February 22, 2013

Brown Sugar from Okinawa

From The Art of Eating no. 79

credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

An important building block of Japanese savory cooking, along with shoyu (soy sauce), miso (soybean paste), rice vinegar, and sea salt, is sugar. A small amount always appears in sushi rice, noodle soup, stock for braising shellfish and meat, and sauces and dressings for parboiled or grilled vegetables. It not only adds sweetness but cuts acidity, bitterness, and saltiness, creating a deep, balanced taste.

One day I was preparing a typical noodle broth, using the finest quality kelp and flavorful artisan-made shoyu, and about to add the required sugar, when I stopped and stared at the snowy granules. Why was I not using a wholesome counterpart of the same quality as the other ingredients? I recalled the brown sugar, made in Okinawa Prefecture, that my sister in Tokyo once sent me. This sugar had an unforgettable, mellow sweetness along with a particular molasses taste and surprising traces of the very qualities it ameliorates. The 200-gram packet held about 30 compacted, irregularly shaped, thumb-size pieces. The taste was so delightful that I could not keep from snacking on a piece day after day until they were all gone. I never did use this sugar much in cooking, and I couldn’t buy it then in the United States. (It is sold in some stores here now and available online at mitsuwa.com.) I stopped making my broth and went to the grocery store and brought back several kinds of brown sugar made in America and other parts of the world. But none offered the same exciting flavor as the Okinawa sugar.

Unlike common American brown sugar, produced by adding molasses back to refined white sugar, the Okinawa brown sugar, kokuto, is made simply by slowly cooking down pure sugarcane juice. During the last 15 years, throughout Japan kokuto has attracted an audience thanks to its health benefits and its distinctive, complex, sweet flavor.

Kokuto was first made at the beginning of the 17th century, when it was all consumed by the small local population. Today, taking advantage of kokuto’s boom in popularity, some companies purporting to make the real thing are using inferior imported brown sugar or adding caramel color and chemical flavors to a blend of processed white and brown sugars. To protect the quality of kokuto, in 1975 the Okinawa Prefecture Brown Sugar Industry Council began to award a recognizable mark only to the companies that produce the true, high-quality brown sugar.

Okinawa Prefecture, situated south of the southernmost main Japanese island of Kyushu, consists of over 160 islands, only 48 of which are inhabited. Just seven of those make sugar. I am so fascinated by kokuto’s characteristics that I went to Okinawa to see for myself how it is made. After landing at the airport in Naha, the capital, I transferred to an airplane accommodating only nine passengers and the pilot, and took the 20-minute, 60-kilometer flight to Aguni Island. The plane’s tiny window looked out on crystal-clear, coral-studded green seas. Aguni, a mere 763 square kilometers, or about the size of Manhattan, has a population of about 900. Unlike other islands in the region, with resort developments and overrun by tropical-climate-seeking and water-sports-loving tourists, Aguni remains untouched and untainted. Its airport is surrounded by an extensive field of sugarcane. Five minutes away is Okinawa Prefecture Aguni Brown Sugar Co-operative Industry, founded in 1958. The slender, tanned factory chief, Kobashigawa-san, noted that I was lucky to be there in mid-March and not a few weeks later; I hadn’t known that brown sugar production runs only from January 7 to the end of March.

During that period, starting around five o’clock every morning, sugarcane farmers, including Kobashigawa-san, harvest one-and-a-half-year-old canes, cutting them, which range from six-and-a-half to ten feet tall, one after another by hand with a sickle. This is time-consuming and labor-intensive, but is necessary because the canes do not grow straight and become tangled during harvesting. To prevent oxidation and maintain the quality of the sugar, the cane must be processed that same day. Waiting outside the factory building were many large mesh bags delivered by farmers and packed with kibi, sugarcane.

A factory worker checks the cane for sugar content. That decides the purchase price (the more sugar, the higher the price the farmer receives), promotes easy, proper production, and assures the quality of the product. Kobashigawa-san was very pleased that day. The sugar measurements were all over 20 degrees Brix. “Satisfactory! It’s thanks to sufficient rain last year. When the figure is lower than 18, it takes a long time to cook down the cane juice.”

An employee on a tractor equipped with a crane began moving piles of sugarcane, already taken out of the bags, into the huge roller milling machine. Next to it, a worker in a hooded white plastic suit had the sole task of transferring the pressed cane back to the machine for a second pressing. “We use only the pure, best part of the cane juice that has been extracted from twice-pressed sugarcane,” said Kobashigawa-san. “Other factories press the fibers more times to extract more juice. During this process water is sprayed over the sugarcane for maximum extraction of the juice. This produces a greater volume of liquid, but the diluted juice produces poor quality brown sugar.” Depleted sugarcane fiber was piled high in the next room. An employee, completely covered by bits of it, shoveled the fiber into the mouth of the basement boiler, which otherwise uses oil for fuel, to cook the sugarcane juice. The newly pressed juice was combined with an alkaline mixture of limestone and water to raise its pH to 7.2, which helps to separate the impurities from the rest of the juice. If not adjusted, the end product is more moist and prone to molding.

Kobashigawa-san took me inside the factory, where at eight o’clock each morning the cooking of the treated juice begins. In eight large stainless-steel cooking pots, the liquid is gradually concentrated as its boiling point rises. In the first four pots, the temperature reaches 100 degrees C; in the fifth and sixth pots, it rises to 110 degrees C; in the seventh, 120 degrees C; and in the final pot, 135 degrees C. At each of the first four pots, an employee, using a long bamboo pole with a steel bucket attached to the end, stirred continuously to prevent the juice from burning on the bottom. The hot liquid swish-swashed like the water in a cruise ship swimming pool on a rough day. The workers stirred and transferred the boiling juice from one pot to another, using long bamboo poles with buckets at the end, as the temperature rose and the volume reduced, at the same time pouring more alkaline-adjusted cane juice into the first pot  — not an easy job, as was clear from their red faces. Each day this cycle continues for almost 10 hours without a break. The second-to-last pot is noshuku-nabe, the reduction pot, in which the cane juice becomes a thick syrup, before being super-reduced in shiage-nabe, the finishing pot. There the highly viscous cane juice acquires a deep, greenish, shiny brown color and a caramelized aroma with a tinge of green leaves. Not only does the cane arrive each day with a different degree of sweetness, but production is affected by the day’s weather  — sun, rain, more or less humidity, and temperature. Rather than use specific times or temperatures to decide when to transfer the cane juice from one pot to another and when cooking is completed, the long-time employees rely on their eyes and experience.

A worker transfers the finished sugar to a centrifuge that cools it as it removes additional moisture. Kobashigawa-san pulled a small portion of the freshly made brown sugar from the spinning machine. On my first bite, I was struck by the sensational fragrance and the strong grassy flavor. This was followed by a subtle sweetness with a tinge of saltiness, bitterness, and acidity. For the first time, I could connect the flavor of sugar to an actual plant. This fresh “green” taste is sadly ephemeral, disappearing after a few weeks. Fortunately, the true essence of kokutoremains. Properly stored in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, it maintains its most important characteristics  — that saltiness, bitterness, and acidity along with a molasseslike sweetness.

Kokuto plays an important role in Okinawan stir-fries, stews, soups, salads, and noodle broths. To make rafti, a dish of tender braised pork belly, simmer gently a one-pound (500-gram) whole piece of pork belly with water to cover for one hour, or until the pork is tender; cool in the pot with the cooking liquid. Separate and discard the fat, cut the pork in two-inch cubes, and return it to the liquid in the pot along with three cupsshochu (distilled rice alcohol) one-half cup (75 grams) kokuto, and three tablespoons shoyu. Continue to simmer gently for an additional one and a half hours. The pork belly of that rafti acquires a refined mellow sweetness that never can be achieved using granulated white sugar.