Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

May 26, 2008

Canon of Literature

This weekend, I happened to come across a NY Times review called “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” by Peter Boxall. The reason I bring it up here, is that this list is unbelievably and unashamedly Anglo-centered (including the U.S.) - it is not even a list of great Western literature, let alone that it tries to define the best in world literature.

Another matter is the narrow focus on the novel (and short stories). In ancient China, fiction in contrast was not considered as literature (which included rather philosophical and historical works as well as lyrical poetry) - the present West is just as short-sighted by only considering prose fiction. Of course poetry and plays should be included, but also - if they have sufficient literary value - historical texts, essays, even scientific work. Darwin and Hawkins, for example, should be part of the canon! It should be a canon of literary texts, and not of novels!

The weakness of the NY Times list is most clearly visible in the (smallish) pre-1700 section, where the only non-Western book is The Thousand and One Nights...

What about the Manyoshu? The Genji Monogatari? Basho?

And where are the Analects, Daodejing, Zhuangzi and the Book of Songs? Where are the Lotus Sutra and the Mahabarata and Ramayana?

The selection of modern Japanese literature is also rather biased, with no Tanizaki or Kawabata and by Oe only Nip the Buds, by Mishima only A Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea... Murakami Haruki is represented by Kafka on the Shore, After the Quake, Sputnik Sweetheart and the The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Not my list of favorite Murakami (except the last title) - Sputnik Sweetheart is one of his weakest books, as a "love story" Norwegian Wood (which I have been reading for a second time recently) is much stronger.

In the end, of course, everybody should build his or her own "canon" - based on personal preference and also clear principles (so as to be interesting for others). If I have time, I may start building my canon gradually, ten books at a time... Seeing a list made by others, really stimulates you to start making your own...

P.S. The great thing for pre-1900 literature is of course that so much of it is available on the web as "open source" - at the well-known Gutenberg site but also in many other places. And Wikipedia forms a convenient stating point for studying the various ancient and national literatures.

May 19, 2008

Sake Files: What water is suitable for Sake brewing?

Sake is for 70% water, so water is by far the major ingredient. Water used in the sake brewing process is called "Shuzo Yosui" and can be divided into two types: "Jozo yosui," or the water used for the fermentation process and "Binzume yosui" or the water used for bottling and other processes. The first type encompasses the water used for washing and steeping the rice as well as the water used directly in fermentation tank, the second type the water used to clean the bottles, but also the water used to dilute the sake to obtain the proper alcohol level.

As with the rice, some elements that can be found in water are good for the brewing process, others not.

Good elements, which help micro-organisms such as the yeast grow, are:
  • Potassium
  • Phosphoric acid
  • Magnesium

Negative elements are:
  • Iron (colors the sake!)
  • Manganese (same)
  • Heavy metals (bad for humans)
  • Ammonia and nitrous acid
  • Wild yeasts
Sake breweries take their water - especially the all-important water used in fermentation, from wells and springs, or from subsoil water of rivers. In other words, they use very pure and natural water. Many breweries have their own, private well.

We also have to take into account the difference between hard and soft water. Hard water has a high mineral content (often the "good" minerals mentioned above), soft water much less so. In the Edo-period, sake brewers preferred relatively hard water, as the "good elements" in it helped the fermentation process, making it faster. In the Meiji-period, brewers discovered that it was also very much possible to brew excellent sake with soft water, only the technique should be different. Anyway, the Ginjo type sake - which became a technical possibility in the 20th century thanks to rice polishing by machines - should always be brewed slowly.

A famous example of hard water is the Miyamizu ("Temple water"), discovered 160 years ago in Nishinomiya by the Sakura-Masamune Brewery. This water contains little iron and mangan, but a lot of phosphoric acid, and also a relatively large amount of potassium and magnesium. The hard water gives a dry taste to the sake and that became characteristic of the sakes made in the Nada districts of Kobe. All breweries in the area started using this water, transporting it in casks to their premises. This "masculine" sake, as it was called, became very popular among the population of Edo, where it was shipped.

Excellent soft water can be found in the Fushimi ward of Kyoto or in Hiroshima Prefecture. Sakes from these areas are sweeter and have therefore been called "feminine."

Water is important for sake brewing - it is the only element that gives a clear local identity to the sake, as "terroir" in the case of grapes (sake rice nowadays is shipped all over Japan, and anyway, most of the typical local elements are lost during the polishing process). So the water drawn from local wells, is the only "terroir" for Sake!

May 18, 2008

Sake Files: What rice is suitable for Sake brewing?

Rice and water are the two main raw materials in sake, but for sake, not all rice is equal. The rice used for sake is called "sakamai," "Sake rice;" about 5% of all rice grown in Japan is "Sake rice."

One particular type of "Sake rice" is the so-called "Shuzo Kotekimai," the "Rice ideally suitable for sake brewing." These are specially developed and cultivated strains of rice that possess certain qualities that make them most suitable for sake-brewing (they are not suitable as rice for at dinner!). About 30% of all sake rice (so roughly 2% of all rice grown in Japan) is "Shuzo Kotekimai."

Rice contains various elements, some of which are good for sake brewing, others much less so. Here are the five main elements:
  1. Carbohydrates (starch): 70-75%. By saccharification or liquefaction this becomes sugar. The most important element in sake brewing - the more starch (the larger the grain) the better!
  2. Proteins: 7-8%. Changed into amino acid by the enzymes produced by the Koji. Bad for fermentation.
  3. Chemical elements. Necessary for the growth of micro-organisms and therefore good for the brewing process. There are 4 kinds: potassium, phospohoric acid, magnesium, calcium.
  4. Lipids: 2%. Concentrated in the germ. Influences the aroma of the sake in a negative way.
  5. Vitamins. Concentrated in the germ, also not necessary for sake.

Only 1 and 3 are good for fermentation. "Sake Kotekimai" will have much of these and less of the others. The three most important qualities of "Sake Kotekimai" are:
  1. Have a large grain (1,000 grains should weight 25-30g, against ordinary rice only 20g (the famous Koshihikari and Sasanishiki types weigh 22-23g). As individual grains are so small, rice is weighed in units of 1,000 grains, called "Senryuju.")
  2. Have a soft opaque white center called "shinpaku," a sort of "white heart." This is pure starch.
  3. Have only little proteins and fats.

The large grain is of course necessary for super premium sakes (such as Ginjo), where the grain is polished to 60%, 50% or even less of its original volume.

Types of "Shuzo Kotekimai" are:
  • Omachi from Okayama Prefecture, the oldest variety, developed in the Edo period.
  • Yamada Nishiki, the most famous variety, very suitable for Ginjo sake, developed in Hyogo Prefecture in the 1930s. 30% of all "Shuzo Kotekimai." Has been called the King or Yokozuna of Shuzo Kotekimai.
  • Gohyakumangoku from Hokuriku and Tohoku. 50% of all "Shuzo Kotekimai."
  • Miyama Nishiki from Nagano Prefecture.
  • Hattan Nishiki from Hiroshima Prefecture

Unfortunately, demand for "Shuzo Kotekimai" far exceeds supply. This rice is very difficult to grow, because it stretches to 120 cm (against normal rice 90 cm), making it prone to devastation by typhoons. It must be placed wide apart (double from ordinary rice) and is a late harvesting type. Not for nothing that it costs double the price of ordinary rice (600 yen per kilo)!

So generally speaking, the special rice is used for the premium sakes (also about 30% of all sake brewed in Japan), while "ordinary sake rice" is used for the Futsushu or "ordinary sake" with added alcohol.