Shochu

More than a decade after the Japanese boom in it began, the San Francisco Chronicle's wine section (which provides the best wine industry coverage in the nation) introduces Shochu, a distilled liquor traditionally made in Japan from sweet potatoes, to the Bay Area's trendy drinkers.

Given the well—justified role Japan has taken as a leader in culinary matters, it is probably inevitable that shochu will begin to become popular in the United States, especially in the wake of the new popularity sake is enjoying here. If the Food Network cable channel can come up with a parallel to the popular Iron Chef series, but focused on Japanese beverages, the distilleries of Kyushu (traditional home to shochu's producers) will be kept busy for decades.

My own familiarity with shochu began in the late 1960s, when I was a poor student, and shochu was a favorite at the pushcart vendors of oden (a savory wintertime stew, with skewered items to pluck out and eat —— now there's a culinary trend I wish that Americans would take up). The vendors would pull a couple of stools up to their carts, and run a tiny little cafe right on the sidewalk, usually in front of a train station, to catch people on their way home after a night out. Unfortunately, one rarely sees these pushcarts anymore —— a great loss.

At that time, shochu was very much a drink of the rough—hewn down—and—out day laborers, Japan's genuine underclass. It had a bite to it, and gave about the worst hangover of any drink, save rotgut whiskey and the cheapest sake. I didn't really prefer it, but when the fellow sitting next to me overhead me using Japanese to order items from the odenyasan (proprietor), as often or not he would offer me a drink. Many's the time I enjoyed a few cups with complete strangers, delighted to find a young foreigner who spoke Japanese and who didn't look down on the less fortunate members of Japanese society.

I have always found working class Japanese folk to be incredibly kind and open, once they realize I had an interest in hearing what they had to say. In the traditional Japanese sense of hierarchy, such people count for little, and rarely receive much attention from their supposed betters. One of my most memorable summers in Japan was spent living in one of Tokyo's poorest slums (the cockroaches were unbelievable large, and actually ate the binding off of one of my books, leaving a stack of loose pages in their wake). I would meet gangsters, day laborers, and other colorful figures at the public baths, izakaya (traditional pubs), and cheap noodle restaurants. Almost all were happy to have the chance to speak with me, as soon as I indicated basic politeness and receptivity.

In the late 1980s, a number of changes took place, which propelled shochu into trendiness in Japan. The Chron article covers these well, except for one. Shochu also benefitted enormously from favorable tax treatment. Liquor is taxed rather severely in Japan, and, as the workingman's drink, shochu bore a much lower tax rate than other alcoholic beverages. God forbid the Chron should ever admit that taxes change beahvior; it might lead to unwelcome conclusions about domestic politics.

In the trendy clubs, one began to see various cocktails being mixed with shochu in place of vodka. Having little interest in mixed drinks (or trendy clubs), I stuck with sake and beer, which remain admirable companions to all kinds of Japanese traditional foods.

If and when you come across a bottle of shochu, go ahead and give it a try. You might also try the Korean version of the same drink, called soju. Based on my observation, soju is also quite a trendy drink in Japan, where Korean culture, including food and drink, has become quite popular, reversing centuries of cultural scorn for Japan's closest neighbor. Altogether a healthy development.

Food and drink are, after all, great uniters of disparate cultures. Just call me a bridge—builder.

More than a decade after the Japanese boom in it began, the San Francisco Chronicle's wine section (which provides the best wine industry coverage in the nation) introduces Shochu, a distilled liquor traditionally made in Japan from sweet potatoes, to the Bay Area's trendy drinkers.

Given the well—justified role Japan has taken as a leader in culinary matters, it is probably inevitable that shochu will begin to become popular in the United States, especially in the wake of the new popularity sake is enjoying here. If the Food Network cable channel can come up with a parallel to the popular Iron Chef series, but focused on Japanese beverages, the distilleries of Kyushu (traditional home to shochu's producers) will be kept busy for decades.

My own familiarity with shochu began in the late 1960s, when I was a poor student, and shochu was a favorite at the pushcart vendors of oden (a savory wintertime stew, with skewered items to pluck out and eat —— now there's a culinary trend I wish that Americans would take up). The vendors would pull a couple of stools up to their carts, and run a tiny little cafe right on the sidewalk, usually in front of a train station, to catch people on their way home after a night out. Unfortunately, one rarely sees these pushcarts anymore —— a great loss.

At that time, shochu was very much a drink of the rough—hewn down—and—out day laborers, Japan's genuine underclass. It had a bite to it, and gave about the worst hangover of any drink, save rotgut whiskey and the cheapest sake. I didn't really prefer it, but when the fellow sitting next to me overhead me using Japanese to order items from the odenyasan (proprietor), as often or not he would offer me a drink. Many's the time I enjoyed a few cups with complete strangers, delighted to find a young foreigner who spoke Japanese and who didn't look down on the less fortunate members of Japanese society.

I have always found working class Japanese folk to be incredibly kind and open, once they realize I had an interest in hearing what they had to say. In the traditional Japanese sense of hierarchy, such people count for little, and rarely receive much attention from their supposed betters. One of my most memorable summers in Japan was spent living in one of Tokyo's poorest slums (the cockroaches were unbelievable large, and actually ate the binding off of one of my books, leaving a stack of loose pages in their wake). I would meet gangsters, day laborers, and other colorful figures at the public baths, izakaya (traditional pubs), and cheap noodle restaurants. Almost all were happy to have the chance to speak with me, as soon as I indicated basic politeness and receptivity.

In the late 1980s, a number of changes took place, which propelled shochu into trendiness in Japan. The Chron article covers these well, except for one. Shochu also benefitted enormously from favorable tax treatment. Liquor is taxed rather severely in Japan, and, as the workingman's drink, shochu bore a much lower tax rate than other alcoholic beverages. God forbid the Chron should ever admit that taxes change beahvior; it might lead to unwelcome conclusions about domestic politics.

In the trendy clubs, one began to see various cocktails being mixed with shochu in place of vodka. Having little interest in mixed drinks (or trendy clubs), I stuck with sake and beer, which remain admirable companions to all kinds of Japanese traditional foods.

If and when you come across a bottle of shochu, go ahead and give it a try. You might also try the Korean version of the same drink, called soju. Based on my observation, soju is also quite a trendy drink in Japan, where Korean culture, including food and drink, has become quite popular, reversing centuries of cultural scorn for Japan's closest neighbor. Altogether a healthy development.

Food and drink are, after all, great uniters of disparate cultures. Just call me a bridge—builder.