Winter Zest: Japanese Yuzu

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It is tōji; the shortest day of the year. The sun, which has brought a comforting warmth to the day, sinks below the horizon heralding crisp, biting air and hasty darkness. Steam rises from a cyprus-wood tub, and with it a comforting, citrus scent. Bobbing in the soothingly warm water are dimpled golden fruits, a visual hybrid of an orange and a grapefruit. These zesty orbs, with high concentrations of vitamin C and an oily component consisting of nomilin, are there to guard against colds in the long winter ahead, to treat irritated skin, and to aid circulation while promoting comfort and relaxation. Since the 18th century, the solstice yuzuburo, a bath with the winter citrus fruit yuzu, has been a favourite tradition with Japanese families.

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Yuzu is a rare citrus which can grow in regions with winter temperatures as low as -9C, and it fruits in Japan at the beginning of winter. Introduced to the country from China in the 8th century, its seeds have traditionally been used in medicines to treat skin irritations. In culinary terms, lacking in juice and pulp, it is its zest which is employed most. It has a strong, aromatic flavour which is instantly recognisable, and not always popular amongst Japanese children, becoming an acquired taste in later years. It is combined with mirin (rice wine), vinegar, katsuobushi (fish flakes) and kombu (seaweed) to make the dipping sauce ponzu, or with chilli peppers and salt to produce the condiment yuzu kosho. It is added to honey as a sweetener for tea, distilled into vinegar or the liquor yuzukomachi, and used to add a spark to drinks such as non-alcoholic cider. A single shaving of zest atop a piece of sashimi can add a pleasant zing. Chefs in Japan today use it playfully, drawing on its seasonal associations with winter.

In the last 10 years or so, the west have grown familiar with this east Asian taste explosion, although it can be difficult to obtain the fresh fruit and users often make do with bottled yuzu juice. Chefs have employed its powerful citrus bite, adding it to seafood dressings, mayonnaise, fish marinades, custards, jellies, panna cotta and pavlovas. There are several examples of celebrity chefs experimenting with the fruit in their recipes, from Jamie Oliver’s Asian seafood salad with yuzu and sesame dressing and Heston Blumenthal’s yuzu remoulade with barbecued pork chops to James Martin’s deep fried squid with yuzu mayonnaise.  Meanwhile, mixologists use it to give a flavour kick to their cocktails and several craft breweries, including Iki in the Netherlands and Garage Project in New Zealand, have added it as a citrus element in their beers.
March 2nd 2017

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The Rugby World Cup: The Importance of the Third Half

As we approach the end of 6 weeks of rugby, much has been said and written about this year’s World Cup tournament: the hanging-out-to-dry of referee Craig Joubert; the usual complaints of unfair groupings; the post-mortem of the host nation’s failure to advance through the group stages and, this week, the ubiquitous pre-match ‘sledging’ (to borrow from cricket) that occurs prior to any trans-Tasman sporting tussle.

Some journalists and social media commentators have also chosen to write about aspects of sportsmanship within rugby union, a sport still in relative professional infancy. One such article, by Gregor Paul in the New Zealand Herald, brought attention to All Blacks’ coach Steve Hansen’s focus on ‘old-school values’. These values are connected to the olden days of amateur rugby union (pre 1995), when the tradition was for a post-match (inevitably alcohol-filled) dinner shared by the victors and the vanquished; an occasion named the ‘third half’ by the French. Sports science and media scrutiny in the professional game brought this to an end but Hansen has compensated for its loss by inviting the opposition into the All Blacks’ dressing room after the final whistle and on-pitch handshakes. He explains his reasoning for this:

One of the important things to me about rugby is enjoying it. When you are in such a big pressure cooker as the All Blacks, it can easily be lost. The first thing we had to acknowledge was to stop and enjoy each test. We do that sensibly but we acknowledge we have played another group of men who have tried to do what we have done. So we say, ‘would you guys like to come in?’ Not all teams accept that. Some do and South Africa are one that always comes in. When we are over there, we go in. When I played, some of the best moments in rugby were with the guys who you have just gone 80 minutes with and you find out they are just like us. They are ordinary guys and you make lifelong friendships.”

Hansen’s focus remains on winning but also enjoying the sport and competing in a gracious and humble manner. Loose forward Jerome Kaino supports this notion when he explains, ” It [losing] is hard. You are competitive and you want to win all the time. You realise it is just a game and you come back to work on Monday and start the hard work all over again.”

Of course, all of this doesn’t just apply to the All Blacks. There are examples of good sportsmanship throughout the game around the world, but its importance seems to be coming to the fore again. It was heartening to hear pin-drop silence in the stadiums for most games this tournament while kickers lined up conversion and penalty kicks. Much attention was given to photographs of All Black Sonny Bill Williams comforting distraught Springbok Jesse Kriel after the South African’s 18-20 semi-final defeat. While his status as a media figure meant his action was highlighted, it was only one example of countless such gestures that happen after most matches by players from all nations.

Interestingly, England No.8, Billy Vunipola, speaking during England’s dead-rubber group match against Uruguay, suggested part of his team’s problem may have been a lack of time to bond off the pitch.

It’s a tough 12 weeks that we spent together. The best way to bond is when you go to the pub, have a drink and break down barriers. That would help people talk to each other about more than just who’s coming to the hotel on Friday, or things like that. You want to get to know someone on a deeper level than that because when you are on the pitch, it helps. I say that because when we play at Saracens that’s what we do. It might look like a fun, jolly time, but we build our memories together, we build bonds and bridges. It’s just as important off the pitch to be together and stay close….I think with the pressures of the World Cup after what happened in 2011 it was very carefully marshalled.”

Perhaps the financial pressures to achieve results in professional sport, and the accompanying expectation that those being paid will behave in a professional manner, have caused some of the social aspects of the sport to be abandoned. However, as Hansen points out, at the end of the day it remains a game and there still should be room at the end of the battle to show respect to, and enjoy a cold beer with, your teammates and opposition.

The next World Cup in Japan is an exciting prospect. By 2019, an Argentinian and Japanese team will have had 4 years experience playing in Super Rugby and, hopefully, the end-of-year test matches will be reviewed to give the ‘2nd tier’ teams more game time against the ‘1st tier’. So here’s hoping for a tournament in which: the referees’ decisions are final; ALL the groups are challenging and the ‘usual suspects’ all have to fight their way to the quarter-finals; the hosts Japan win 3 group matches again and actually advance this time; and good sportsmanship and the third half are as important as the results.

30th October 2015

Women’s Rugby World Cup: Refreshing Refereeing

Japan: Confounding Expectations

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Having recently returned from my second trip to Japan, I have frequently encountered the common perception amongst non-Japanese that the country remains at the forefront of efficient use of technology. During this visit, I was again struck by how far this is from the reality of the country: a place of fascinating contradictions which seems familiar while simultaneously defying expectations.

Rather than Japan being leaders in the use of electronic and digital technology to bolster efficiency, examples abound of underemployed staff members and paper-strewn computerless offices. In banks and public council offices, even in car hire companies, you are greeted by a helpful employee who tells you which queue to join or hands you a numbered slip for the waiting system; tasks performed elsewhere in the world by signs or paper dispensers. Once into the heart of such establishments you are struck by the lack of computer monitors on desks, at first assuming that tablets have been adopted, replacing their clunky, desk-cluttering predecessors. However, after being asked to complete and sign the numerous required forms, you realise that the majority of administrative tasks are still paper-based. It is not unusual in banks to see white-gloved employees transporting cash from one department to another on little metal trays, while expecting to be able to pay for goods and services by credit card remains a game of Russian Roulette. Overseas visitors may find this all results in frustratingly inefficient and time-consuming encounters but the locals are accustomed to it and take it all in their stride, gripe-free.

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Part of the explanation seems to be a simple case of job creation; with a population of 127 million people, Japan has a relatively low unemployment rate of around 3.5%. In spite of Japanese scientists’ work in the field of robotics, people have not been replaced by machines, as the country attempts to provide jobs for as much of the population as possible. This results in a staff member on every floor of multi-level car parks to usher you to a vacant spot and workers who direct traffic around roadworks, even at 2am, at points where there are already temporary traffic lights. Although having never officially been classed as a Communist country, there is much about Japan which feels familiar to anyone who has been in Russia, China or former Soviet countries: the concrete apartment blocks, the transport system timed to the second, the school children being drilled for mass games and the public announcement systems present in even the smallest of hamlets. This focus on the combined welfare of the population has been combined with, what some have speculated as, a distrust of the digital world. In the 1980s, through companies such as Sony and Panasonic, Japan was at the forefront of electronic technology, providing the world with its first walkman, laptop, VHS recorder, solar cells and LCD screen. Now though, in spite of one of the world’s highest R&D budgets, examples of innovation are harder to come by and their tech firms seem to have missed the boat in the digital arena, falling far behind companies like Apple and Samsung. While people in Japan have access to high-speed broadband, less than 40% of the population use it regularly, people are not taking up online commerce at the same rate as other countries and the development of website design seems slow, with sites being unwieldy and lacking in useful information. Some Japanese friends have speculated that the Japanese government, one accustomed to unchallenged authority, prefers that the population don’t have easy, unfettered access to the range of information and outside influence that the Internet provides. This theory could be supported by the Japanese education ministry’s refusal of Apple’s 1996 offer to provide computers for the country’s schools.

In many ways Japan feels frozen in the 1980s. Since the economic bubble burst in 1989, they have managed to keep their economy afloat and employ their ageing population but much of the country’s infrastructure now feels tired and worn. At the height of the entrepreneurial spirit of the 80s boom, coastal areas became littered with luxury hotels and spa facilities. Barely at the end of the summer season, these edifices now stand empty and shut up, contributing to the feeling of faded glory *. Meanwhile, areas associated with the bling and vibrance of Japan, such as the tourist-draw of Shinjuku in Tokyo, have an almost retro feel to them now, being places of nostalgia for a Japan that only really existed for a decade, no longer at the forefront of the modern age.

Remnants of the country’s technological past achievements still remain impressive, most notably the Shinkansen trains, which whisk people from city to city in complete comfort, their 300kmph motion virtually imperceptible from inside. However, the overwhelming impression the country gives is of one now content to exist apart from developments happening elsewhere in order to maintain a status quo. Perhaps, just as it did during the Sakoku (locked country) period from the 17th to 19th centuries, it is an attempt to circumvent excessive outside influence while doing what it can to survive the choppy seas of international economics and protect its own population.

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* (As an aside and a suggestion for anyone intending to travel to Japan, the coastal town of Toba in Mie prefecture, home to an aquarium and the Mikimoto pearl farm, provided the most mouthwateringly delicious, melt-in-the-mouth fish and seafood I have ever had. The Kaigetsu Ryokan, with its friendly hospitality and wonderful breakfasts, is highly recommended).

16th October 2015