North Korean Wine

North Korean Wine

Category : Food

Tensions are very high between North and South Korea right now, with chances of a political rapprochement appearing slim. Yet not that long ago, relations were good enough for a rail line to be built joining the 2 countries.

For almost a year, starting in December 2007, one freight train a day crossed the border, taking materials from the South to the Kaesong Industrial Region, and returning with North Korean goods. The line never carried passengers, and now looks like it never will, but the shiny, immaculate station of Dorasan still stands on the border, and some of those North Korean goods, the guides say, are still available at the souvenir stands in the waiting room.

It is tricky to get into the DMZ at this point, but a guided tour will give you half an hour or so to wander round Dorasan.  It looks just like a miniature airport building, complete with customs barriers for international arrivals and departures, and although it is standing empty everything is ready to go again at a moment’s notice. It demonstrates the apparent wish of South Korea for peace and a friendly relationship with their neighbours in the North.

And there are indeed some interesting items on sale at those souvenir stalls.

Never one to pass up a shopping opportunity and possible new taste experience, I snapped up some North Korean wine. It’s made from wild grapes, is ‘organic’ in that chemical fertilisers and pesticides are presumably hard to come by in the North, and has so many floating bits that it suggests they don’t have filters up there, either.

But never mind, this is not something you can pick up any time at the local off-licence.

When it came to sampling this, however, I was sadly disappointed. I mean, I wasn’t seriously expecting it to taste like a French wine, but I was hoping it would actually be drinkable. Unfortunately, the sealing process had failed – the screw top was not just loose but also impossible to remove without resorting to brute force and a knife.

I have no idea when this wine was bottled, but it had empathically not survived very long. The smell was atrocious, and a tiny drop convinced me that this was more like battery acid than wine and drinking it might be a really bad move. I’m afraid it went down the sink.

Still, as a curiosity, it was definitely worth a shot.


Drip Tea

I was sceptical at first… this looks like nothing more than an attempt to hijack the ‘origami’ coffee trend for tea.

It’s the same ‘rip open at the top and pour hot water in’ bag, suspended by dinky cardboard arms over the sides of your cup. How could it possibly be any different from a tea bag?

But I was surprised and delighted. It may simply be the quality of the tea, which comes from the mountains of Imari in Kyushu, and whose leaves are apparently wrapped whilst budding for a ‘sweet undertone with a sublime taste’. It may be the quality of the filter, which is very fine mesh rather than paper.

Whatever the reason, this was the nicest green tea I can recall tasting – delicate, aromatic and fresh. The poster that caught my eye promised this would taste and smell like green tea steeped in a pot, because the way the filter opens out gives the leaves chance to unfurl and thus produce a deeper flavour than they would in a normal tea bag. It seems this was right, and I will be rushing back for more.


Flavour Changing Ice

Here’s another wrinkle that improves the fast-moving, boundary-pushing cocktail scene in Singapore – ice cubes which change the flavour of your drink as they melt.

My ‘Frozen in Time’ cocktail came with a block of ice embedded with fruit and herbs. As it melted, a succession of different tastes made the already fruity, wine-based cocktail subtly change through a series of sweet, sour and slightly bitter variations.

My only complaint was that the ice was frozen so hard I had to struggle to keep from draining my glass before I had tasted the full range of the melt-in flavours, but I suppose this is the only way they can keep the different layers in the right place as they construct the cube.

This was just one item on an amazing menu of locally inspired cocktails from Hopscotch at the Red Dot Museum. I will absolutely be back to try more…


Seasonal Sakura

Christmas can start as early as September in the UK, with decorations going up and seasonal specials on sale. Cadbury’s crème eggs have even been spotted in October, many months before Easter…

It’s not quite as bad in Japan, but still – despite the February snow – the spring time cherry blossom is hotly anticipated with posters, decorations and products submerging Tokyo in pink.

There are even seasonal brews from the big beer companies, with the limited edition cans adorned with shiny flowers.

Starbucks coffee shops also prove to be no exception, with these delightful if very creamy sakura flavoured specials on sale already. Daughter #1 was persuaded to sample the latte, which came with festive pink sprinkles, but not the sakura chiffon cake complete with blossom bud.

Her verdict: who can tell what cherry blossom really tastes like? The best drink by far was a regular hot chocolate topped with pink blossom shaped marshmallows.


Lavender Tea

Would it have been unreasonable to hope this tea was actually lavender in colour?

Probably… although I was a bit disappointed to discover there was very little by way of lavender in the smell and taste, either.

The flower fields of Hokkaido in summer are as gorgeous and famous as those in Holland, with lavender in particular a major crop. Farm Tomita at Naka Furano is one of the biggest producers, and over the years have managed to turn their flowers into a range of fascinating products ranging from bath salts to candy and flavoured sodas.

It’s a while since I visited the actual farm, but they have a handy outlet at Sapporo’s New Chitose airport, where I snapped up a few new things to try. As tea goes, this is perfectly refreshing, but nothing out of the ordinary – you have to focus hard to detect a glimmer of lavender flavour. But it makes for an interesting souvenir and (especially since Hokkaido was knee deep in snow at the time) brings back happy memories of summer.


Sweetcorn Tea

Another Hokkaido speciality, from the Tsuchikura company which is based in Sapporo, this corn tea looked like a suitably unusual item both to snap up as a souvenir and also mail easily to daughters who were not lucky enough to be out in the wilds of Japan.

A bit of background research revealed that corn tea is thought to have all manner of health-giving properties, from weight loss to blood sugar stabilisation. It is even said to be a powerful diuretic, so that no more than one cup a day is recommended… None of these things appeared to be mentioned on the back of the packet, however.

Having been appalled by the sweetcorn ice cream which is very popular up here, I was expecting the worst with this, but ended up being pleasantly surprised. The tea had a nice roasted smell and the sweetness of corn, whilst still retaining a distinctly ‘tea’ flavour. It reminded me very much of other (non green) Japanese teas like barley and roasted rice, which I enjoy once in a while.

I won’t be buying more any time soon, even if I do go back to Hokkaido, but this was fun to try.


Collagen Coffee

Category : Food

There’s a growing number of food and cosmetic products laced with collagen, all of which promise to slow the aging process by boosting the production of this structural protein in your body. I know you have to take these claims with a pinch of salt, but then I see something new and feel I have try it out…

So here is collagen coffee, fresh from Thailand and apparently containing goji berry extract as well for added anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Careful perusal of the packet reveals that each sachet of instant coffee contains 7% collagen and 5% goji, which is actually more than I was expecting. More than 65%, however, is dairy creamer, as this is one of the 3 in 1 instant drinks so beloved of SE Asians.

There are scientific studies out there which delve into the helpfulness or otherwise of consuming collagen, and the general consensus seems to be that your average female would need to eat around 10g a day to see any effect on their skin.

There is so little collagen in these sachets that you’d have to drink more than 50 cups a day to achieve that amount, which is plainly ridiculous. But maybe every little helps…

Anyway, facing up to one of those days where there was more to do than energy available, plus a deadline looming, I decided the moment had come to give this product a go.

And it was not half as bad as I was expecting, for the first half cup. Then a strange after taste began to creep up on me, which I suspect was more to do with the artificial sweetener than anything else, and in the end, I had to pour the rest away. The packet is still in the cupboard, but I am keeping it for emergencies only.


Drinking Ants

Singapore is currently in the throes of a cocktail revolution, with bars doing their best to outshine each other with ever more unusual offerings.

One of the latest openings is Native, which aims to source as much as possible from local or at least Asian manufacturers. This means fresh ingredients foraged from nearby, including coasters cut from leaves, ceramic drinks containers and batik edged aprons made by local artisans, and spirits originating in Asia rather than international brands. Think Thai whisky, Indian rum, and Sri Lankan arrack…

There are also the ‘shock’ additions to capture your attention. Like the TCM performance enhancing tongkat ali root whose extract is a key part of the Red Light District cocktail. Or the crunchy ants on a leaf which tops the Antz – this one served in a ceramic ‘anthill’ and including a nitro component which gives you ‘dragon’s breath’ to contend with as well as the actual ants.

Native is also a ‘secret’ bar, more or less invisible from the street unless you know which door to try and that there really is something exciting at the top of the stairs. I suspect I will be going back until I have tried everything on the menu!


Weasel Coffee

Currently giving Jamaican Blue Mountain a run for its money as the most expensive cup of coffee you can buy, ‘weasel’ coffee is something that divides the men from the boys.

I have lost count of the people I know who have recoiled in horror from the thought of trying this, which is a shame although understandable.

The problem is that the coffee beans have been through the digestive tract of the weasel, which in certain SE Asian countries has learned to steal the ripe berries from the coffee bushes as a delicious and stimulating snack. The beans inside the berries are deposited later and have to be ‘harvested’ from the weasel poo before going through the usual roasting and grinding process.

I have no idea what prompted the coffee farmer who discovered this to actually try it in the first place, but it has become a premium product. And I guess the high price is justified by the trouble you have to go through to retrieve the digested beans, which – even if you ‘farm’ them by feeding the berries to caged weasels – is still fairly disgusting.

Also, however you get your hands on the beans, there are never very many of them so they have a rarity value, not to mention that they need extra treatment to make them fit for human consumption.

In the end, is it worth it apart from the shock value? I would say it is. The flavour of the resulting brew has a richer, mellower taste, which makes it a better drink.

Mind you, as weasel coffee tends to come from Vietnam and other SE Asian countries where the beans often have a more sharp, sour flavour then the classic S American varieties, this is probably an important improvement.

You can now get weasel coffee in all sorts of forms, from the beans or basic grind to the fancy ‘origami’ coffee filters which balance over your cup as they drip. It also comes in varying grades and strengths, and even from specific areas. (My most recent purchase of’ kopi luwak’ – not the one pictured – is sourced from the slopes of the Kintamani volcano in Bali, which makes it even more interesting.)

As I first had this in Vietnam, where coffee comes sweetened with a big dollop of condensed milk, I tend to drink it this way at home, too. And when they have it in the supermarket, I can use the ‘stay fresh longer’ tubes of chocolate flavoured condensed milk to make myself a weasel mocha. Perfect!


Hospital Coffee

For such a tiny island, there is a great deal that is unique about Singapore. The city state, barely 50 years old, has managed to blend a diverse collection of races, religions and cultural heritages into something spectacular and instantly recognisable.

Often, I take this for granted, then something unexpected will catch my eye and bring it all home again.

So I present the free coffee machine in one of the waiting areas at Singapore General Hospital, where I spent a fair amount of time over the recent holidays (husband with dengue fever, daughter needing minor surgery…).

Some of the drinks on offer are standard – coffee, cappuccino, latte, mocha – but look more closely and you’ll see some decidedly local options there as well.

Teh Tarik means ‘pulled’ tea, and in street-side stalls you can see the tea being poured from a great height between 2 containers to improve the flavour by mixing the tea and milk really thoroughly. The smoother texture and frothier top are an added bonus. Heaven knows how they achieve this through a machine, but many Singaporeans are addicted to 3-in-1 packet mixes of both tea and coffee, so this is presumably very similar.

Milo is a chocolate malt drink which is ridiculously popular here, especially when served topped with a great heap of the undissolved powder, making it a milo ‘dinosaur’. Obviously this isn’t going to be possible here, but full marks to Nescafe and SGH for providing a spot of extra comfort to bored and worried locals.

(The mocha, incidentally, was really very good.)


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