Reporting from Tokyo, where just last week FoodEx, the largest food and beverage exhibition in Asia, welcomed more than 73,000 attendees over four days. Samples were flying off the tables, gobbled and chugged ravenously, as suppliers and distributors from around the world wooed potential clients. We saw models and dancing mascots hawking everything from pickled fish eggs to Belgian beer, rose gelee to Krazy Salt. After hours in the throng of hungry exhibitiongoers, tasting and photographing everything halfway edible and drinkable, we've found the 12 Best Highlights From FoodEx:
12. Katsuobushi and Other Dried Fish:
No Japanese food exhibition would be complete without dried and fermented fish. This vendor included a range of fish, from bonito to Spanish mackerel to tuna. The smell is unmistakably smoky, potently fishy and strangely enticing.
11. Yuzu, Yuzu, Yuzu:
In Los Angeles bars and vaguely fusion-y restaurants across the country, an air of preciousness surrounds yuzu, a citrus fruit native to Japan. In its homeland, there's no such thing. Whether as yuzu vinegar, yuzu sorbet, yuzu juice or yuzu gelee, it's refreshing, unpretentious and fantastic.
10. Passion Fruit Wine:
Tida Sparkling is the first passion fruit wine we've come across, passion fruit allowed to ferment to become a lightly alcoholic beverage. It tasted singularly of passion fruit and came in small brightly colored glass bottles, sold by Hawaiian-shirt-clad representatives.
9. Packaging Reigns Supreme:
Packaging is everything in Japan, and it was no surprise to continually find food in its most adorable form possible, whether the box of green tea seen above or a junmai sake served in pale blue bottles fashioned to look like genie bottles.
8. Shochu and Awamori Tasting:
Shochu (Japanese distilled alcohol) and awamori (distilled alcohol from Okinawa) had a strong presence at FoodEx. This particular section organized shochus by the producer's region. Because each region tends to specialize in one or two styles of shochu, this setup allowed exhibitiongoers to taste the differences within each style. Whether made of sugar cane, buckwheat or sweet potato, it was easy to taste five or six different samples, showing off a huge variety of tastes and alcohol content ranging from about 40 to 80 proof.
7. Mushroom Tea:
Mushroom tea is made with a blend of mushrooms, including maitake (Hen-of-the-Woods) and shiitake mushrooms. On first sip, it tasted rather intensely of earthy mushrooms and finished with the familiar bitter notes of an oolong or buckwheat tea.
6. Rogue Ales:
Though many of the American booths featured run-of-the-mil food behemoths like General Mills cereal and Mission tortillas, Oregon craft brewery Rogue Ales made an appearance. Perhaps most surprising of all was the Santa Clause-esque figure working the taps, speaking exceedingly polite Japanese.
5. Light and Techno Spectacle, with a Side of Meat:
The most surprising exhibit of the show goes to Sukarne Global's techno-blasting and laser light-filled blow-up tent. Sukarne is ostensibly a meat supplier, selling beef from across South America. At the side of the music and light show were mascots and girls dressed in space age silver and purple costumes. They manned a digital photo area, where exhibitiongoers could pay 200 yen (about $2.44) to take a picture with them.
4. Japanese Wine:
"Its most remarkable quality is that it has no remarkable qualities," the very kind Huggy Wine representative explained while pouring wine samples, all made in Japan. "It's very drinkable."
If anyone was unconvinced of terroir's influence on wine, all they need are a few sips of these uniquely dry and austere wines to convince them. How much you'd enjoy them probably depends on how much you'd like remarkably unremarkable wine.
3. Cowboy Yamahai Sake:
In a reverse from the norm, Cowboy Yamahai sake will be released in California this spring and come to Japan sometime later. Though it's brewed to be paired with steak, it's far lighter and more delicate than expected. Beau Timken, perhaps America's most obsessive sake expert and the owner of San Francisco's True Sake shop, named the sake himself on a trip to Japan.
2. Corn Silk Tea:
Multiple vendors were selling silk teas throughout FoodEx. The initial taste was similar to Bugles corn snacks and quickly disappeared. Much like the mushroom tea, the lingering finish is similar to a buckwheat or oolong. Though once popular in America for its diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties, corn silk tea is certainly not as easily found in Los Angeles as in Tokyo, where bottles of the tea can be found in convenience stores and supermarkets everywhere.
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1. Ramen on Ramen Street:
As much we loved the incredible variety of food and drink samples, the highlight of FoodEx came outside of the exhibition itself. FoodEx is held in Chiba, a city adjacent to Tokyo in the east. A ride back home for many Tokyoites meant a transfer at Tokyo Station. For Squid Ink, that requires a stop at the famed Ramen Street on the basement level of the train station. Ramen Street features offshoots of eight of the most famous and well-regarded ramen shops in Tokyo, and its crown jewel is undoubtedly Rokurinsha Tokyo's pork and fish-blended tsukemen. While this wasn't really a part of FoodEx, after a day of tiny morsels, sitting down and slurping down a bowl of noodles was the ultimate highlight.