Once again fate finds me back in Japan, wondering what I can enjoy eating here that I can’t enjoy back in lovable Leuven, Belgium, where one can have excellent cuisine of all kinds with a glass of well-made wine for a pittance (the norm is the Belgian franc equivalent of under 1,000 yen). It’s hard to think of anything, as Belgium sets a very high culinary standard.

Traditionally, months containing the letter ‘r’ are thought to be the best time to eat oysters.

Among the everyday Japanese treats, though, I much like good Japanese bento, the box lunches containing fish, meat, vegetables, often rice as well, or sometimes soba (buckwheat noodles). Those sold in good supermarkets aren’t bad, and the lacquer-box versions in restaurants can be memorable. Stepping up, kaiseki ryori, the elegant traditional Japanese box lunch, a cuisine-cum-art form, can be an extraordinary, if costly, indulgence. If you drink wine with any of these, keep it simple: a chilled dry white such as a riesling, Mueller-Thurgau, sylvaner, aligote or pinot blanc. Since red meat is minimal even when part of the bento, red wine rarely makes sense. In any case, go lightly with the soy sauce, as wine doesn’t get along with it.

One of the things that comes prominently to mind when I consider a wine-compatible year-round delight in Japan is fried oysters. Japan seems to have a way with this dish. Some say one should eat oysters only during months having an “r” in their name. If so, that leaves us with what’s left of February and then only March and April.

Actually, this rule applies primarily to the astrea oyster variety (Astrea edulis), a summertime spawner, edible in the warm months but not at their tastiest, plump peak. That notwithstanding, I like the “r” rule.

If fried oysters aren’t your thing, consider them naturelle on the half-shell. Japan’s Hiroshima oysters are very good, I believe, and a cut above their Sendai counterparts. With Japan depending so heavily on imported fish and seafood, I’m no longer sure where all the oysters are coming from, but briefly, let’s consider oysters in general and wines to match.

Oysters are of two genera: Astrea (mainly native oysters) and Crassostrea (those from elsewhere). Like wine grapes, oyster flavor is influenced by even slight changes in location. Just as the climate and weather affect a grape’s character, an oyster’s character is sensitive to the tides. (All this gives rise to such wide variations that oysters’ names, too, are changed.)

Oysters plucked from the American West Coast or the silt from a bay in southern Honshu or Portugal, then, may be as different as French Chablis and New Zealand Chardonnay. Those are good wines to enjoy, by the way, with raw oysters on the half-shell.

In deciding which wine to pair with raw oysters, consider such food-and-wine basics as flavor factors. Oysters on the half-shell don’t involve such flavor factors as cooking method, sauces and seasonings. You might say raw oysters are as close as a Western food concept ever comes to sashimi. Taste elements such as sweetness, acidity and tannin, together with fruit characteristics in the wine, are what count.

Oysters have a certain delicacy. With something sweet you’d want a wine as sweet or sweeter (e.g., a late-harvest wine). A dry wine might seem too tart. Flavor intensity is also very important. Rich foods such as game and red-meat casseroles call for a full-bodied red, but — note this — a full-bodied white would likely be better than a light red.

With oysters? Definitely you want something like a muscatel, a Moselle Riesling, or Chablis (Chablis, remember, is a region in Burgundy, not a varietal, and is made with the chardonnay grape). My choice with oysters might be the muscadet Sevre-et-Maine, a beauty with shellfish. Champagne? A medium-body dry, white brut with good acidity. In general, for oysters and other shellfish you want crisp, dry white wines.

For eating at home, buy only tight-shut oysters. Preheat them in an oven at 150 C for a few minutes, then pop them into cold water, and drain them. Don’t give oysters the “bucket blues” by storing them in a bucket of cold water. They’ll die, and so will your wine-and-oysters fantasy. To prevent drying out and opening, cover the oysters with a damp cloth.

Just around the corner, March 13-16 at Makuhari Messe in Chiba, you’ll find Foodex 2001, Asia’s single most massive and significant wine event.

Lest the somewhat clinical name Foodex 2001 sound like an irreverent pig-out by militant hordes of foodies, rest assured: It’s quite the opposite. This is a superserious food-and-beverage show centered on the trade, and it is enormously interesting and valuable for earnest wine lovers — if you can get in.

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