When I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley, I taught a class called Female Sexuality with some of my fellow schoolmates (yes, everything you’ve heard about Berkeley is true). As my work with food and drinks seldom crosses into the realm of sex education, few people know this about my background — including my parents, who will probably ground me retroactively the next time I visit them.
But circumstances have at last conspired to merge these areas of expertise. In honor of Valentine’s Day, my editor has asked me to write about intoxicating Japanese aphrodisiacs (or, to use his words, “seductive sake, brazen beer and shaggable shōchū“).
Technically, any alcohol can function as an aphrodisiac. The inhibition-lowering effects have been well documented, most likely on your own Facebook wall. Recently, researchers at Durham University in northern England revealed that the “beer-goggle effect,” where inebriated people view others as more attractive, actually exists.
Alcohol, of course, isn’t the only thing reputed to have libido-enhancing properties. On Valentine’s Day, couples around the world will feed each other chocolates, slurp oysters and splurge on caviar — all in the name of love. Science backs up some of the claims, but efficacy varies (largely due to how much you believe something will work). As in matters of love, when it comes to food and booze, together is better than alone. With that in mind, here are some amorous pairings with which to woo the object of your desire.
Raw oysters have been regarded as an aphrodisiac for centuries, and in 2005 researchers discovered that the bivalves are rich in amino acids that stimulate the production of hormones such as testosterone. While Champagne is a common pairing, sake is an even better match for their creamy texture and umami-rich flavor.
Emi Hasegawa, who oversees sake and wine service with sommelier Noriko Yamaguchi at the modern kaiseki restaurant Jimbocho Den in Tokyo, recommends KID Daiginjo Orange Label from Wakayama Prefecture. “The soft aroma and crisp finish match raw oysters served with lemon or sudachi citrus,” she says. To accentuate the briny aroma of the oysters, Yamaguchi suggests Hakugakusen Junmai Daiginjo Yamada Nishiki 40, a smooth brew from Fukui Prefecture with elegant umami.
Although there’s nothing romantic about the custom of giri-choco — which obliges women to give chocolates to their male coworkers or schoolmates on Valentine’s Day — high-quality dark chocolate contains a substance that triggers the release of feel-good endorphins. Chocolate and port wine is a no-brainer, but chocolate also works well with Japanese whiskies, which tend to be round and sweet, such as Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt 12 YO or Hibiki 12 YO blended whisky. Bourbon with a light and fruity character, like Basil Hayden’s 8 YO from Kentucky, is another great match.
The capsaicin in chili peppers stimulates endorphin production, elevates heart rate and makes you sweat — reactions that mimic the feeling of falling in love. Spicy foods work well with beers that have a bold hop profile and upfront bitter notes. Ry Beville, who publishes the magazine Japan Beer Times, recommends Baird Beer’s Suruga Bay. “It has wonderful complexity and a well-balanced body that in some ways accentuates the flavors of the food,” he says. Other good choices include Shiga Kogen House IPA, Minoh’s Double IPA and Aqula Beer’s Kiwi IPA.
Many foods, such as figs and peaches, are viewed as aphrodisiacs because of their appearance. Imo-jōchū (sweet-potato shōchū), says bartender Gen Yamamoto, is a natural match for figs. Yamamoto seeks out fruity and rich styles such as Tomino Hozan, Hozan Ayamurasaki, Yaki-imo Kurose and Tachibana Genshu from Miyazaki Prefecture. “The fig’s sweetness is good with the sweetness and full flavor of imo-jōchū,” he says.
As we often pointed out in Female Sexuality, the largest erogenous zone is the brain. With its spine-covered skin and bug-eyes, fugu (puffer fish) doesn’t look sexy, but psychologists claim that the delicacy’s titillating associations with danger, coupled with its rarity and luxurious image, are a turn-on. Champagne has a balance of acidity, fruit and yeasty complexity that complements the subtle flavor and silky texture of the fish (I’m partial to Krug). With fugu sashimi, wine expert and journalist Anna Lee Iijima also recommends a “delicate, minerally Koshu from Japan,” in particular the un-oaked versions from Grace Winery and Diamond Winery in Yamanashi Prefecture.
No matter what you decide to eat and drink this Valentine’s Day, just be sure to enjoy it in moderation. Nothing kills desire faster than a food coma and a hangover.
Love is chocolate
Last October, at an event showcasing products from the Setouchi region in western Japan, Singaporean pastry chef Janice Wong topped sake-infused chocolate bonbons with spoonfuls of caviar from Okayama Prefecture. The saltiness of the caviar, she explained, would resemble the sprinkling of sea salt that often accompanies chocolate truffles. The pairing worked marvelously, thanks to the harmonious combination of the chocolate and the sake. Wong’s caviar- and-chocolate bonbons are not for sale, but chocolate truffles made with sake from the Kyoto-based company Baikal are available at Isetan department stores.