Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Lesson 2: The many ingredients of shōchū

Shōchū (焼酎) can be made of all sorts of things. There are a few standard types but I have seen a variety of weird and wonderful base ingredients: milk, pumpkin, green pepper, chestnut, carrot, shiso leaf, sesame. Some of these shōchūs are one-off gimmicks, so I will concentrate for now on four classic shōchū bases:

Barley etc. shōchū

The Japanese word "mugi" () has quite a broad meaning. It can refer to a wide variety of cereal grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and even oats. Mugijōchū (麦焼酎), meaning "mugi" shōchū, is therefore not a tightly defined term. These are the characters for mugi:

Or you may see the same word spelt out in the hiragana syllabary, in which case the same word would look like this:

Just to give an idea of how this might be combined with characters we looked at in the last lesson, mugijōchū would look like this:

Rice shōchū

The Japanese word for uncooked rice is "kome" and rice shōchū is called komejōchū (米焼酎). This is the character for "kome":

Or the same word in hiragana:

Just substitute the character/hiragana for the "mugi" character in "mugijōchū" above to get "komejōchū". Getting the hang of this?

Potato shōchū

The Japanese word for potato is "imo" and, if you have been paying attention to the emerging pattern here, you will have guessed that potato sh
ōchū is known as "imojōchū" (芋焼酎). Sweet Satsuma Imo potatoes are often used. Some people find the smell of sharp taste of many imojōchū challenging, but I am a fan. The character for "imo" is:

In hiragana, the same word would look like this:

You will often see "imo" in conjunction with the characters for Satsuma, which is an area on Japan's southern island:

Or in hiragana:

You might see it in a combination of the two types of characters above, often with Satsuma spelled out in hiragana and "imo" in the more complex characters.

Buckwheat shōchū

The Japanese word for buckwheat is "soba" (蕎麦). Many people will recognise this word as the name used for a type of Japanese noodle which is made from buckwheat. Buckwheat shōchū is called "sobajōchū". As often as not, the kanji for "sobajōchū" (蕎麦焼酎) is not used. Instead, the simpler hiragana characters are employed for the first part of the word (そば焼酎). The kanji characters for "Soba" would be as follows (notice that the second character in the "soba" is the mugi character we encountered earlier):

The hiragana is:

Awamori and soju

As I've said, there are many other types of sh
ōchū than these four main types. For simplicity's sake, though, I am boiling the list down to the essentials.

There are only two more categories of spirits that I must mention here, if only to distinguish them from shōchū. The first is Awamori (泡盛). It is made on the southern island of Okinawa out of long grain Thai rice and I believe it is properly regarded as a separate, though intimately linked, tradition of distilling from the mainland shōchūs. It usually sits in the same section of Japanese supermarkets, though, so you need to be able to distinguish it. These are the characters for "Awamori":

The second type of spirits you need to be aware of are the Korean distilled spirits called "soju". The name is similar but it is a completely separate tradition from shōchū. It is often to be found in the korui shōchū section of Japanese supermarkets (korui are is the multiply distilled, clear and in my opinion less interesting type of shōchū I distinguish from the fascinating honkaku world in lesson one.) Soju has become popular in some parts of the United States for use as a neutral spirit in cocktails. If the bottle is covered in Korean characters or says "Jinro" or has stylised green mountains on it, then you are probably in soju territory and there, I am afraid, this particular guide must turn back.

Intro -- Lesson 1 -- Lesson 2 -- Lesson 3 -- Lesson 4 -- Vocab

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