Posts Tagged ‘koji’

2012: Food and drink trends in Japan

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Whether it be moldy salt, lunch in a cup or frozen soup on a stick, the thriving Japanese food scene spawned a diverse array of surprising culinary wonders this year. Behind the fads, a pragmatic consciousness about healthy eating and a desire to economize were major factors affecting food and drink trends during 2012.

Eating out

According to Nikkei Trendy, the poor economy and the aging population have dealt blows to the high end of the restaurant trade. Enter the low-cost posh restaurant. Massively successful in 2012, a chain of restaurants run by Value Create is serving up top-end French and Italian food designed by “super chefs” in a bistro environment. There are now five “Ore no Itarian” (My Italian) and four “Ore no Furenchi” (My French) restaurants in the Ginza area. Meals cost around  ¥3,000 to  ¥4,000 per head, a huge saving compared to the ¥30,000 per head charged at the poshest restaurants. Nikkei Trendy says that other high-end restaurants are cutting costs and following suit.

A new casual restaurant called Tanita Shokudo turned up on Jiyu Kokuminsha’s 50 top buzzwords of 2012. Run by Tanita, a company that manufactures scales, this hugely popular restaurant in the Marunouchi area of Tokyo serves up the same menu — and nutritional advice — as the company’s own cafeteria to health-conscious customers. This year has also seen a revival of interest in restaurants serving yakuzen (Chinese medicinal) cuisine. Some of these restaurants also advise customers on what dishes might have a beneficial effect on their health. This is a trend we feel might spread in 2013.

Keeping trim

The inevitable diet fad surfaced in 2012 with the appearance of the tomato boom. It was kicked off by the publication of a study that appeared to indicate consuming large amounts of tomato juice would help alleviate metabolic syndrome. Though the trend has slowed somewhat, just as the notorious banana boom did, tomato sales stayed higher for longer than your typical fad.

Continuing on a health tip, one of the most successful new beverages to emerge in 2012 was a health drink — at least according to the Japanese government. Endorsed as the Japanese equivalent of a FOSHU (food for specified health use) by Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency, Mets Cola sold so well that its manufacturer, Kirin, met its annual sales target in just two weeks. Popular with health-conscious men and women in their 30s to 40s, the cola contains an ingredient that helps reduce the absorption of fat. Other tokuho (health) drinks that deliver the fizzy pop experience without the calories have also been popular. The trend looks set to continue with more and more products gaining accreditation.

Spicing things up

Another versatile ingredient that’s still trending is koji salt. Combined with salt, koji, a domesticated fungus used in the production of miso, soy sauce and sake, can be used as a marinade that increases the umami (savory) flavors of meat or fish. It also turned up flavoring packaged foods like potato chips and drizzled on salads and grilled vegetables as a dressing at trendy restaurants. Following salt koji’s huge success, salty yogurt also enjoyed a mini boom with a number of cookery books utilizing this rather odd ingredient. Both savory sauces can be homemade, meshing with the trend toward cheaply producing food at home.

Taking it with you

Hot on the heels of the phenomenon of bento danshi (guys who bring a packed lunch to work), home-made lunch boxes continued to be popular in 2012. This time it was women who were behind a trend to pack their lunch into plastic tumblers. Colorful, versatile and fun, the trend for tumbler bento was also great for keeping portion sizes under control and was popular with dieters as well as the budget-conscious.

Keeping things interesting

As well as economizing, the Japanese food and beverage industry continues to innovate, producing a range of weird and wonderful new products. Among our favorites this year were Gari Gari Kun corn soup on a stick and frozen beer suds. In keeping with that, we’d like to raise a glass of the recently released limited-edition Coffee Porter hot beer coffee (got that?) and wish all our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year — a year which will no doubt be filled with delicious new treats.

 

Can Japan swallow a salty yogurt boom?

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Fancy some salt yogurt soup, some fried pork marinated in salt yogurt, or perhaps some salt yogurt mayonnaise? Over the last month or so, a variety of cookbooks featuring salted yogurt as a main ingredient have come on to the market. Until now in Japan, yogurt has been seen as a healthy food to be eaten on its own or with fruit for breakfast, but now it seems publishers are trying to stir up a yogurt cooking craze to rival the salt koji boom that hit the culinary scene last year.

The white stuff: A mixture of yogurt and salt can be used in a wide range of dishes

Over the last month, according to Nikkei Trendy, following a micro-trend of recipes calling for strained yogurt as an ingredient, five cookbooks featuring salted yogurt have been published in Japan. One of these was “Let’s Get Started With Salt Yogurt” by Wakako Sato. Published by Bunshun publishing company, the recipes in the book were created by researching international yogurt-based recipes and adapting them for the Japanese palate.

But we think the recipes are also heavily influenced by salt koji recipes. The cover of Sato’s book exclaims that using salt yogurt is “even simpler than shio koji,” drawing the connection clearly. Salted yogurt is touted as being a great marinade for vegetables, meat or fish. Just like salt koji, marinating meat in salt yogurt is said to soften the flesh and bring out savory umami flavors. Once you’ve finished with your marinade, add some sake and put it on the boil to use as a base for a creamy soup.

Indeed, making salt yogurt is even easier than making your own koji: Simply add salt or miso to plain, unsweetened yogurt and off you go. To make marinades or soups, use the yogurt as it is, or, to make mayonnaise or cream cheese substitutes, place the yogurt in a coffee strainer and drain off the liquid. The cream cheese substitute is simply the strained yogurt cooled overnight in the fridge. Making mayonnaise involves adding olive oil, salt, pepper and a little lemon juice.

While unsweetened yogurt on its own is seen by the Japanese as a little bit like Marmite (you either love it or you hate it), the publishers of “Let’s Get Started With Salt Yogurt” reckon that even the haters might like yogurt if it’s used as an ingredient in Japanese-style dishes. The fact that alleged health benefits include helping to maintain a healthy digestive tract and giving a boost to the immune system might be just enough to sway those who might otherwise prefer to steer clear.

Edo-era amazake is back to beat the summer heat

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Bottles of amazake for sale at Matsuya department store in Ginza, Tokyo. (Photo by Rebecca Milner)

The annual competition for the summer’s hit drink is as fierce as usual, and all the major manufacturers have their contenders. Will it be Asahi’s new Red Eye in a can? Or Pepsi’s latest oddity, the shocking-pink Salty Watermelon soda?

According to the morning TV show “Non Stop!,” the winner may just be a dark horse: amazake.

Though it literally means “sweet sake,” this fermented rice drink is actually alcohol free and has been around for centuries. In the Edo Period, it was commonly drunk to ward off the dreaded natsu-bate (summer heat fatigue). Apparently the combination of vitamin B and glucose provides an immediate jolt of energy. The rich ate eel; the rest drank amazake.

At some point  in history, that tradition fell out of favor. These days, amazake generally only shows up at traditional festivals, namely during New Years, or at cafes attached to Buddhist temples. Now, however, a savvy Niigata producer is looking to give amazake a little more everyday cachet.

In February, Furumachi Kōji Seijōjo opened a specialty shop in the fashionable Tokyo suburb of Jiyugaoka. Here you can get hot and cold amazake drinks spiked with matcha and shiso (perilla leaf) or health tonics that mix amazake with fruit-flavored vinegar. Boosted by plenty of media attention, they’ve since opened a second branch in the basement food court of Ginza’s Matsuya department store.

Continue reading about amazake →

Moldy Mos Burger confirms kōji boom

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

The launch of Mos Burger’s new limited edition Salt Kōji Burger on May 24 officially confirms that salty mold is now the flavor du jour in Japanese kitchens. Kōji, or to give it its long-winded name, Aspergillus oryzae,  is a domesticized fungus that has been used in the production of miso, sake and soy sauce for centuries. Salt kōji, made by mixing salt and kōji with water, then leaving it to ferment, is also a traditional seasoning, but one that had rather fallen out of use until it enjoyed a revival in the latter half of 2011.

Who says mold can’t be cute?

According to Yomiuri Online, the craze for salt kōji started off when Komego, a miso store in Fukui Prefecture, started selling it for use as a simple seasoning back in January 2011. Word spread with restaurants around the area using the ingredient, causing it to eventually catch on with the mass media.

It was traditionally used as a seasoning for vegetable and fish dishes, but now cooks are enthusiastically using the ingredient more creatively with meat as well as in soups and sauces. Marinating meat or fish in salt kōji converts the starches and proteins into sugars and amino acids increasing the umami, or savory flavors, of the meat. Though salt kōji can be bought, it’s quite simple to make at home, and plenty of cooking websites have featured instructions (see video) on how to whip up a homemade batch.

Fukui Prefecture, which has been a driving force behind the boom, has now introduced a kōji mascot to highlight the benefits of this versatile ingredient. Kōji-kun is drawn in the image of a grain of rice with some weird stuff growing out of its head, to illustrate the fact that kōji starts out life growing on grains of rice. Kōji is also depicted in cute cartoon form in the manga and subsequent anime of “Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture” a story about an agricultural student who can see and communicate with bacteria.

If you’d like to try out this taste sensation for yourself at Mos Burger, then you’ll have to hurry as there will only be 1 million Salt Kōji Burgers available. Rather than being used as a marinade for the meat, the salt kōji is mixed into a special mayo sauce for a salad topping of crispy nagaimo and edamame.

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