Sunday, March 8, 2009

An Introduction to Japanese Food and Drink - The 2009 Japanese Food & Sake Festival

I remember reading about The Japanese Food & Sake Festival last year and after glancing over its exhibitors list, I decided to skip the festival since the main exhibitors ranged from mainstream brands like Asahi Beer to disappointing restaurants like Sushi Roku and Tokyo Table. But for this year's festival, my 'dachi Keizo insisted that we go due to 1 exciting, new booth added for the 2009 festival: Chibaki-Ya, a Ramen-ya I've been meaning to try in Tokyo for the past year.

The Japanese Food & Sake Festival is a public annual event held in Southern California, and the 2009 Festival features a much larger group of vendors, including an extensive showing of small Sake Breweries from Japan. The purpose of the festival is to promote Japanese Food Culture in Southern California, showcasing different types of food and drink. When we arrived, the festival hall was already packed with a full spectrum of age ranges and ethnicities.

Naturally, the first thing Keizo and I did was make a beeline for Sun Noodle's booth, the host of Chibaki-Ya of Sendai. While I had tried Chibaki-Ya's (in)famous Shark Fin Ramen at last year's Mitsuwa Umaimono Gourmet Food Fair, I was hoping that they would be serving something different, perhaps one of their more traditional offerings, or the famous Gyu-Tan Ramen (Beef Tongue Ramen Noodle Soup). :)

We were pleasantly surprised to find out that "Mr. Chibaki-Ya" himself, Chef Kenji Chiba, was personally preparing and serving every bowl of Ramen to all the visitors!

It turned out that Chibaki-Ya was serving a classic dish: Their version of Shoyu Ramen, with Chef Chiba mentioning that he uses a blend of Torigara (Chicken Bones), Buta (Pork) and Shoyu (Soy Sauce) for the basis of the soup. The Noodles were provided by Sun Noodles.

Taking a sip, Chiba-san's Shoyu Broth was stunningly good! This was made in a foreign kitchen outside of his natural surroundings in Japan, for this festival, and served in a styrofoam bowl, and it was still delicious! (^_^) There was a genuine earnestness to the broth, with strong overtones of Torigara, a playful undertone of the Buta, and a good quality Shoyu that didn't overpower. Both Keizo and I looked up and smiled. :)

The Noodles were the typical manufactured type from Sun Noodles, the extremely curly, yellow Noodles that were just fine for this Ramen. I look forward to trying out Chiba-san's Ramen in Kasai, Tokyo, with a better quality Noodle one day.

The rest of the toppings were just fine, with the Nori (Seaweed), Menma (Bamboo), Chashu (Slow-cooked Pork), Naruto (Japanese Fish Cake with Swirl), Negi (Green Onions) and Kaiware (Daikon Radish Sprouts) adding a nice finishing touch.

The Chashu was the highlight of the toppings, tasting very fresh and clean, cooked the same day (as opposed to too many Ramen-yas in So Cal that have Chashu that tastes like it's ~1-3 days old). Overall the Chibaki-Ya Ramen was so tasty I finished the entire bowl of Ramen including all of the soup, and felt that even if nothing else was good, the 2009 Japanese Food & Sake Festival was a roaring success. :)

Just as we finished up the Ramen, the festival began a presentation of proper fish cutting by Chef Katsuya Uechi, of L.A.'s own Katsu-Ya and KATSUYA fame. He was promoting his new Sushi Institute of America and garnered quite a crowd by the time his fish cutting demonstration was over.

We then proceeded to stop by Katsu-Ya's booth, where they were serving an Assorted Sushi Plate. The fish was pre-cut, but understandable with such a large festival and having so many people in line.

For my order, they presented Sake (Salmon), Maguro (Tuna) and Unagi (Freshwater Eel). The farm-raised Salmon tasted pretty straightforward and average, very soft and lightly creamy. The Maguro was tender, but lacked the brightness and freshness of top Sushi offerings around L.A. (not surprising in this setting), but there was a piece of connective tissue / gristle in my piece as well. Finally, the Unagi was overcooked, very tough and too sweet.

After the Sushi it was time to wash that down with some Sake. :) We stopped by the Mutual Trading Co. booth (a large supplier of Japanese food and drink, from fresh, vegan Miso to rarer, excellent artisan Sake from Japan). They were offering samples of about ~15 different Sakes from their extensive catalog.

In addition, they were showcasing the first USDA certified Organic Sake from Japan: Kikusui "Chrysanthemum Mist" Junmai Ginjo Sake from Niigata, Japan. The Kikusui representative mentioned that most Japanese Sake were Organic by Japan standards, but the new Organic Kikusui Junmai Ginjo Sake was the first to be certified by the USDA.

I normally enjoy Kikusui as a safe, good quality sake if there isn't a better choice on the menu, so I was curious to see how the new Organic line would taste. It was very clean, mild, with a medium body and lightly floral finish.

We then proceeded to skip the Sho Chiku Bai booth (as my Sushi Hounds and I affectionately call it "the Budweiser of Sake" :P), and went to the far end of the festival where a bunch of small artisan Sake were being presented. Each small booth represented a region or group of Sake brewers from Japan, all of which I had never tasted before.

From the first booth in this section, the first Sake we tried was also my favorite of the evening: Dassai Junmai Daiginjo Sake from Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan. This was a sweet (but not cloying), pure, smooth Sake, and one that has each grain of rice polished down to only 23% of its original size, to create this smooth purity, according to our server.

(On a side note, it was unfortunate that the vessel for sampling all of the Sake were plastic cups, but it's understandable in that it's just not feasible to have that many real Sake cups available for all of the visitors (and the clean-up afterwards). So for all the Sake we sampled this night, the taste and impressions would be even better with proper drinking vessels.)

The other highlights included the eye-catching label from Kazuma Shuzo with their Chikuha "Bamboo Blade" Junmai Sake from Ishikawa, Japan (it was regrettably a bit too harsh, full bodied with a strong finish), and the very light, slightly sweet Ginrei Gassan Gassan no Yuki Junmai Ginjo Sake from Yamagata Prefecture, Japan.

The next booth was serving a surprise: Haruki, a Kuri (Chestnut) Liqueur from Matsuyama, Japan. It had a striking golden-brown color and a really pleasing aroma. With the first sip, a strong alcohol burn was followed quickly by a lush Chestnut flavor and aroma, with a surprisingly smooth finish. It's something different and new, and definitely something to be sipped and not quickly quaffed. :)

Continuing on, the next booth represented a few Sake Breweries from Niigata, Japan, and there was one person explaining where they were located and the focus of each Sake maker.

I sampled a variety of the Sake from the Niigata Sake makers, such as Biwanosasanami from Saitama, Japan (not sure why they were with the Niigata group); Matsunoi "Wishing Well" Tokubetsu Honjozo from Niigata; Buna no Tsuyu "Dewdrops" Tokubetsu Junmai from Niigata; and the beautifully bottled Koshino Omachi Daiginjo from Niigata. Of the group, I found the Buna no Tsuyu "Dewdrops" to be the driest and most endearing of the bunch.

After this section of the festival, we moved on to the next area with some more food booths like Nishimoto Trading, who was featuring two types of Rice for pairing with a variety of Japanese dishes: Sukoyaki Genmai (Whole Grain Brown Rice), and Sekka (Premium Medium Grain Rice). They were serving the cooked rice with optional Nori (Seaweed) or Dried Shiso, and while it was a good idea in principal (allowing you to taste and compare different rice grains), by the time we arrived at their booth (towards the end of the festival), the rice was cold and a bit dry after being exposed to the air for so long.

Next up was a visit to Yamachan Ramen, makers of the popular Instant Nama Ramen brand found in most Japanese supermarkets around So Cal. Keizo was quick to point out that Mr. Yamachan himself was there serving his Instant Noodles. One look at the Mascot Logo and the resemblance was humorously striking! :)

This was... Instant Nama Ramen, with a slice of Chashu. The Ramen was their Shoyu Tonkotsu flavor and it was decent for an Instant Ramen brand. The Noodles were a bit too gummy for my tastes and the Chashu was nothing to write home about. It was still funny and interesting to see the creator of this brand there in person serving everyone.

Rebounding nicely was a visit to Den's Tea, a Nihoncha Senmonten (Japanese Green Tea Specialist). I had always wanted to try some of the teas at Den's Tea and finally got a chance. Their booth featured an adorable stuffed doll version of their mascot :), and I tried their Peach Iced Green Tea featuring Sencha from Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan. Glancing at it, one might've thought that it was just another attempt at producing some overly sweet Snapple-like fusion flavor, but the pure Shizuoka Sencha Tea Leaves really stood out, and the Peach flavor was more in aroma than anything. It was only lightly sweetened, and much more palatable than one would expect. I was hoping to try their premium Gyokoro Suimei, a top grade of Japanese Green Tea, but didn't get the chance.

Walking over to the next section of the festival, we arrived at International Marine Products booth (which is a subsidiary of the EIWA Group, which opened up the popular Tokyo Kaikan restaurant in Little Tokyo in 1963). Their booth was really eye-catching, featuring a gorgeous whole Kenko Madai (Red Sea Breem) from Uwajima, Japan. I was really hoping they were serving the Kenko Madai, but it turned out it was only for display.

Instead, they were serving two more types of seafood that they were really proud of: Teramoto Hotategai (Scallops) from Hokkaido, Japan; and Hamachi (Yellowtail) from Nara, Japan. They were really generous in their servings, offering both items as Sashimi and Sushi(!). One bite of the Hamachi from Nara and the quality of the fish was evident: Excellent, extremely fresh Yellowtail, tender yet still retaining a firmness and slight creaminess. The Scallops from Hokkaido were almost as good: One piece of the Scallop in Sashimi form was outstanding - firm, with a slight suppleness and so fresh. The texture was beautiful. The other piece was slightly water-logged. Still, International Marine Products' offerings was the right way to show off their products and entice customers (unlike Katsu-Ya's disappointment). I was shocked at the good quality fish served all night at this booth, and I was happy. :)

At the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries booth, they were featuring a diverse spectrum of Japanese Food and Drinks from smaller, lesser known businesses. I sampled the Rakuraku Matcha from Marushichi Tea. The Rakuraku Matcha was meant to served as a cold Matcha (refined, powdered premium Japanese Green Tea), and it succeeded in delivering a refreshing, herbal chilled Green Tea.

I also sampled the Yoshida-En "Kumamoto Castle" Tea (Individual Bags), which was meant to be a good quality tea on the go. It was a decent tea, but I prefer some of the offerings from some other companies if given the choice.

One of the more popular booths that we visited was the Sapporo USA booth, where they were giving away their full range of ice-cold Sapporo beers all evening long. We decided to get some ice-cold Yebisu. :)

But then as we were walking through the next section of the festival, Keizo and I stumbled upon the highlight of the evening: The Cool Japan booth, sponsored by the Consulate General of Japan, the Japan America Society, JNTO and a few other groups. Glancing at the corner of their booth, I spotted what looked like something I didn't think they'd bring to this festival - Gigantic Slabs of Real Wagyu Beef from Japan! (O_O)

Indeed, it turned out that this year's theme for this group was to promote Wagyu Japanese Beef, and they brought in ample (and very expensive) supplies of Wagyu Beef from Gunma Prefecture, Japan.

They had two chefs that were giving the Wagyu a quick poach, Shabu Shabu style, before serving it with a fresh-tasting Ebi (Shrimp) and a choice of Ponzu sauce or Sesame sauce. I gently picked up a piece of Wagyu that had just finished poaching for a few seconds, and took a bite... Lush, Buttery Love. :) This was simply top-quality Beef that put every single Shabu Shabu restaurant's beef that I've had in Southern California to shame (with the exception of Urasawa) (no hyperbole). It was that good. :)

And they were giving it away all evening long at the festival. Wow. (I quickly proceeded to get back into line and get another serving, which was just as divine as before.) :)

Finally, we ended the evening stopping by Otafuku's booth, the makers of the popular Otafuku Okonomiyaki and Tonkatsu Sauce lines. They were serving fresh-made Mini-Okonomiyaki (Japanese Savory Pancake with different types of fillings).

The Okonomiyaki was average, with a Mochi and Negi (Green Onion) filling, lacking the refinement in the batter and fillings, but a decent introduction for people new to Okonomiyaki.

This annual food festival is open to the public and admission is $40 per person pre-sale, and $50 at the door, which gains you access to all the booths (and as much food and drinks as you want to sample).

The 2009 Japanese Food & Sake Festival was a pleasant surprise due to specific booths that were really Chow-worthy, from Chibaki-Ya's excellent Shoyu Ramen broth, to the good lineup of artisan Sake brewers, to the amazing Gunma Wagyu Beef. It was nice to meet the actual Toji (Brew Master) for some of the smaller Japanese Sake makers, and for those that are interested, listening to the live Shamisen and Taiko Drum performances. There were some pitfalls to stay away from (e.g., Tokyo Table and Sushi Roku booths), but some great highlights as well. Here's to hoping next year's Japanese Food & Sake Festival invites even more Ramen-yas from Japan and decides to upgrade to Grade A5 Wagyu... one can dream, right? (^_~)

2009 Japanese Food & Sake Festival - March 5, 2009
@ The Hyatt Regency - Orange County
11999 Harbor Blvd.
Garden Grove, CA 92840

Check their website for details on next year's festival:


pleasurepalate said...

I was debating whether to go to this or not, but living on the Eastside and driving to Garden Grove on a week night wasn't appealing. It sounds like it might have been worth the drive, so maybe next year. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

Yah, I understand the question of if it's worth it or not. :) Hopefully next year's festival will have even more interesting food vendors and make the decision that much easier. :)

Darrell said...

Nice review, I wish I had known about the festival in advance, sounds like a good time with good food and sake!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Darrell,

Thank you. :) I've received so many jabs about that, I'll definitely post about it in advance next year as a reminder to people. :)

Blog Widget by LinkWithin