The spot where the god Ohonamuchi built a sake brewery was named Sakaya Tani (brewery dale).

Maybe the most important reference though concerns the Hamlet of Nihato, where: “(The great god once traveled through this village carrying some rice.) the rice happened to get wet. Finding some mold on his rice, the god decided to make wine out of it. (When the wine was ready) the god dedicated it (to the spirits of this land) and feasted (with his followers) there. That is how the place came to be called Nihaki (wine-dedicating garden). Today people call it Nihato.”

The use of koji-kin, a mold which breaks down the starches in rice into sugar so the yeast can turn it into alcohol, might have originated in China but there is one theory, supported by this passage, that it may have developed independently in Japan. At the very least, we can see with this reference that koji-kin mold has been used to brew Sake at this time period. It is thought that the earliest form of koji was possibly made by mixing rice with water, kneading it and forming it into ball, before letting it sit for several weeks.

Compiled in 720, the Nihon Shoki ("Chronicles of Japan"), also known as also the Nihongi, is the second oldest book in Japan and consists of thirty chapters. It also contain numerous Sake references, some similar to those found in the Kojiki. For example, it also relates the tale of Susanoo and Yamata no Orochi. However, it also adds additional references not found in the Kojiki, such as references to Sukuna-bikona, a dwarf-sized god who is also known as Kushi no Kami, and it stated to be the inventor of medicine and the creator of Sake.

Some of the quotes from the Nihongi include:

Now Kami-ataka-ashi-tsu-hime by divination fixed upon a rice-field to which she gave the name Sanada, and from the rice grown there brewed Heavenly sweet sake, with which she entertained him.”

On this day, Ikuhi, in person, presented to the Emperor sacred sake, with a song, as follows:— This sacred sake Is not my sacred sake: Tis sacred sake brewed By Oho-mono-nushi, Of Yamato, How long ago! How long ago!"

“The Hall of Miwa (Of sweet sake fame), Even its morning door”

“Sweet sake from Yega market-town

He was the ancestor of the Kimi of the Sake-makers. The younger was called the Imperial Prince Naka. He was the ancestor of the Kimi of Sakada.' This year was the year Hinoto I (24th) of the Cycle.”

On the same day, sacred sake' was given them.”--

“...ko-zake, a kind of sweet liquor made from rice.”

With these references, we can note two different types of Sake, sweet Sake and sacred Sake, though it isn’t clear whether sacred Sake is also sweet or not. Sacred Sake was made from rice grown on temple grounds and it was customary to offer it to foreign ambassadors. There is also a passage in the Nihongi, referencing 193 AD, about a great Sake master, Oho-saka-nushi, an ancestor of the Miyakko of Kukumada.

Another Kofudoki, completed around 733, is the Izumo no Kuni Fudoka. Izumo was an ancient province, the area which is now located in the eastern part of the Shimane Prefecture. Because of a myth mentioned in this kofudoki, Shimane Prefecture claims that it is the birthplace of Sake. I should also note that this Prefecture was the alleged location of the myth of Susanoo and Yamata no Orochi. The relevant quote is as follows:

Township of Saka: It is located 1.5 miles east of the district office. A multitude of deities gathered together, built a brewery, and fermented rice wine in the river valley of Saka. They held festivals day after day before they dispersed. Therefore, it is called Saka, meaning ‘rice wine.’”

During Kami-ari-zuki, the "Month of the Gods," all of the gods once gathered together at Izumi Taisha to feast and drink. They brewed Sake and spent about six months drinking and eating, engaging in what is said to be called sakamizuki, which is also allegedly where the area received its name, Saka. The area where this allegedly occurred is now known as Kozakai-cho, and there is the Saka Shrine located there, and which has been in existence for over 1300 years. The shrine is also known as the Matsuo Shrine, which is the name used for shrines throughout the country that enshrine the deity of sake brewing, Kusu-no-kami.

Another significant quote from the  Izumo no Kuni Fudoka is: “Arata was named after the condition of the soil of this area. The goddess of this area, who was named Michinushi (road mistress), gave birth to a child deity whose father was unknown. The goddess wished to learn the identity of her child's father and so she planned to have some oracle wine brewed. The goddess cultivated a rice field of about fifteen acres. The rice ripened within seven days. The goddess then prepared sake for oracle use, gathered a great number of gods, and had her son serve the wine. The child god turned immediately, faced the god Ame no Mahitotsu (Prince of the Heavenly Blacksmith) and served him some wine. Thus did the child recognize his father. Afterward, this rice field went unused. That is why the hamlet is called Arata (unused rice field.)

This passage is intriguing as it indicates Sake being used in a magical ritual, as an oracle. Sake has long been closely involved in religious ceremonies so it isn't a stretch at all to see it also being used in a oracular fashion.

Around 759, the Man'yōshū (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) was compiled, the oldest Japanese collection of poetry. Its 4,500 poems were created from 347 AD-759 AD, and the collection was divided into twenty books, though the poems weren’t organized by topic or even chronologically. Most of the poems, about 4200, are tanka, short poems, while another 265 are choka, long poems. A number of these poems referenced Sake.

One of the famous poets in this book is Ōtomo no Tabito, (665‐731), a military man in the Nara Court aristocracy and an influential poet. Within the Man'yōshū, you will find a number of his tanka, praising Sake.

O what an ugly sight the man who thinks he’s wise and never drinks sake!” (This is my favorite Sake quote.)

"To keep silent and act wise still not as good as drinking Sake, getting drunk, and weeping.”

"Don’t think about useless things—
You should be drinking, it seems to me,
A bowl of raw Sake."

"Excellently said, those words of the great wise man of antiquity who bestowed upon sake the appellation of sage."

"Those seven wise men of the past---what they too wanted, it seems, was Sake."

"I don’t know how to say it, what to do about it—the noblest of all, it seems, is Sake."

"Rather than be a so-so human being, I’d like to be a Sake jar and get steeped in Sake."

"A priceless treasure it may be, but how can it be better than a bowl of raw Sake?"

"A gem that gleams at night, it may be, but how can it compare to drinking Sake and opening your heart?"

Another poet in the Man'yōshū is Okura Yamanoe (660‐773?), a contemporary of Ōtomo Tabito, who composed a long poem, the “Dialogue on Poverty.” It presented images of suffering, including people who had to drink the Sake dregs, which only the poorest people had to drink.

As we are discussing Sake poetry, I should also mention another famous poet of the 8th century, Li Po from China, who became known as Rihaku in Japan. He was passionate about Sake and claimed it gave him great inspiration,“I drink a whole bottle, and pen a hundred poems.”

To be continued...

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
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1) Join Executive Chef Tony Susi, Bar Manager Kevin Mabry, and the team at Capo as they host special guest Lia Tolaini-Banville from Banville + Jones Wine Company for an exclusive Banville + Jones Wine Dinner.

On Thursday, September 22, from 6:30pm-8:30pm, Capo is serving up a specially crafted menu that remains true to their classic, fine Italian dishes with paired wines from the Banville + Jones wine company. The dinner will be the restaurant’s first Italian wine dinner.

For the special inaugural wine dinner, Capo is welcoming special guest Lia Tolaini-Banville from Banville + Jones Wine Company to showcase the wines and walk guests through an Italian culinary adventure. Banville + Jones’ mission is to provide the best quality of wine to their customers. Achieving this means they are committed and dedicated to serving wines that are, from vine to bottle, the best quality and price.

The Banville + Jones wine dinner menu at Capo is as follows:
Burrata (Roasted Peach, Speck & Honey Basil)
2015 Andrian ‘Floreado’ Sauvignon Blanc
Squash Agnolotti (Rosemary Butter, Shaved Almonds & Parmesan)
2014 Donna Lauren ‘Ali’ Sangiovese
Potato Gnocchi (Braised Rabbit, Brussel Sprouts & Black Currants)
2011 Tolaini Al Passo
Whole Roasted Veal Shank (Heirloom Polenta, Black Truffle & Brown Butter)
2011 Tolaini Valdisanti
Olive Oil Cake (Mascarpone & Blackberries)
2015 Col dei Venti Moscato d’Asti

Tickets are available for $100 per person on https://www.eventbrite.com/e/banville-wine-merchants-dinner-at-capo-tickets-27715750556

2) Celebrate National Taco Day on Tuesday, October 4th by heading to Taco Tuesdays at Temazcal Tequila Cantina’s location at MarketStreet in Lynnfield. On Tuesdays each week, Temazcal offers any of the specialty tacos on their menu for half the price from 11:00am-6:00pm, with options that include Vegetable Tacos, Lettuce Wrap Ahi Tuna Tacos, Grilled Chicken Tacos, Tacos Mechados and Asada Skirt Steak Tacos. All tacos come with a side of rice and refried beans.

Wash it all down with one (or two) of Temazcal’s signature margaritas like the jalapeno-infused En Fuego or, if you like something on the sweeter side, try the Fresca.

For reservations, please call Temazcal Lynnfield at 781-334-2500

3) TAMO Bistro & Bar at the Seaport Hotel has debuted it’s fall drink menu this week which includes new seasonal cocktails, beers and wines. Highlights off the menu include two new inventive Fish Bowl offerings: The Voodoo Bowl and The S’mores Bowl as well as The Harvest Crush Sangria, a cold brew coffee cocktail and a new Banana Bread Beer.

Fish Bowls, $40 (51 oz. Minimum 2 guests for service)
--The Voodoo Bowl (Bacardi Mango Rum, Bacardi Coconut Rum, Passionfruit Purée, Pineapple Juice, Herbsaint, House made Grenadine & Wormwood Bitters)
--The S’mores Bowl (Bacardi Oakheart Rum, House Infused Vanilla Bean Bacardi Rum, Hershey’s Chocolate, Jumbo Marshmallows & Graham Crackers)

Sangria, Glass - $12; Pitcher - $30
--The Harvest Crush Sangria (Rosé, Blonde Rum, Green Mountain Maple Liqueur, Cinnamon, Apples, Nutmeg & Starfruit)

Other Cocktails - $12
--Bruce Wayne (Cold Brew Coffee, Angel’s Envy Bourbon TAMO Blend, Maple Syrup)
--Cranberry Bourbon Sour (Angel’s Envy Bourbon TAMO Blend, Housemade Cranberry Syrup, Fresh Lime & Lemon)
--Fall Fashion (Putnam Rye Whiskey, Seaport Honey, Calvados)
--Pumpkin Martini (Crop Organic Pumpkin Vodka, Tuaca, Mad River Maple Cask Rum, & Rumchatta)--$14)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Origins & History of Sake (Part 1)

Pour yourself an ochoko of Sake, and get ready to delve into the past, to seek out the Nihonshu no kigen, the origin of Sake. The history of Sake is a fascinating tale and I’m sure there will be plenty that will delight and surprise you. However, we need to begin with a caveat, that this history is far from settled, and much is still unknown. We can only speculate at points, using the best evidence we possess.

In addition, some of the sources concerning Sake history are only in Japanese and haven’t yet been translated into English. As such, my own researches are limited as I cannot read Japanese and online translation programs are insufficient for my purposes, especially in translating books which are not online. Please also be advised that this is a work in progress and I will be updated, revising and expanding this article as my researches continue.

Archaeological evidence appears to indicate that Sake originated in China during the Neolithic period, at least as far back as 4800 B.C. That would mean that Sake is approximately 7000 years old. When did Sake come to Japan? That is an unsettled question and there is even the possibility that Japan invented Sake independently of China.

In Japan, pottery shards from the Jomon Period (c. 12,000 B.C. — c. 300 B.C.) bear evidence of alcoholic fermentation, though probably involving fruit. That makes sense as it's believed that rice farming in Japan didn’t originate until the early Yayoi Period (400/300 B.C.-250AD). Sake brewing likely wouldn’t have been conducted prior to that time, unless they were importing rice from other countries.

Thus, the presence of Sake in Japan might have begun about 2000 or so years ago. As Japan borrowed a number of elements from China, it seems likely they also learned of Sake brewing through them, though there is another theory that Koreans may have transmitted information on Sake brewing to the Japanese. More about that theory later.

The earliest versions of Sake were more like food than drink. It was commonly a gruel-like substance, with a low alcohol content, and which was even eaten with chopstick-like utensils rather than drank. It was also, at least initially, consumed more for its nutritional value rather than the alcohol.

There is indication that some early farmers, possibly originating with the Ainu people, may have produced Sake by chewing rice and then spitting it into a bucket where natural, airborne yeasts would ferment it into alcohol. This was called Kuchikami no Sake (“chewing in the mouth Sake”). The enzymes in the spit would break down the starch molecules in the rice into sugars. There is also a legend of Bijinshu, ("beautiful women Sake”), where only virgins were allowed to chew the rice for that Sake.

Some question whether Kuchikami no Sake actually occurred or not. An old term for the act of brewing Sake is kamosu (which translates as “brew”), but the term is derived from the word kamisu (meaning “to chew”). That may be some evidence for the existence of Kuchikami no Sake. In addition, there is allegedly some documentary proof of Kuchikami no Sake in the Osumi no Kuni Fudoki (created in the early 8th century) and the Akichojitsuroku ("Seasonal Court Practical Record" from 1479 AD).

3rd Century

The first written reference, from a foreign country, concerning the Japanese was in a Chinese work, Sanguozhi, "The Records of the Three Kingdoms," that was published in the third century. The book is an official and authoritative historical work, covering the history of the later Eastern Han dynasty (c. 184–220 AD) and the Three Kingdoms period (220–280 AD). It is said to have been written by Chen Shou, a governmental scribe and secretary, and contains 65 volumes, broken down into three main books including the Book of Wei, Book of Shu, and Book of Wu.

Volume 30 of the Book of Wei is known as Gishiwajinden, “An Account of the Wa,” where Wa refers to the country of Japan. Some Chinese envoys traveled to Wa and described their experiences. They visited the kingdom of Yamataikoku, which was ruled by Queen Himiko, however the exact location of this kingdom is still unknown and much debated. There is also a reference that the Queen sent an envoy back to China. Queen Himiko, who was also a shaman, became ruler after a lengthy time of war and chaos.

Within the Gishiwajinden, you’ll find only a couple brief references to Sake though they seem to indicate that the Japanese were heavy drinkers. One of the main references notes Japanese drinking during a funerary celebration, “While the chief mourner cries aloud, the other people will sing and dance, as well as drink rice wine.” There is another separate reference, that the people of Japan “… love rice wine by nature.”  There isn’t any description of how Sake was produced, but it seemed to indicate that it was at least part of their religious practices.

7th Century

Near the end of the Asuka Period (538-710), Sake brewing would become part of the government, as well as confined to the elite. In 697, Emperor Mommu, aged fifteen, began his reign, which lasted until 707. From the Imperial Palace in Asuka (located in what is now the Nara Prefecture), Mommu established a centralized government and instituted a political system based on the ritsuryō codes. The ritsuryō, intended to reflect the Chinese political system based on Confucianism and Chinese Legalism, covered both criminal and civil law. The beginnings of this system in Japan extend back to the Taika reforms of 645 and various expansions and revisions would occur over the next century.

In 689, there were 8 Ministries (shô), separated into 4 under the Controlling Board of the Left (sabenkan) and 4 under the Controlling Board of the Right (ubenkan). Under the Controlling Board of the Right, was the Kunaishô, the Ministry of the Sovereign’s Household, and this ministry included the Zōshu no Tsukasa (also referred to as the Sake no Tsukasa), the Office of Sake Brewing. The chief of this office was known as the Sake no Kami.

Since the Imperial Court and the nobles frequently held banquets, this new position was seen as an important post and was only held by high ranked officials. Sake was now brewed only for the Imperial Court and it was prohibited to commoners. It should be noted that all of the various offices were supposed to employ scribes to keep records though practically, they didn’t happen at many of the various offices. Initially, there don’t appear to have been any scribes attached to the Office of Sake Brewing, but eventually, maybe a hundred years later or so, they acquired the services of four scribes for record-keeping.

By 701, the brewing system had become systematized by the Imperial Court and Sake brewing technology progressed dramatically. How did the public handle their prohibition from consuming? The ban could not be strictly enforced and home brewing was common, despite it being illegal.

To Be Continued...

Monday, September 19, 2016

Rant: The Cider Donut Battle

One of the best elements of autumn is enjoying a fresh and warm Cider Donut. Though they can be found at some supermarkets, small food shops, and even restaurants, it is hard to beat buying them at a local apple orchard where they can use their own fresh picked apples.

Yesterday, I stopped at my favorite spot, Russell Orchards in Ipswich, and picked up a dozen ($9.50). At Russell Orchards, they make their donuts from scratch, using their own special recipe as well as their own apples. During this time, you often can see their staff making the donuts, dropping the dough into the fryer and then seeing the fried donuts moving down a conveyor belt where they will be bagged. It is said that Russell Orchards sells approximately 200,000 cider donuts each year and it is easy to understand why.

For me, their donuts (pictured above) are soft and moist, with a slightly crusty exterior, and the right balance of apple and spice flavors. And when they are warm, it's hard not to eat several on your way from the cash register to your car. I'm glad that I don't live closer or I'd stop by more frequently and devour far too many cider donuts.

However, not all cider donuts are like that. There are basically two types of cider donuts, the soft ones like at Russell, and heavier, more cakey cider donuts that you can find at a number of other farms. It is a battle as to which is the best, and I am firmly on the side of the lighter style. With the heavier style, they tend to be more dry, less moist, and you need to have a drink with them to help wash down the dry donut. They also feel heavier in your stomach so that you rarely want more than one. Even warm, they still feel heavy and dry, and just don't satisfy like the lighter style. Why would anyone prefer the heavier style?

If you prefer the heavier, more cakey cider donuts, please tell me why.