Saturday, July 26, 2014

Hatanaka-san and his Balalaika

Of course, whenever the Ajimi team runs across any signs of balalaikas, they have to follow. One of the team spent many a year of his well-spent youth playing balalaika and domra in the Seattle Balalaika Orchestra.

In most of the world outside of Mother Russia, the balalaika is not a big thing. Nor is it in Kyoto. But that's where a bright and friendly sign hanging in front of an out-of-the-way alley beckoned.

It had a sweet little illustration of a matryoshka doll cradling a balalaika, and the simple word "バラライカ" (Balalaika). And down the alley we went. 

At the end of the little mews was Balailaka, ostensibly a coffee shop, but rather more like a forgotten and abandoned storefront with things you don't really want to know about going on behind its closed door. As we were perusing the sun-faded menu, out popped Eisuke Hatanaka, the proprietor of the place. Lanky, silver-haired and balding, with elfin features and slightly desperate smile, he invited us in. The place was a small mess, with little evidence of coffee having been served over the last few years. A particularly scary bottle of once preserved, now rotting, plums stood front and center on the old counter strewn with papers, cups and whatnot. Shoved onto the shelves by the door were various Russian tchotchkes, including a few matryoshka dolls. 

Hatanaka-san proceded to talk our ears off with his singular story of being a bit of a balalaika-playing star in his youth. He pulled out an oversized self-published book - a tome, actually - called The Balalaika Anthology (バラライカ名曲集). Along with the masses of sheet music (lifted directly from Russian editions), contained within its pages were several copies of articles and photographs of young Eisuke, balalaika in hand, amidst serious-looking Russian guys in suits, largely set in academic settings.  The serious endeavor of studying the folk music of Russia, in Russia, was Hatanaka-san's old milieu. I was struck by one pic of Eisuke, with a full head of dark hair, surrounded by older scholars, staring intently into the camera. It looked like something from the 1920's, but was probably from the 70s. 

Apart from playing the balalaika, we found out that he was a sometime counselor, magician and collector and seller of Russian goods. I think he had a few other things under his belt. And he had also published a couple of other books. He opened his balalaika case and pulled out a well-used, but obviously loved - and lovely - instrument and asked for any requests. I suggested and old boyevoy kon called Vo pole bereza stoyala (In the field a birch tree stood).  He quickly found the music in his book and between breaks in his constant monologue, played a few bars of it.

Hatanaka-san could have kept us there, talking for hours on end. I imagine he doesn't get all that many visitors. He is a fairly eccentric fellow. We made a flimsy excuse to cut things short and made our exit. But there's something about folks who follow their passions way down the rabbit hole. They may be weirdos, but they're our kind of people. The world would be a much lesser place without them. Here's to you, Hatanaka-san. Tebia shastia!


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Fight of the Century

The Ajimi team has always loved Albariños. But being a bit locavorish, we've been following, over the last half dozen years or so, the Japanese wine industry. One thing we've been seeing is better and better interpretations of Koshu - the vinifera grape that's more or less native to Japan. Once upon a time Koshu wines were sweet, cloying and downright bad. There was some idea of making them appeal to some sort of "Japanese taste" - whatever that might be. Now, several winemakers are crafting quite tasty, dry Koshus - trying to pull the best out of a very singular grape. When made well, Koshu takes on a platinum tinge - perhaps one of the most beautiful wine colors the Ajimi team has seen. Tartness is at the heart of Koshu. Untamed, it becomes annoyingly mouth-puckering. In a good Koshu, a careful balance of fruit will turn tartness into something refreshing. It can be a perfect summery wine. 

So, we thought it was time to contrast and compare. We invited about a dozen folks (a few Basques, some Japanese wine-lovers and a Canadian expat) over for a bit of taste-off - with some appropriate foods and a bit of hyperbole to go with them. Here's what went down.


The Fight of the Century




In one corner, we have Albariño, a tough contender.  Well respected in the world of wine, Albariño's got the chops, and the experience that makes it a first class player. In the other corner, we have Koshu, an up-and-comer. Koshu's been working out hard, getting leaner and more feisty over the years. May the best wine win!

1st Round
Soryu / Katsunuma no Koshu (勝沼の甲州) / 2013

Served with a Trio of Pintxos

Ishikawa-ken mame aji en escabache /
Remolachas con miso y queso crema /
Beets with miso and cream cheese /
Tokoroten with cold-smoked Alaskan troll-caught king salmon /
Tokoroten con “king” salmón ahumado de Alaska /

2nd Round
As Laxas / Val de Sosego Albariño / 2011

Served with:
Ceviche of cod marinated in shikuwasa juice /
Bacalao ceviche en zumo de shikuwasa /

3rd Round
Soryu / Citrus Scent Koshu / 2013

Served with:
Salad of Japanese greens with katsuo mojama /
Ensalada de verduras japonaises con mojama de bonito
Mizuna / 水菜 / Brassica juncea japonica
Pardama (Okinawan Spinach) / パルダマ / Gynura bicolor
Tsuru murasaki (Malabar Spinach) / つるむらさき / Basella alba
Unnan hakuyaku (Heart-leaf Madeira Vine) / 雲南白藥 / Anredera cordifolia

4th Round
Coto de Gomariz / Gomariz X Albariño/ 2012

Served with:
Olla gitana with buta kakuni /
Olla gitana con carne de cerdo braseado

June 29, 2014


Truth is, the Albarños kinda won out. But these are wines that have nearly a couple of centuries of tradition behind them. Many of their kinks have been worked out. And nobody really complained about the koshus. Yeah, Albarño's certainly got more finesse, but Koshu's a contender.


Tasting Notes - The Wine

Soryu Citrus Scent

We ordered some wines from Soryu, a place that we visit every year. They make among the best affordable koshus in Yamanashi. Lemony citrus and nettles. A tarty little tart of a wine.

As Laxa Val do Sosego

Slight smell of salt air flowing through the peach orchards. A hint of lemon in the well-rounded taste.

Katsunuma Wineries Club katsunuma no koshu

Imagine this. Celery, green beans and a bit of greengage plum in the nose. Tasting dry with a bit of vegetal funk, but in a good way. A slight tartness, but not with the  sourness fatigue that far too many koshus leave.

Coto de Gomariz Gomariz X 2012

Very austere. Grapefruit, hints of apricot, minerals. The winemaker behind this, Xose Lois Sebio is an interesting cat who has his own line of wines.

Some our guests brought these wines

Soleil van blanc fin de koshu 2013

A nice bright clean koshu with a lingering taste. Despite their slight tweeness and French pretentions, winemakers Tsuyoshi and Junko Suzuki are showing themselves to be among the finest in Yamanashi

Kai Sur Lie Limited Lot 3770 2012

Winemaker Kazama Soichiro is a nice guy and has a pretty cool winery - in an old traditional farmhouse - but this wine had some definite off notes and was pretty undrinkable.

Tasting Notes - The Food

Ishikawa-ken mame aji en escabache

These little mame (bean) aji (horse mackerel) were given the escabeche treatment to give them a little Spanish flair. A common dish here, nambanzuke (southern barbarian pickle) is a similar variation to escabeche. It was brought here by the Portuguese. The little fish in question took well to the sharp vinegary pickle, onions and olive oil.

Remolachas con miso y queso crema

The beets were sweet and full of umami. Choppped up with celery, mixed with dark salty miso (yet more umami) they were served on little tostas spread with cream cheese and topped with the beet mixture.

Tokoroten with cold-smoked Alaskan troll-caught king salmon

I happened to be at the Olympia farmers' market the week before where I picked up a nice piece of Pacific Northwest style cold smoked salmon. Down the street from where we live there's a little shop that makes tokoroten - best described as agar agar noodles. With a a traditional shoyu and vinegar sauce, the snappy clean clear "noodles" were great with the salty, smokey, dare I say amazing salmon.

Ceviche of cod marinated in shikuwasa juice

Again a nod to some cross-cultural ideas influenced by available ingredients. Cod is one of the few reliable fish found in Japan. With tart shikuwasa (an Okinawan citrus) juice, red peppers, onions and shizo, it suggested a possible Pacific Rim crossover.

Salad of Japanese greens with katsuo mojama

I took a small loin of bonito, salted it for a day and then air-dried it for a month to create a Japan-grown version of Andalusian mojama. Thin shavings of it peppered a salad of mixed greens that ran the gamut of tastes reminiscent of spinach to the vaguely medicinal.

Olla gitana with buta kakuni

A fairly traditional garbanzo and pumpkin (I used kabocha) stew, offset with a different tradition - pork belly long-simmered in shoyu, mirin and sugar. They worked together perfectly.