Drinking in Sydney: Aged Saké Tasting at Ume Burger

With intrepid friends D. and R., we managed to get in on a Sakenet Australia event, at Ume Burger, which focused on aged saké. Apparently, the first event was young sake, about a month ago. So, there were 13 of us in the back room of Ume Burger, and Rey took us through a tasting of six sakes (officially five) and then we sat down to a feast of food and more sake (I knew there were burgers, but this turned out to be a nice spread).

The sakés were conveniently lined up on the table left to right, in the order of tasting, and we got to taste them at room temperature and heated (to about 50 degrees, which goes down to 40 when it’s poured). They taste completely different at different temperatures. We also got to try a young saké for comparison. I thought it had stronger flavours and was pungent, and had a liquorice note that I associate with a lot of sakés.

  • Suiryū: Jumnai Kimoto Hiyaoroshi (2011): The first one, to me, had a note of whiskey or spirit, but was more mellow and with less flavour than the young saké. This has only been pasteurised once, and used wild yeast, a traditional method (that’s the Kimoto in the name) where you let the yeast bloom, rather than having the control of adding the exact amount.
  • Hiokizakura: Junmai Koshu “Toki no Takumi” (2008): “Master of time”, this was even lighter and cleaner. Koshu, in the name, means aged saké. One of the tasting notes for saké is whether it is ‘clean’ or not, meaning whether the taste lingers. People also often compare saké to Japanese savoury flavours like shiitake mushroom, soy and miso.
  • Okuharima: Junmai Yamahai “Hakuéisén” (2005): I thought this had a less distinct anise note, but a rounder, fuller flavour. I loved it. But my friends thought it was too medicinal.
  • Umetsu: Junmai Koshu “Sachi”(1998): So twenty years old, this tasted like a light sherry to me. It’s made by just one saké master and his helper. I found this a bit strange.
  • Morinokura: Junmai Komagura “20 years” (1994): Apparently, you can’t even get this saké in Japan anymore! This tasted more balanced and full than the previous one, a bit like a spirit that you might at the end of an evening.

It was very interesting tasting these warm too. I couldn’t figure out how to describe them when warm (alcohol soup?). I’d always heard that saké is best cold and they heated it up to disguise when saké is of cheap quality. But Rey explained that saké went through different historical trends. Before the period of the samurais, you drank saké hot half the year (when the season was cool) and cold when the season was hot. Then, it became fashionable to drink it hot all year round (as the Japanese were drinking everything hot: like tea). Now, it’s simply a preference. My friend R. was enjoying the warm saké better; I like it room temperature or cold as I can recognise the flavours more and it tastes to me, more similar to, say, a white wine.

Something I’ve always wanted to know is how long you can keep an open bottle of saké. Apparently, as long as it has been pasteurised (young sake must be refrigerated), you can keep it for a long time… I think I’ll keep mine in the fridge anyways, but I’d always rushed to finish any saké I bought so it wouldn’t go off. Now I can take my time.

And finally, we only got to taste aged Junmai, which is just one of the four different styles of saké. Seems like I have some more research to do…

Other interesting info:

  • Saké has the highest natural alcohol level of beverages though they’re not sure why. Is it the process, made in the cold? Or the gradual build-up of yeast? Unlike when sugars and yeasts die in wine and the alcohol content goes down, the alcohol level if saké can get up to 22%.
  • Saké is made from rice grown over the summer, harvested in October and then young saké is presented over the next 6 months. The ageing of the saké is counted from the time of harvest. There are two pasteurisations usually, though unpasteurised saké or those only pasteurised once have a different flavour.

While I knew we were getting burgers after, I didn’t expect such a feast, for accompanying the burgers were edamame, delicious fries (in miso salt?) and super crispy brussels sprouts. And the rest of the saké! It was really a fun and educational afternoon. Check out Sakenet’s Facebook Page for more information about their events and tastings, and you can order saké from their website too. I bought a bottle of the second saké ($55 on special) and the third one ($60 on special) so I’ll see how long they last me. Not long I suspect.

Bar Ume Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Book Review: Christie Harris’s Mouse Woman and the Vanished Princesses

Mouse Woman and the Vanished PrincessesMouse Woman and the Vanished Princesses by Christie Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always loved mythology. As a boy, I started with Greek mythology, went onto Roman and then the Norse gods too. Eventually I devoured pretty much everything I found, from all parts of the world. I liked the epic tales that had reached me after centuries, and that they brought me to foreign lands. So, it was a pleasure as no longer a boy to read a copy of this book that a friend of my mother had left for her in the hospital, recovering from a head injury. Ah, the passage of time. At that time, Mom was so present in my life, in charge of the kitchen, encouraging my reading, an intriguing presence, but loving. And now I was back home, in British Columbia, to tend to my sick, elderly mother.

Come to think of it, I wonder if my mother’s friend had thought about the resemblance between Mouse Woman, the heroine of these tales, and my mother. Feisty and principled, somewhat underestimated because of her size, stubborn in her adherence to what is right, there is much to admire in her. As there was in Christie Harris, I understand, who was given the gift of these stories by First Nations people, and is recognised in return for the gift she gave back to them: their stories brought to light, representing a proud culture, during times when some First Nations people were worried about losing their culture, or had become disconnected or fallen prey to poverty and hard times.

The myths in these stories follow a pattern, and so there is much repetition in them, down to the exact same sentences and phrases in a number of them. It is, as I understand, a way of imparting lessons and telling stories, and I found the messages of these stories deeply heartening: that nature must be respected, that there must always be balance and exchange. But there was also so much that was surprising. The shape-shifting legendary gods that could become mortal, the ways they shed their animal coverings, the descriptions of the people and their customs. And moreso, a hat with a bird on top that would twist around and create a powerful oceanic whirlpool; a giant family of snails with shells so large their houses were larger than the other god-animals and when human their skin was as pearly and luminescent as the inside of a shell.

So, a small set of easy-to-read beautiful, powerful, surprising and memorable tales. I’m glad to have stumbled across them. Ah, and the drawings, by Douglas Tait, are gorgeous.

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Sydney Food Diary: Luxe, Woollahra

It feels a bit strange, and not like anything else I can think of in Sydney, to be surrounded in a little courtyard on all sides with luxury stores and Di Jones real estate looming over you. The diners at Luxe in Woollahra also seemed very luxe themselves: a watch or jewellery or fashionable piece of clothing that looked simply very expensive.

Looking over the menu, it felt pretty expensive, but we decided to share two items off the ‘sharing’ section of the menu. Things got off to a poor start. Considering the amazing coffee you can get in Sydney, the lack of coffee art on this seemed like a real fail.

And then the dish at the top of the page, well, we didn’t order it, pretty as it looked. But then things started to look up. I can’t find fault with truffle fries. These were delicious.

And then our share plate of charcuterie was a good portion and delicious, and all up for the two us, lunch was not as expensive as I thought. Zomato has taken away the ability to give half stars recently. I’ll lean towards a 4/5 rather than a 3/5 as the food really was quite OK.

Luxe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Beijing Legend, Pyrmont

Is Beijing Legend legendary? Maybe not. But it’s pretty great food. Located in a part of Pyrmont I’m unfamiliar with, it’s basically above the John Street Square stop on the light rail. I don’t know the history of the light rail but this entrance looks like nothing else in Sydney, almost like descending into a Disneyland ride. What else lies beneath the surface of this neighbourhood?

I brought my pal Josh here, who has lived in and travelled in China far more than I have so I figured I could ask him pertinent questions. And I was right. The Beijing Combination Noodle was something that I would have passed by on the menu without a second thought, but he said it’s his go-to dish. I thought it was delicious: springy handmade noodles with just the right proportion of vegies and sauce once you mix it up yourself.

Josh commented that while it’s common in Beijing to have a menu that is humungous, it’s not common here in Sydney. This menu is enormous, so might take some advice or expertise to figure out what to order.

My favourite dish, as recommended by Eddie, our host, was the oxtails simmered in tomatoes and wine. It’s a family favourite of ours. The meat of oxtail, cooked long enough, is deliciously tender. I think all the bones can freak out some people though. I loved this one.

Cold shredded cucumber is a classic Northern Chinese dish. It’s simple but perfect, and I can’t figure out how to do it at home and have it come out right.

Boiled chicken slices with chili oil is also something that I should be able to figure out how to make at home, but never have. This version, with Szechuan chili (I think), green chili, and garlic and ginger, was really delicious.

I’ve always been a fan of hot and sour soup, so this was my one disappointment of the night. Not tons of flavour.

Eddie brought us some water that they’re serving in the restaurant, which is perhaps magical. Apparently you can splash it on your face, and it gives you more energy and such.

Pretty can, anyways.

Finally (and my god, for two people, this was a ton of food). The Beijing Style Stir-Fried Lamb was indeed delicious, as Eddie recommended, and as is listed in the menu as a chef’s recommendation. It looks like a standard meat stir fry from a Chinese restaurant, but the spices were more complicated, and a nice ratio of vegetables to tender lamb gave this dish a great texture.

This would be a great dinner for a group of friends on a foodies’ night out. Lots of choice. Lots of unusual dishes. And most importantly: tasty.

We dined as guests of Beijing Legend. The opinions are my own.

Beijing Legend Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Book Review: Michael Merzenich’s Soft-Wired

Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your LifeSoft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life by Michael Merzenich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Soft-wired is an odd mix of relentlessly cheery home-spun wisdom and science. While the scientific basis for being able to change our brains for the better may have been proven, the advice oftens comes off as the regular stuff of self-help guides: make more friends, take up new hobbies, have a positive attitude.

We got this book as we’d read the best-seller, ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’, by Norman Doidge which referenced Merzenich and his online brain-training program, BrainHQ. I remember absolutely loving the book. It changed my received ideas about how the brain works. I had absorbed the common beliefs that the brain matures until is adult and then is unchangeable, basically, and then deteriorates.
So, I was pretty somewhat confounded to read that this was untrue, and excited to be given the evidence of a new perspective. The presentation of the new worldview and science was in the form of engaging case studies, and I was so inspired by the book that I joined, for a time, Merzenich’s online brain-training program, BrainHQ, and convinced myself to memorise a Bach prelude (as a challenge, and a way to exercise my brain).

But this book, Soft-wired, though on the same subject of brain plasticity, may be trying to make the same points as the other book, but is poorly written. The author tries to convey so much information that it is dizzying, and yet, the tone, sort of a carnival barker constantly exhorting about the wonders of the human brain, is tiring, particularly when it seems the end point is to promote his research, his institute or his brain-training programs. He even spends a chapter saying that he knows it looks like he is promoting his own programs, but that he really believes them, so it’s not really promoting them.
The case studies, which should be interesting, lack the detail that would bring them alive. The material, for a general reader, isn’t differentiated enough so starts to all melt together. And an assumption is made about the reader, that we are all seeking help for our brain problems and are all generally headed in the same direction, towards recovery and progress and self-improvement. It’s a nice idea, but it always feels condescending when you’re being lectured to.

In another section, he actually says that he is purposely trying to bore you as a reader to make a point. He succeeded in boring me but I lost the point, and instead from that point on began speed-reading. But then I followed one of the main pieces of his advice, which is try to pay attention, focus, and take in new information. So I impressed myself by managing to get to the end of this book. For you, dear reader, I’d say: don’t bother with this book. Read Doidge’s, and then if you love that one so much, and are truly inspired, probably as an older person, to keep your brain healthy, you could read this as a sort of follow-up, or perhaps just go to the BrainHQ and start on those brain exercises!

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Vancouver Food Diary: Hong Kong Café’s Apple Tarts

The Cantonese villagers who moved to Vancouver in the 1900s populated Chinatown and opened up Chinese businesses. One of them was the ‘Hong Kong Cafe’ which apparently was located at the Chinese Theatre on Pender Street from the 1930s and then settled in the 1940s to 149 East Pender Street run by Victor Lum where it became famous for its apple tarts and oxtail soup. Victor’s grandson, Brian McBay, mentions it here.

I have memories of when my father took me here, at an age that I can barely remember. It was a wonderful combination of a North American diner, and something Chinese, from my heritage, village Chinese and immigrant Chinese and bustling commerce. They’d serve coffee, apparently terrible, from huge boiling vats, carboys of coffee. And would serve a delightful mix of Chinese and North American food. I remember, distinctly, my first Boston Cream Pie: a perfect tiny round of gelatinous red, that looked like a half of a maraschino cherry but was just jelly, on top of a combination of mostly cream, and a little cake, perhaps. I don’t remember the details exactly but at such a young age found it absolutely magical.

Apple tarts seem to have been their most famous legacy. My brother remembers the apple tarts as being two for 35 cents. They are a kind of flaky pastry, round, with an apple filling, that tastes of real apples, perhaps like a spoonful of apple pie. The layers are light around it, almost like a donut. The flaky coating, a sugar crust, is similar to a nice French pastry. It is certainly not particularly Chinese, but probably found nowhere else in North America, so is an original Vancouver Chinese-Canadian creation.

When the Hong Kong Café closed, it was known that the Lums decided that the recipe would not go to anyone else and that the apple tart would DIE with their closure. But a cook who’d made them defected to the Newtown Bakery across the street and started making them. and now, versions of them are available at Newtown Bakery and their other locations (including a similarly named bakery, the Original New Town Bakery, which is not officially associated with the New Town chain) and apparently the Bao Bakery near the Joyce Skytrain station has started making them too.

I think they’re pretty marvelous, but it’s impossible for me to separate the taste of them (pretty good) with the memories (priceless) of father bringing home a box of apple tarts to our family, presented with pride and probably some nostalgia of his own.

If you’re a foodie, and so inclined, why not hunt one down?

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Walking to the hospital, I am noticing the plain, boxy apartment buildings of Vancouver of the 40s and 50s, none renovated, in colours of pastel and forest. I can hear the voice of a friend Bert who left the city years ago, moving to Calgary. ‘Everyone says Vancouver is so beautiful but look at the buildings. If you picked up the whole city and plunked it down in the middle of the Prairies, people would notice how ugly it is without the mountains and the water’.

I think he’s correct, mostly. For a city that strives to be sophisticated, there are many parts of the city that seems sleepy and quiet, small town, and not particularly pretty. The bushes and shrubbery are often perfectly shaped in a suspicious way. There has been a movement to let lawns be overtaken by local wildflowers and plants, but the majority still are suburban green grass that call out to be mowed, regularly.

Still, I see a burst of buttercups and suddenly think: when I have last seen buttercups? Certainly not in Australia where I’ve lived for nearly twenty years. Tiny, shiny flowers of the happiest shade of yellow.

Today, Mom is weak. She has apparently lost quite a bit of blood in the last day and a half, possibly from bleeding from stomach ulcers, but when they do the stomach scan, they say the ulcers are minor and ‘not suspicious’. But unlike yesterday when she was awake and alert the whole day, she is mostly sleeping today.

Her hair was shorn when they operated on her, after the firemen broke down the front door of her apartment, and took her to the hospital, unconscious. A sub-dural hematoma, brain bleeding, that the first doctor told us might be a major stroke but wasn’t.

After three weeks, her hair is growing back nicely, though it was a bad haircut. I use the tiny scissors that my brother always carry around with him (“They’re bent,” I say to him. “They’re old,” he replied) to cut off stray hairs that are sticking out. With her hair short, when she closes her eyes and lays her head back on the pillow, she looks like her mother, who had grey hair when I knew her, always pulled or pinned back. I’ve never seen the resemblance before but now, five years older than Japo, when she died, she really looks very similar. When I was a child I used to study the lines of on the face of my grandmother so well, I loved her so.

I’ve learned that it’s not in my nature, nor useful, to worry into the future in cases like this. I’ll allow myself to picture my mother back to living independently, fiercely, and causing people to wonder how she can be so strong and healthy at the age of eighty-three, but I won’t, for now, picture the alternatives. It’s not how Mom would think either.

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Sydney Food Diary: Glebe Point Diner

Lai Heng took me here for lunch once, and I didn’t manage to blog it, so am glad to get an opportunity with a lovely dinner with some friends from the United World Colleges. We did the $70 banquet menu (and has some *lovely* wines with it) and thought it was a great variety and very decent-sized portions.

To start, a Sydney rock oyster each and then delectable little bites of potato rosti with smoked eel, sour cream and chives (one of my favourite dishes, top of the page).

The raw snapper with chilli, chive and finger lime was beautiful seasoned. I didn’t get a photo of the fried Spencer Gulf squid with parsley and aioli, but it was tasty and crispy.

The duck liver pate with pear jam, served with grilled bread, was, as you can see glistening. My homemade patés never get so smooth and creamy (but are tasty nonetheless).

The two mains were ricotta gnocchi with king brown mushrooms, black russian tomatos, cavalo nero, black garlic and reggiano…

And NZ Greenstone Creek scotch fillet with horseradish butter and fried onions. Very tasty. Is the photo fuzzy because I was salivating over the scotch fillet. Perhaps. It came with some very crispy hand cut chips and a bit of salad too.

For dessert, a chocolate mousse with campari caramel, raspberry and coconut and a pretty much perfect baked lemon tart with vanilla cream.

It’s silly but I always imagine Glebe Point Diner to be on the water; I think I’m mixing it up with the Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay which I’ve never been to. Instead, it’s a relatively humble spot on Glebe Point Road, and really, a neighbourhood gem, I think the go-to space for fancy but not uptight meal in Glebe.

Glebe Point Diner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Croquembouche Patisserie, Botany

I needed a little sustenance on my way to a pottery sale at Claypool. And this pastry shop looked very appealing. Ringing with the authentic sound of French accents, it looks like they serve up classic pastries and savouries too, and do catering in the area. I didn’t see a croquembouche anywhere though.

I tried to resist… but couldn’t. This pastry looked far too good. It was soft and decadent, without much textural difference between the different layers. It wasn’t the most elegant of pastries but was very tasty.

My latte was of the very creamy variety but not in a bad way; it still had the right hit of espresso, but was frothy and milky too.

But cripes it was expensive. I couldn’t see any prices in the display case. If my coffee was $4, then I think I was charged a tenner for the pastry, which is dear.

Croquembouche Patisserie Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Hicksons Izakaya, Walsh Bay

So, what could be better than a little izakaya next to the water in Sydney? Not much, I think! Hicksons Izakaya has not been open that long, and is a welcome addition to the dining options in Walsh Bay. It’s a location that has its benefits and drawbacks: it’s busy every time there’s a show at the Roslyn Packer Theatre (formerly Sydney Theatre Company) but quiet the rest of the time. They’re trying to build up their lunchtime trade too; we were there on a very quiet Tuesday night.

Izakaya is, I think, the original degustation, but much less formal. Originally Japanese pubs that served small plates of food, it’s a great way to get a varied selection of tasty treats. And basically everything that we tried that night was very delicious and beautifully presented.

I love that they have a little sake tasting set; it was only $10 for a taste of three. We had a set each and both opted for the two dryest, Karatamba and Jumnai Chokra, and a fruitier variety, Jumnai Daiginjo. Very nice.

The spinach with sesame dressing ($7) was perhaps one of the nicest versions I’ve ever had of gomae (Japanese spinach salad). I mean, look at it: it’s sculptural.

Seared scallops with honey ponzu and fish roe ($14.50) were cooked delicately, seared and had a sweetness, as well as a beautiful texture.

Five pieces of sushi: delicious. And pretty.

The classic gyoza with… I think they were threads of… chili? Beetroot?

The main, and final savoury dish, was seared salmon filet with a miso cream, barely cooked ($24). It was delicate and scrumptious.

We were particularly amused at how pretty the plating was – and the salmon roe tasted good too.

Finally, for dessert, tiny balls of ice cream wrapped in mochi and with chocolate sauce ($10). I’ve tried these before (maybe in Hawaii) but I’m not sure I’ve had them elsewhere in Sydney. I love the texture of mochi, a rice flour wrapper, and it’s a nice and surprising match for the ice cream.

We were really, really impressed. Great setting, delicious food, and very good prices actually (restaurants around here tend to be pricey). I’ll definitely be back here for a pre-theatre meal, and I give it a high recommendation!

We dined as guests of Hicksons Izakaya; the opinions are my own.

Hicksons Izakaya Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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