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Searching Kyoto for the holy grail of Japanese rice vinegar

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Special To The Japan Times

Akihiro Iio, now in his late 30s, is the fifth generation of his family to run Iio Jozo, a venerable vinegar house outside of Kyoto. Using locally grown rice, the Iio family has been producing vinegar in Kyoto for more than 120 years, and since the early 1960s their output has been 100 percent organic.

After World War II, Japan Agriculture pushed chemical fertilizers and insecticides on farmers to ease the difficulty of traditional farming and increase yields. Iio’s grandfather began to notice that there were no insects or little fish in the flooded rice fields of the farmers that grew rice for his vinegar. Alarmed, he set out to convince them, one by one, over a period of two years, to convert to organic farming methods — something that was highly unusual at the time. The fact that Iio’s grandfather was able to persuade not just one farmer but several is a testament to the man.

But that kind of mettle runs deep in this family. Iio’s father developed a 20-year-long obsession to create premium vinegar with unparalleled nuances. The basis for this obsession was his disappointment that some of his customers did not appreciate the high quality of his Fujisu vinegar. They were put off by the pronounced aroma of rice in the vinegar caused by the higher concentration of rice in his mix: 200 gram per liter rather than the 40 gram per liter used for inexpensive vinegars produced by large companies. He could not, in good conscience, decrease the amount of rice in his vinegar, so another solution had to be found. In 1998, his son, Akihiro, attended graduate school to study the components that make up vinegar aromas and, after graduating and spending five years experimenting, was able to create a premium vinegar without the unpleasant smell. Akihiro came to understand that if the aroma of rice was bothering some customers, then he should increase the other components that form the aroma profile. He also increased the amount of rice per liter from 200 gram to 320 gram. I have not tasted a softer rice vinegar and use it when I want the vinegar to shine on its own, such as on raw fish or vegetables.

Iio Jozo is an anomaly in the current crop of rice vinegar makers and arguably the best. There are 400 vinegar makers in Japan and roughly one-third of these companies make their vinegar in-house. The others buy their vinegar from large companies such as Mizkan or Marukan. A handful of the 130 or so companies that actually make vinegar also brew their own sake, which ensures they have control over the fermentation process. The rest buy inexpensive sake or combine ethyl alcohol with amazake (sweet, slightly fermented rice drink) to produce their vinegar. Most of these cheaper vinegars are machine made, but Iio Jozo vinegar is made by human labor every step of the way. These are the men that make it: Iio, the young scion of the family; Fujimoto, the brewmaster; Imai, the koji (spores that encourage fermentation) master; and Ito, the rice master.

I spent two days at Iio Jozo watching and participating in the koji-making process. The warmth and dedication of those four men was apparent in the supportive communication between them. They all wore a dapper “uniform” of dark blue jeans and white T-shirts, with light cotton cloths tied around their heads, which contributed to the air of brotherhood. Each young man valued the others and it was clear that the job of making sake was a deeply honorable one.

Iio Jozo is the only vinegar maker in Japan that has its own local farmers growing organic rice for them over a six-month period. Every other part of the process takes place on their premises. Even the bran from the milled rice is used on the rice fields as fertilizer. Their top-quality sake is brewed in a 100-year-old building over the course of 40 days using equipment built 50 years ago. The sake naturally ferments into vinegar over 100 days and then rests for almost one year in covered tanks outside. For large vinegar makers this brewing process is shortened to only a month or two.

Before taking a tour around Iio Jozo’s vinegar-making facility I was escorted into an elegant tatami-matted Japanese house where visitors are received. As I waited, Akihiro bustled about readying what looked like a sushi-rice tasting.

First he dumped the steaming rice into the handai (wooden rice tub) and then immediately began cutting into the rice pile and spreading it, allowing it to cool. I was intrigued. The accepted method of making sushi rice involves fanning and cutting the rice, and sprinkling it with sweetened vinegar at the same time (difficult with only two hands!).

Akihiro explained his philosophy: It is crucial to sprinkle vinegar, then gently cut the rice with the rice paddle — and never mash it. The reason not to fan right away is to allow the vinegar to penetrate the rice kernels more fully. Also, he used his own Red Sushi Rice Vinegar, a blend of Iio Jozo’s blue label premium vinegar and red vinegar (pressed from aged sake lees), and didn’t add sugar.

Akihiro spread a bit of rice across the surface of an exquisite Ariake nori with a pair of chopsticks. He roughly fashioned a roll and handed it to me. The nori crackled loudly as I took my first bite. The taste of the sea balanced well against the round vinegar profile of the rice. No need for sugar here and no need for fish — the “sushi” was perfect as is.