When the Chu-Hai Blooms

April 1, 2010 | By | COMMENTS

When the Chu-Hai Blooms 1
Ah, spring in Tokyo, and the markets brim anew. New potatoes, new ginger, new onions. Everything seems fresh and clean.
A trip to a nearby city park can douse that cleanliness in a second. Springtime in Japan is all about hanami, a time to gather under the blooming cherry trees, eat snacks and get pretty well shellacked with your friends and co-workers. Hanami, which means flower-viewing, can be a full-time occupation for the 10 or so days the cherry blossoms are out. People cut work, reserve spots starting from 6 a.m. in the biggest parks, and have take-out delivered throughout the day. The sakura are breath-taking, both for their uniformity and impeccable timing. Nearly every park, walkway, cemetery, shrine and temple has its fair share of cherry trees and each one bursts at almost exactly the same time. It’s my favorite outdoor alarm clock, even better than the first snow, and it’s worthy of some serious celebration.


Thus, meet the chu-hai, my culinary notice that spring has arrived. Chu-hai is a cocktail, an easy mix of fruit flavor, simple syrup, club soda and shochu. Sake, we all know, is Japanese rice wine. Shochu is its big brother, a liquor usually made from wheat, rice or potato. Sake’s alcohol content is usually in the mid-20s. (By comparison, a pale ale is usually 6 percent, red wine 15 percent or so.) Shochu is up in the 30s, not as strong as western whiskey but clearly able to sneak up on you and make you think three hours of karaoke is a really good idea. (What? It is, I tell you.)
So, to cut down on the bad renditions of Madonna and without sacrificing the good times with friends, some smart person began mixing shochu in a high-ball glass with tea or juice. This being Japan, a nickname quickly ensued: chu from the liquor and hi (or hai, pronounced the same) from the glass. The elixir – light, bubbly, tart, with almost no taste of alcohol – was a hit. It’s now sold in vending machines and convenience stores throughout the land. Grapefruit and lemon are the most common flavors, but the seasons bring revolving tastes. Apple and pear in fall, peach in summer, and plum and cherry – obviously – in the spring.
If your local vending machine doesn’t dispense chu-hai, don’t fret. Find a Japanese grocer, a liquor store with an interest in sake, a decent sushi counter. Ask those folks where they get their bottles of shochu. It’s probably been right there on the shelves all along. I made a grapefruit one the other night, infused with ginger syrup (on the stove, heat equal amounts of sugar and water with ½ cup of raw ginger, sliced, for about 20 minutes) cause that’s what I had. But you can mix and match as you like. And, because you can vary the flavors with the seasons, you can most definitely drink them all year long.
Grapefruit chu-hai with ginger syrup
1 jigger shochu (I used a wheat one, that has a lighter taste)
1 jigger freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
½ jigger ginger syrup (or simple syrup)
Pour over ice. Top with club soda. Stir, sip and smile.

Categories: Recipes