There Is No Melon in Melonpan
This episode is supported by JapanCulture•NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.
Toshiki quizzes Susan on sake vocabulary as defined in the sake glossary on UrbanSake.com and introduces his interview with its founder Timothy Sullivan. Timothy is a sake sommelier, a Japan Sake Brewer’s Association Sake Samurai, and the Official Brand Ambassador of Hakkaisan Sake Brewery. Toshiki and Timothy take a Japanese bread baking class with professional bread baker and NYC nisei Daichi Ebato at Cha-An Teahouse, joined by Friends of the Podcast including Japan Society Director of Special Events Christy Jones. Toshiki and Timothy talk about the science of sake making, the importance of craftsmanship in Japanese cuisine, and Timothy’s year-long stay in the city of Minamiuonuma in Niigata Prefecture, a snowy region of Japan notable for their tanrei karakuchi sake. Timothy shares his experience tasting premium sake for the first time at the Manhattan sushi restaurant Tomoe Sushi and reflects on the influence of his early education in German language and culture on his perspective on cultural respect.
Although Daichi’s training at the International Culinary Center was not in Japanese bread baking, his Japanese heritage inspired him to learn about Japanese bread. With an affinity for freshly baked or yakitate bread, Daichi currently works at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon and teaches New Yorkers how to bake shokupan, anpan, and melonpan. In Daichi’s class, Toshiki and Timothy learn the process of pre-shaping, resting, and shaping dough into the soft and fluffy shokupan, and they get their hands floury making their own dough. Together they discover parallels between the yeast culturing processes in sake and bread.
Daichi also busts a popular myth. There is no melon flavor in melonpan.
The Blue Door and the Green Bottle (The Big Root)
Fish Tale Has DNA Hook: Students Find Bad Labels (The New York Times)
Panya Bakery (restaurant)
Anpanman: Is the children’s superhero the best thing since sliced bread? (The Japan Times)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (movie)
Tim’s Corner (blog on Hakkaisan Sake Brewery website)
This episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige. Special thanks to Sakura Yagi and Eri Hotta for letting us record this episode at Cha-An Teahouse.
Toshiki Nakashige: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
TN: Welcome to The Big Root.
Susan McCormac: A podcast about everywhere Japaneseness. I’m Susan McCormac.
TN: My name is Toshiki Nakashige.
TN: Let’s start today’s episode with a game. The last time I interviewed someone was when I went to Brooklyn Kura with Rona Tison of Ito En (North America). We drank sake as we were recording, and we were slurring our words by the end of that episode.
SM: Yeah, that Blue Door…
TN: Well, I don’t have any alcohol this time. But you’ve been to a lot of sake events lately, like you had that Japan Society event where you had like 36 little cups of sake.
SM: It was 42.
TN: OK, my mistake. You have your blog JapanCulture-NYC. I recently read about “Sushigate,” where scientists at my university, by extracting DNA, showed that most sushi-grade fish sold around NYC wasn’t the type of fish it was labeled.
SM: Oh, that’s not good.
TN: That was kind of unrelated but cool, right? So at The Big Root, we’re all about cultural education about Japaneseness, so I want to quiz you on some sake vocabulary.
SM: All right, I prefer drinking sake to this game but…
TN: No, it’ll be fun. I’m going to say a Japanese word that has to do with sake or the brewing process, and we’ll see if you’ve learned anything from your sake events.
TN: OK, I’m going to start out really easy. The first one is “shiboritate.”
SM: Shiboritate. I know what it is; it’s like the cloudy…
TN: That’s “nigori.”
SM: That’s nigori. I know what that is because we had it at Brooklyn Kura. And I’ve had it a lot. Is it first press?
TN: Yeah, first press.
SM: OK. Yay!
TN: So the sake isn’t aged or cellared, but shipped directly after pressing. Or like it’s pressed like right in front of us, which was kinda cool at Brooklyn Kura. Ah, “hanahie.”
SM: Oh. I don’t know that one. Hanahie?
TN: Yeah. Well, it’s like the category of…
SM: Well “hana” means “nose,” so I’m wondering if that’s like…
TN: What’s the other definition of “hana”?
TN: Yeah. “Hie.” Hie’s the more…
SM: That’s a room. No, that’s “heya.”
TN and SM laugh
SM: I need to go back to Japanese school.
TN: So it’s hot outside but inside we want to “hieru.” We want to…
SM: Flower cool?
TN: Yeah. Sake can be served at different temperatures, and hanahie is one of those classifications, and it means sake temperature of around 51 degrees Fahrenheit but 10 degrees Celsius.
SM: I actually never learned that.
TN: It literally translates to like “spring flower” or “flower chilled.”
SM: Nice. OK.
TN: And then I think some of the other ones are like “atsukan” is like hot, hot sake. 50 degrees Celsius.
SM: That’s very hot.
TN: Yeah. “Jo-on,” room temperature. “Suzuhie” is “autumn breeze,” cool, which is 15 degrees Celsius. Yeah, so there’s a whole—I thought that was cool. Hanahie sounded pretty.
TN: OK. I like the context clues in the nose was close but far. “Nakadori.”
SM: “Nakadori.” Inside the road. Laughs
TN: Laughs. This isn’t like…
SM: These are not standard sake terms. I mean, not that the general public knows.
TN: So it’s the middle pressing or yield when separating the alcohol from the unfermented rice solids of the moromi mash, which is…
SM: See, if you’d asked “momori,” I would know that one.
SM: Moromi. Laughs
TN: Many consider the nakadori pressing to be the highest quality.
TN: This should be an easy one. “Kurabito.”
SM: It’s a person who works in a sake brewery.
SM: Ding, ding, ding! Pin-pon!
SM: Seimai. Everyday lifestyle.
TN: Refers to the step of rice polishing or rice milling during sake production. Any grain of rice that gets process for sake, like the outer layers need to be like milled away, and then the starch is revealed. The more there is milling, the higher quality it is. And then there’s different classifications from that. Umm, OK, actually two more. “Kagamibiraki.”
SM: Ah. Kagamibiraki is the ceremony, usually at the beginning of some kind of auspicious dinner or an opening of a store of something, where they have the big barrel of sake, and they bash it open with mallets.
SM: Kagamibiraki. It’s a ceremonial…
TN: Have you been to one?
SM: Oh yeah, several.
TN: We should have one for The Big Root.
SM: Yeah, we should.
TN: And then the last one. This should hopefully be the easiest one. Junmai.
SM: OK, that’s a classification of sake. There are all these different levels: ginjo, daiginjo, junmai. So I think junmai is kind of in between, in the middle of in terms of like whether it’s premium, or, the polish—it has something to do with how much the rice is polished?
TN: So there’s actually no minimum rice milling requirement for junmai.
SM: Oh, OK.
TN: It just simply means it’s only using rice, water, yeast, and koji.
SM: So the basic form of sake. Is Junmai. We’re done? We’re done. OK.
TN: Um, so I got these words from the sake glossary on urbansake.com, and that’s relevant to the interview I conducted for today because I spoke with sake sommelier and Urban Sake founder Timothy Sullivan.
SM: Timothy spoke at the Japan Society sake event I went to! He is an excellent speaker. He gave a delightfully educational presentation about different types of vessels used in sake drinking.
TN: Urban Sake is a blog that Timothy started after he had his first taste of sake in 2005 and became fascinated with the science and culture around sake. I’ll get into his story later on in the episode, but as dynamic of a speaker and cultural champion as he is, I wanted to create an interview setting that would help us engage in another aspect of Japanese culinary culture—Japanese bread!
SM: Both sake and bread are created using yeast. I see the connection!
TN: The Big Root Connection.
Timothy and I went to a Japanese bread making class at Cha-An Tea House. Cha-An Tea House is a restaurant in East Village that serves tea and desserts and also has an event space on the floor above.
SM: I rented that third floor space for my 50th birthday party! The food was delicious, especially the desserts. It was the perfect atmosphere to celebrate with some of my closest friends.
TN: You can rent that space out for birthday parties, but you can also attend classes like the bread baking class we went to, and Cha-An also hosts classes where you can learn how to make Japanese desserts. I saw on their website that there’s Japanese cheese souffle classes later in the summer.
SM: Sounds delicious!
TN: The bread baking class that we attended was taught by Daichi Ebato.
Daichi Ebato: My name is Daichi Ebato, and I’m a professional bread baker. Today we’re teaching a Japanese bread baking class.
TN: Daichi is a nisei from New York, and he started baking about eight years ago. He first got into the food world cooking at Japanese restaurants and learned how to bake professionally when he went to school at the International Culinary Center in New York. Daichi worked at Le Pain Quotidien for a couple years, where he harnessed a passion for teaching people how to bake bread. He started teaching classes at Cha-An in the fall of last year.
DE: Ever since then I’ve been baking, and I haven’t really looked back. And I’ve also gotten to really appreciate teaching people how to make bread.
TN: Bread isn’t an obvious example of a food that’s quintessentially Japanese, like sushi or ramen, but there’s Japaneseness in bread, too. Even though Daichi’s initial training wasn’t specialized in Japanese bread, his Japanese heritage motivated him to learn more and eventually teach classes like the ones he teaches at Cha-An.
DE: It’s in a course called The International, The Art of International Bread Baking, although it did not cover Japanese bread. But I was always seeking out, because of my Japanese heritage, to figure out what kind of bread is Japanese bread since then for so from there it was a little bit of research on my own to figure out what makes Japanese bread Japanese. And for the most part, I would say that all bread does stem from European baking, much like a lot of things in Japan stems from Europe. So after working around the city, I got an opportunity to work at Panya Bakery for a little bit.
TN: Panya Bakery is a restaurant down the street from Cha-An. “Panya” means bakery in Japanese, so it translates to Bakery Bakery.
DE: And there I did a little bit of research development, and it was there that I was able to really get a little bit more of a grasp of what Japanese bread is.
TN: I don’t remember eating a lot of baked goods when I was younger. But my childhood reference for Japanese bread was a children’s cartoon called Anpanman, where the title character was a superhero whose head was a red bean paste bun, and the other characters were other types of bread. I can’t say that bread is the first thing I recommend to friends going to Japan, but it’s surprising to some visitors the prevalence of bakeries there. It’s cool to see that Japanese bread is getting some recognition in the East Village.
DE: It was always an early childhood memory to, to snack on Japanese bread. Here in New York City, with the limited bakeries we have—I would say there’s only a few—and any time I was lucky enough to go to Japan as well, bakeries were something that I sought after.
TN: Daichi was setting up for his class at this point, and you’ll hear more from him throughout this episode. But I knew I wanted to ask him about the origin of his Instagram handle @yakitatedaichi.
DE: “Yakitate” means “freshly baked,” so I emphasize on freshly baked bread because that’s really the best bread there is. Doesn’t matter if it’s Japanese, European, fresh bread is the best.
SM: Fresh bread really is the best.
TN: About 15 minutes before the class started, Timothy and his partner, Scott, arrived. We invited 5 friends of podcast to take the class as well, including Christy Jones, Director of Special Events at Japan Society. Daichi’s classes usually accommodate 8 people, so you get a lot of individual attention! While people were getting settled in, washing their hands and donning aprons, Timothy and I talked a little bit about the microbiome.
TN: Microbes are everywhere. In addition to helping us brew sake and make bread rise, they’re also all over and inside our bodies! I note that I was testing out a new external mic for the iPhone, so the quality of my voice recording sounds a little grainy.
TS: So I saw on the website that you’re a chemist? So interesting!
TN: I love talking to people who are curious. Among several certifications, Timothy is a Sake Samurai, which is a designation from the Japan Sake Brewers Association, and he knows virtually all facets of the sake brewing process, including how yeast and koji are cultured and used throughout the process. Even though he didn’t initially get interested in sake because of the science, you can tell that he’s fascinated about how things we drink and eat are created.
TS: Well I would say that I’m not really gifted about understanding scientific things, but in order to be an educator in the world of sake, I’ve had to study all kinds of things: How, you know, champagne is made, and I just did a lecture about pairing seafood and sake, and I had to learn all about Ph and the acidity of seafood and why fish smells like fish, and how does sake neutralize that? And all this stuff, and it got a little scientific. Sometimes I have to open up a textbook, scientific textbook and learn about how certain things interact and what the chemicals are. It’s not my area of expertise, but it’s very empowering to learn those things. So it is interesting for me. I do enjoy continuing education and learning new things. The education I did for myself was kind of before I got any questions. I had to like imagine what people would ask me and then get up in front of 100 people and hope I covered the base. But it’s an interesting balance when you’re teaching non-science people something because you have to strike a balance between educating them, entertaining them, and making it understandable. If you talk too far over people’s heads or too below what they want to learn, you really have to strike a balance, and I think that takes some intuitive understanding of being a speaker, talking to people, being a teacher. So I think that skill is actually more important than knowing every atom and electron around every molecule, you know what I mean? I’ve been very well served with the time I’ve spent training to be a speaker and a lecturer and how to communicate things and being a little bit open to reading the room and seeing how people react to what you’re saying, and that kind of thing.
SM: I’ve known Timothy for a few years now, and I’ve attended many of his lectures. One thing about his presentation style is that he truly makes sake accessible because he describes the science behind sake in an educational but easy-to-understand way.
TN: Regardless of how much science we were going to talk about, Timothy was enthusiastic about attending Daichi’s class!
DE: So hi, welcome, everyone. My name is Daichi. I’m a professional bread baker.
TN: The class was in the morning, so the night before, Daichi prepared dough that we would bake during the class. With that dough, we made 3 different types of bread or “pan” in Japanese.
DE: …In a shokupan form, in a mini-shokupan form, as well as an anpan, a red bean-paste bun, and melonpan.
TN: The class is about 3 hours long. All 8 of the participants had our own dough to work with, and the way that the class is set up is that after you make shokupan, anpan, and melonpan, you let them rise and put them in the oven. In addition to the bread you bake during the class, Daichi teaches you how to make your own batch of dough, and you take home the bread you baked that day and also the fresh dough you prepared to bake at home! After Daichi introduced himself, we went around the table introducing ourselves.
DE: Tim, would you like to start?
TS: OK, my name is Timothy; I have never made bread before…
TN: Daichi asked us to share what our background in baking was. Our class ranged in experience from people who had baked bread before, to people who rely on boxed cake mix, to people who had no baking experience like me. What I brought to the table was my ability to follow an experimental protocol, which I think is useful in baking.
DE: So to get started we’re going to start with portioning out for our shokupan, our mini-milk bread pans.
TN: Daichi began the class by teaching us how to make shokupan, which is a milk bread that’s soft and fluffy. We portioned out 100 grams of the dough and made them in a small rectangular pan. Something that I learned was that tension was an important part of the process. Instead of just rolling them in a ball with two hands, there was a careful method of pre-shaping the dough into spheres, letting them rest for a few minutes, and rolling them in two to fit into the pan.
DE: So we all have two pieces at 100 grams, and now we’re going to go into a step I like to call “pre-shaping.” Basically, we’re going to lightly form it into a ball shape, and then after it goes through a little resting period, we will shape it again and put it into the molds we have.
TN: The way that Daichi described was that the protein in the dough, or gluten, needs to be pulled and relaxed in certain ways to create the texture of the final product. After we pre-shaped the dough, we set those pieces off to the side to rest.
DE: That’s a great question. So. With bread dough we have a protein inside called gluten. As it is a protein the more you work it kind of the tougher it gets. And so by letting it rest it’ll be easier to make it into our desired shapes later on.
TN: As Daichi described, allowing the dough to relax allows the gluten to soften again and makes the dough more workable to create different shapes. Ultimately how you handle the dough contributes to the overall texture at the end.
DE: We’re going to come back to our shokupan pieces, our 100-gram pieces. Hopefully you have kind of the pinched side or the seam side on the bottom. And to begin working with it and putting it into the pans, we’ll flip it over. I’ve prepared them with a simple spray of Pam, from there, we have our 100-gram pieces, resting with the seam side down. I’ll flip them over and then start to flatten it out a little bit, not too much, just kind of pick a way that it’s kind of rectangular, and then we’ll flatten it out using a small rolling pin. And then from here we’ll roll it up to put into our mold. We’ll place it in with a little bit of space off to the side. Any questions?
TN: After allowing the pre-shaped shokupan dough to relax for a few minutes, Daichi showed us how to press the pieces flat, shape them into rolls, and place them into the pan. Once we had our pans filled with two rounded pieces of dough…
DE: From here, they’re going to rise for about close to an hour. I’m going to set it up into this mini-rack here. Eri-san here has provided some hot tea water.
TN: We placed the shokupan pans into a covered rack over a hot tea water bath to prevent the dough from drying out. We waited for the dough to rise for an hour, and Daichi put the bread into an oven to bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 to 20 minutes.
DE: …boiling water in there. And then that can provide a nice warm and humid environment so the dough can rise.
TE: I stepped through the process of how we prepared shokupan, and I don’t want to spoil it in case any listeners are interested in attending Daichi’s class. But we also learned how to make anpan and melonpan. Like the cartoon Anpanman, anpan is filled with red bean paste, and melonpan has a layer of what’s like a sugar cookie on top, and it’s indented to look like the ridges in the rind of a cantaloupe.
The cool thing was that the principles of pre-shaping, relaxing, and shaping were similar across the three types of bread, so we got to practice handling the dough several times. Sometimes the dough got sticky, but using too much additional flour can dry it out, so it took some practice finding a balance.
I will say though, when I was planning the interview with Timothy in the setting of this bread making class, I didn’t realize how much concentration it would require. Both Timothy and I were so focused on working on our amateur bread making skills that, even when Daichi finished giving instructions and allowed us time to shape our dough on our own, we were diligently silent.
Ironically, it’s something I probably should have realized earlier because, in Japanese culture, craftsmanship, like in making bread, requires careful attention and oftentimes years and years of practice and dedication, and that’s a theme that came up early in my conversation with Timothy.
Timothy’s signature line is, “Sake is Japanese culture in a cup.” His introduction to Japanese culture was sake, and he had his first taste of premium sake at a Japanese restaurant in New York in 2005.
TS: It was here in Manhattan at a sushi restaurant called Tomoe, which is still open. And it’s a little bit of a not super-fancy place, but really great sushi, and on a whim I just ordered one of the premium sakes by the glass, and I remember having the sushi and sake together, and it was amazing. The tastes—it was one of the first experiences I had where a culinary pairing kind of really surprised me. And after that dinner I just kept thinking about it, and thinking about it, and it just stayed with me. And I ended up going back to the restaurant because I wanted to see, ‘What was that drink I had? What was that all about?’ So I went and I recreated the experience, and it was still amazing. And I have this fuzzy picture, you know, took a picture of the menu that was posted on the wall.
TN: After that first experience at Tomoe, he wanted to learn more about sake and eventually went on to create his blog Urbansake.com. Connecting with other people who were interested in sake and with Japanese sake breweries, he started to learn the Japanese language, and this path eventually led him to appreciate other facets of Japanese culture and history.
TS: I always say that “nihonshu,” or sake, was my entry point into Japanese culture, but everything else came after that. My interest in Japanese language, in Japanese craft and artwork, Japanese history, and it’s just a fascinating culture in general, and that all kind of came out of my love for sake.
TN: One thing that stood out to Timothy about the process of making sake was how much craftsmanship it required, and speaking to his interest in understanding the underlying science behind creating food, he explained that every step of the sake brewing process was carefully calculated and mastered after centuries of experimentation. Beyond this rigorous practice of making sake, he saw that many facets of Japanese cuisine and culture embodied craftsmanship.
TN: Is there anything like about the practice of making sake maybe that you find like generalizable about Japanese culture like are there principles?
TS: Absolutely, it’s shokunin culture. It’s culture of the craftsperson. And they do something regardless of how mundane or seemingly insignificant the task is, they do it to try to perfect the art of whatever they’re doing. And you see that across Japanese culture in many different places. You know I have met, I’ve different people making food at a restaurant, and they’re in charge of you know, making the seaweed salad. And they are concentrated 110% on that seaweed salad, and it comes out striving for perfection every time. And that kind of dedication to always getting better, knowing you’ll never achieve it, but always striving to be the best is really amazing.
TN: Before the class, I asked Daichi what his favorite bread to make was, and he said that liked baking baguettes. He said that baguettes require so much finesse that he feels like he will never quite perfect it, and he enjoys that challenge.
DE: To a certain extent it’s almost impossible to reach that perfection. I think in some ways that kind of mentality relates to a lot of Japanese craftspeople.
SM: This whole Japanese craftsperson torturing themselves to perfect that one elusive craft reminds me of the message in Jiro Dreams of Sushi where, in Japanese culture, it’s not about doing something just to do something. There’s a lot of intention behind someone’s actions. Apprentices spend years making the same type of sushi, and now Americans spend so much money on omakase because they love how much care went into each piece. Coincidentally, the apprentice in Jiro Dreams of Sushi who spent years making tamago yaki is a sushi chef at a popular restaurant in New York City.
TN: Because many parts of Japanese culture require such incredible levels of skill and experience, another theme that I thought about speaking with Timothy was how much dedication he must have had to become a sake sommelier. Because of the craftsmanship involved with premium sake, Japanese people have high expectations, and Timothy’s now a highly respected figure in the sake industry.
One notable accolade is that he’s the brand ambassador for the Japanese sake brewery Hakkaisan. Hakkaisan is located in a city called Minami Uonuma in Niigata Prefecture, and it’s named after a sacred mountain, known for its clear water springs and the amount of snow that falls in the area during brewing season. I asked him how he got involved with Hakkaisan.
TS: Well, the very first premium sake I ever had came from Hakkaisan. So that’s why I had an initial interest in that brewery. And then beyond that, I met the sales rep for Hakkaisan in New York in 2008, so a few years after I had their sake, and it was on my list of favorites. And then she invited me to come and visit the brewery. And so later that year I went and had lunch at the brewery and took a tour, and it was so beautiful there. And then from that point on, I began to have a connection with the people from Hakkaisan, and you know, I did a few jobs for them like writing some English tasting notes, and we stayed in touch, and I did a few lectures for them. And when the point came in my career that I wanted to live in Japan and do a one-year internship, I approached the president and asked if he would consider it, and to my surprise, he said yes! But it basically evolved over eight years.
TN: We’ve featured Japanese and Japanese American people on The Big Root, but Japaneseness also influences people who aren’t of Japanese descent. Just as the founders of Brooklyn Kura in our first episode, Timothy is a white American person who ended up pursuing a career revolving around sake and spent time in Japan. Based on how he describes his experience becoming a sake sommelier, I get the impression that Japanese sake brewers were excited that an American person was interested in their craft, but knowing that Japanese society is relatively homogeneous, I was curious whether Timothy ever felt like he stood out in Japan as a white American.
TS: The reactions from people at breweries have ranged from excitement to see a non-Japanese person interested in what they’re doing to kind of shock. Like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re here! You’re interested in this?’ And very, very rarely someone who might be like, ‘Oh, you know, what does this guy want here?’ Like you know, not 100% convinced someone from outside Japan could be truly interested in it. So it’s been a range of reactions.
SM: I can relate to what Timothy says about getting a range of reactions from Japanese people in Japan. As a half-Okinawan person, especially with a last name like McCormac, I don’t seem obviously Japanese, so I’ve had some negative interactions, especially when I’m visiting more rural areas. But the positive aspects of Japanese culture outweigh those awkward moments that it’s not something I dwell on too much.
TN: We at The Big Root welcome everyone, regardless of their degree of Japaneseness.
During the year he spent at Hakkaisan, he had a blog series on the Hakkaisan website called Tim’s Corner, and the posts ranged from topics that had to do with the specifics of rice milling for sake production to how umeboshi, or pickled plums, are made. One of the posts has to do with natto.
TN: Do you like natto?
TS: No, I don’t.
TN: Natto is fermented soybeans that’s traditionally served with rice. I grew up eating natto as a kid, so it has a nostalgic feeling to it. But several roommates have asked me not to eat it at home because it smells bad. And most Americans I know who have tried it as an adult don’t like it, including Timothy.
SM: Me neither.
TN: The soybeans are fermented with a bacterium called Bacillus subtilis, and sake breweries actually prohibit eating natto because this microbe can contaminate sake.
TS: And I always have this great excuse built into my career.
TN: In Tim’s Corner, he also describes learning about origata at a local shop. In simple terms origata is a traditional way to wrap gifts with paper without using scissors or tape. Timothy admires the practice of paying attention to the needs of the receiver. In origata, gifts are wrapped so that they are easy to open. For example, a bottle of sake would be wrapped in a way that you can hold the bottle in one hand and, with the other hand, easily open the wrapping with a single pull. Timothy said that he never adopted origata in his own giftwrapping rituals but learned to incorporate that principle in other parts of his life.
TS: When I do something professionally, that stays in my mind, like if I’m running a meeting or if I’m designing something on my website, how will the user interact with this? I guess the modern term for it is UI, User Interface.
TN: That’s actually a good—I think people understand a badly designed app. Essentially, a poorly wrapped gift is a badly designed app.
TN: The virtual origata that I practice on The Big Root is to wrap a three-hour bread baking class and an interview into a digestible and entertaining podcast episode that goes straight to your device.
Timothy’s experience at Hakkaisan taught him about the perils of natto and the purity of origata, but I wanted to talk about his expertise: premium sake. There are different types of sake, and those differences can be because of how much the rice is milled and whether it’s been pasteurized or aged. We’ve heard of junmai, namanama, and shiboritate from our sake tasting at Brooklyn Kura in Episode 1, but Timothy also described unfiltered, or nigori, which comes out cloudy because of the unfermented rice. There are more than a thousand different sake breweries in Japan. Some breweries are known for a specific type of sake, but Timothy explained that generally sake breweries make a variety of types of sake that span styles and price points. For Hakkaisan...
TS: Hakkaisan is really famous for making what’s called “tanrei karakuchi” or clean, crisp, and dry sake. It’s the regional style in Niigata. And Hakkaisan is one of the, I think, the leaders in that style of sake.
TN: And could you describe that?
TS: Sure. It’s sake that’s made generally with snowmelt water, so it’s super-soft, low-minerality water.
TN: The one sake I’m familiar with is the Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years. This region in Niigata gets a lot of snow, and there’s a facility called the yukimuro where a huge mound of snow is stored. This particular type of sake is kept cold at three degrees Celsius (37 degrees Fahrenheit) for three years using only snow and no electricity. Have you had this sake before?
SM: I have, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Hakkaisan is one of my favorite brands, and it’s because everything they produce is so elegant, and their snow-aged sake is no exception.
TN: For our next podcast recording, I’ll bring a bottle of that.
SM: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. One of my newest favorite Japanese things in New York is The Noguchi Museum, a hidden gem in Long Island City that is dedicated to the life and work of Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Actually, for the next episode of The Big Root, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Sarah LaFleur, founder and CEO of women’s clothing company MM.LaFleur, in the garden at The Noguchi Museum. It’s a bit of a pilgrimage from the nearest subway stop, but if you have the chance, in addition to their permanent collection and their outdoor sculpture garden, you should go to see the latest exhibition, Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan. It ends on Sunday, July 14. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
TN: At this point, we took a break, and people washed their hands and refilled their tea.
DE: OK, so, now we’re going to take like a small break. You can scrape off any flour…
TN: During this break, I asked if anyone else had questions for Timothy.
DE: Well, I want to know so, how is yeast introduced in sake making?
TN: There was a real bread baking and sake education crossover happening.
TS: Most brewers are going to buy the yeast from a supplier, and it arrives at the brewery in a vial about the size of a Chapstick. So we need to grow that vial into a larger amount of yeast. So the first step in making sake is actually called the yeast starter or the fermentation starter…
DE: Oh! That’s a lot like a sourdough!
TS: Yes. And you make a small batch of sake. You put in water, rice, koji rice, and that little vial of yeast goes in. And over the course of two weeks, you grow the yeast colony up to fill that small tank. And that’s the starter. And what they do with the yeast is they actually torture the yeast. I don’t know if you do this in the bread world. They raise and lower the temperature every day during that two weeks, so the dead yeast that are weak are going to die off, and only the strong yeast survive this temperature variation. And that produces the healthiest colony of yeast.
TN: In Japan, rice is harvested in September and milled before the fermentation process, and the sake brewing happens during the colder winter months to prevent spoilage.
DE: Alright, so to get back into the baking…
TN: As I mentioned earlier, we waited for our shokupan, anpan, and melonpan to rise, and in the second half of the class, we brushed egg onto the tops and sides of our shokupan.
DE: Eggwashing. So I’m making sure that I get the sides so I don’t have kind of like a beach-tan look.
TN: And we put them into the oven!
DE: So we’re going to go one in each oven.
TN: As our bread was baking and set out to cool, we prepared our own dough. I don’t know why I had the idea that it would be really complicated, but it was straightforward. And Daichi provided us handouts with comprehensive instructions.
DE: So we have our dry ingredients in front of you. We’ll introduce liquid ingredients when we’re ready to make the dough.
TN: We combined flour, milk, water, eggs, yeast, sugar, salt, and butter.
DE: Once you have the flower in no high speed, just stir. This won’t mix long, you just kind of want to hear—listen for the flour to get mixed in. Then we’ll wrap it up.
TN: Daichi demonstrated making dough with a Kitchenaide, and he also taught us how to prepare dough with our hands.
DE: So once you have most of the dough combined, you should have some kind of sticky dough on your fingers.
TN: Kneading dough by hand is a lot harder than it looks. I didn’t want to use too much extra flour so that the dough didn’t come out too try, so I ended up with dough all over my fingers.
DE: Toshiki, yeah, you now have two hands. So, more flour. Tim, you’re almost there. Here, you can get a little more flour.
TN: After the ingredients combined, we started kneading the dough on the table.
DE: We’re going to take it out of the bowl to start kneading it…
TN: The idea is to get the dough to become one consistency, and when it’s ready, the dough will go back to its shape if you press on it. Daichi described an elegant way to knead the dough, but it was just a free for all for me to get the lumps out of mine.
DE: I’m going to come around to check everyone’s dough.
TN: The small class setting was great because you got individualized attention, but when he was going around the table to check on how we were all doing, I was afraid that my dough wouldn’t pass the lumpy test.
DE: Another couple minutes there. Very good.
TN: I was nervous when you’re going around.
DE: Nah, nah, you just need a couple minutes, too. Everyone’s doing really well.
TN: Well we all passed the lumpy test, and Daichi wrapped our dough with plastic wrap to take home!
DE: So once you’re feeling confident with your dough, you can bring it to me, and then I’ll wrap it up so you can take it home.
TN: I think the second half of the class ended up taking more concentration than the first half, but in between me scraping off dough from my fingers, I asked Timothy about his recent sake events. We mentioned earlier that Timothy spoke about sake drinking vessels at Japan Society in New York. Along with major cities in California, New York is a primary market for sake in the United States, but he described the growing interest in sake in other areas of the country. He was in Atlanta for the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival the week before the bread class.
TS: It’s growing very much, but there’s the primary markets, and secondary markets, and I would even say the tertiary markets. Primary markets are New York City, LA, San Francisco that have a very robust, educated population. In the secondary markets, there’s a growing interest, but people have a lot of education questions. When we were at the Food and Wine Festival, I would say that a good 25% said, ‘I’ve never had sake before. Educate me.’
TN: He also spoke at SXSW in Austin earlier this year, and
TS: I was asked to do a lecture recently in Cincinnati, Ohio. Like that’s a place I never thought I would go for sake. And you know, I find that there’s always a connection betwen a growing interest in Japanese cuisine, and then sake kind of rides the coattails of that.
TN: Did you end up going to Cincinnati to give that lecture?
TS: I did! They were very excited to have a sake lecture and sake education come to them. It was really enjoyable.
TN: He also explained that, at some of these events, he’s the only sake table.
TS: It’s like pushing a boulder up a hill sometimes. There’s a lot of other things vying for people’s attention. But you have to start somewhere. One table this year. In a few years maybe it’ll be a whole little section for sake.
TN: Just like our episode with Rona Tison from Ito En and the founders of Brooklyn Kura, a central theme is education, and although we’re spoiled in New York with so much institutionalized knowledge of Japanese cuisine, Japaneseness is spreading.
SM: I’ve certainly found that through my blog and my involvement with the Japanese community here, people just want to share their knowledge about the culture, whether it’s food and drink, language, history, or some aspects of the arts.
TN: Even though Timothy now has established a name for himself as a sake sommelier, his career path didn’t always point in that direction. Nearing the end of the class, I asked him about what he was doing before he had his first taste of sake at Tomoe.
TS: In college, I studied German language and literature. I lived two years in Germany. But I didn’t want to become a professor; I didn’t want to go into academia. So I was coming into the workforce right when e-commerce was coming out. And my first job was at Barnes and Noble bookstore. I worked for the website, and I became the director of web development for BN.com. So I had a corporate, I had a corporate job in e-commerce, computer stuff, web development, and I did that for eleven years. During my time at that corporate job, that’s when I had that first sake experience. And over time I would, you know, do my day job and in the evenings and at night I would go out and have my sake adventures. And then eventually I decided to leave Corporate America and do sake full time.
TN: Timothy went from an eleven-year corporate e-commerce career that had nothing to do with Japanese culture to a lifestyle involving educating both Japanese and non-Japanese people about Japanese cuisine and, a highlight of his career, getting invited to take Japanese bread making classes. As I was conducting this interview, I thought about how there are parallels between Urbansake and what you set out to accomplish starting JapanCulture•NYC.
SM: Absolutely. After spending most of my life not knowing anything about Japanese culture, practically every aspect of my life now has something to do with Japan. And JapanCulture•NYC is an extension of my curiosity about all things Japanese, and like Timothy and Urbansake.com, I love sharing it with others
DE: Thank you, everyone for coming! Thank you Toshiki and Tim for being here. Traditionally we do a group photo while you’re holding one of the breads that you created. Can we do that?
TN: After the class, as everyone was taking photos of their yakitate bread, I followed up on Timothy’s background learning German and studying in Germany. I think learning about another culture, regardless of which culture it is, makes you more open to new experiences.
TS: I was a high school exchange student in Germany. So for eleventh grade of high school I moved to West Berlin back in the ‘80s, and I lived with a German family. And they gave us some training back then, and one of the things they taught us when you become an exchange student is that you have to meet your host culture where it is. You can’t change it; you’re there to learn about it and about the people there. So you cannot change the way another culture lives its life or does its thing. And that lesson proved invaluable my whole life. So that high school exchange experience really informed a lot about the way that I’ve led my life and a lot of my interest in foreign cultures. And when I discovered sake and this deep, rich culture behind it, that was always in the back of my mind. That I’m not here to affect sake culture or change it one way or another, but to learn about it and study about it. And when I became a brewer and I lived in Niigata for one year, I said to myself every morning, you know, ‘You’re not here to change the way things run or make things run better.’ And there were certainly things that were done a certain way, and I was left scratching my head, ‘Why do they do it this way?’ but I always approached it with a profound sense of respect, whether it’s, you know, how you line up to board the train, or the way that they have their morning meeting every morning to prepare for the day at work, all these cultural things that I was experiencing, I may not have agreed with all of them, I would do this differently from my cultural perspective, but I tried very hard to respect, every day, what I was learning. And I knew that my time there was very precious. A year sounds like a long time, but it goes by very quickly, so I wanted to really soak in as much as I could and approach it from a real point of deep respect for what I was having a chance to learn there.
SM: I think that’s a wonderful message about cultural respect. Timothy gets it. When I travel to Japan, I sometimes encounter foreigners who complain there isn’t enough English spoken, or they don’t understand why they can’t substitute something on the menu of a restaurant. But listening to your interview, I realize I’m not perfect, either, and I need to practice more empathy when I’m in Japan as well.
TN: Yeah, I think cultural respect goes both ways. Anyway, that was the end to the three hours with Daichi and Timothy, and I learned so much. Throughout the interview, Timothy would refer to the sake he tried at Tomoe as “premium sake.” I learned that there is an official definition to premium sake in Japan, like no flavors are added after the brewing process, and that there are fewer regulations in the United States as to what constitutes as premium.
Also, the feedback we received from the other students of the class was overwhelmingly positive. I just wanted to read a note from friend of the podcast Christy Jones. She says, ‘I’ve always considered myself a fairly good cook and baker, but bread has always intimidated me. The class helped me get over that hurdle and gave me the information and confidence to try to make bread at home. (I actually have a bench scraper and apron in my Amazon shopping cart.)’
I think most of us still have our take-home dough in our freezers, which Daichi said is good frozen for up to a month, but during the class, friend of the podcast Alexis Sanborn asked Daichi if she could make cinnamon swirl with her dough. And she did later that day!
Thanks to Sakura Yagi and Eri Hotta from Cha-An Tea House for letting us record a podcast episode there. And of course, thanks to Daichi Ebato for teaching us how to make bread. Follow him on Instagram at @yakitatedaichi. I detailed some of Daichi’s work history earlier, but in addition to Le Pain Quotidien and Panya Bakery, he worked at Hot Bread Kitchen, a non-profit bakery that helps to train low-income and immigrant women to pursue baking careers. As he mentioned, Daichi now works at…
DE: L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon.
TN: His current boss is a Japanese baker named Tetsuya Yamaguchi, and Daichi spoke about how special it is to be able to learn from a Japanese craftsman.
The most notable moment during the class was when Daichi busted a widespread myth about Japanese bread. There is no melon in melonpan. It’s just called that because of the shape.
TS: Yeah, this is news to me that there’s no melon flavor in melonpan. I did not know that.
DE: Yeah, there are some bakeries in Japan that do do that, but the classic way is zero melon flavor.
TN: Special thanks to Timothy, his partner, Scott, and friends of the podcast for coming to the class! My favorite Japanese bread is melonpan, and the one I baked was crispy and so good. Susan, I also gave you the shokupan I made.
SM: That was the best shokupan I’ve ever had. I took it to my TV job and shared it with my coworker, and he loved it too.
TN: Tasty. Listeners, please sign up for The Big Root Mailing List at thebigrootpodcast.com/subscribe. We have exclusive updates and live event announcements!
SM: As always, we love to hear from listeners of The Big Root, so reach out to us at our website thebigrootpodcast.com or on social media!
TN: We’re actually going to record a couple episodes based on listener suggestions, so your feedback is important to us.
SM: All this bread talk is making me hungry.
TN: So next time, would you rather me bring a bottle of Hakkaisan? Or some pastries from Panya Bakery?
SM: Why can’t we have both?
TN: The Big Root is an independently produced podcast.
SM: The theme song was performed by Kento Iwasaki, and this episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige.
TN: For more information about the podcast, please visit thebigrootpodcast.com.
SM: I’m Susan McCormac.
TN: My name is Toshiki Nakashige. Thanks for listening.