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What more do you want? A Yuntaku

Two Italians are the creators and producers of the first "ethnic" bitter of Japanese inspiration

It is the first bitter made with raw materials imported from Japan and then processed in Italy. It is called Yuntaku, a name that originates from the Japanese term meaning "chatter": a saying typical of the taverns of Okinawa, in which at the end of the dinner they used to shout, in fact, "yuntaku!" to start drinking and chatting among the guests. As for the new spirit, we are talking about the first bitter inspired by Japan, ultimately the first bitter "ethnic" that part of Italy.

Its creators are Benedetta Santinelli and Simone Rachetta, and the idea of the project was born with a trip to the island of Okinawa, on the East China Sea, and to Aka, an island of the same prefecture. "This is where we discovered the goya -says Simone Rachetta-. Walking through the streets of the old port of Okinawa we came across some banquets characterized by signs with this vegetable above, which looks like a lumpy cucumber, in a doctor’s coat".

The goya, climbing and tropical plant of the cucurbitacee family, also known in Italian as "bitter melon" has, in fact, strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, even more than our pomegranate. In Okinawa, as well as being the basis of its cuisine, it is sold at banquets and widely consumed as an extract, useful for headaches, menstrual pains and other types of ailments. Among the botanicals used for Yuntaku, in addition to goya, there are Sichuan pepper, Jasmin tea, ginger, galanga, which is part of the same family of ginger, sour cherry (from sour cherry), hibiscus and cardamom.

"Intrigued, we taste this extract and discover that it is bitter -Rachetta continues. We like it a lot, and so we bring some seeds with us at home, in Italy. Here my mother asks me, literally: 'but why don’t we plant them?' I’m skeptical, the island of Aka is tropical, nothing like central Italy. Yet in the garden the seeds grow, and I begin to prepare extracts".

"We have always been friends and in one of our evenings between laughter and relaxation, telling us about this beautiful journey -continues Benedetta Santinelli- we taste the extract and, beyond the very strong bitter note, very peculiar in a vegetable, I perceive something more, something really special. It is there that, talking about it, we begin to think about using it as a bitter base for a liqueur. Although in different areas, we have been working for and in the world of alcohol for many years, and for us it was almost mathematical to arrive at this idea. Or, as we like to say: it was the very idea that got to us."

The idea turns out to be a real egg of Columbus, and makes Benedetta and Simone aware of the fact that there is, in fact, a bitter that is inspired by a different culture from the Italian one. Considering then that the oriental meal, and in particular the Japanese one, is very trendy, the next step is to notice that there is no digestive that is in line with the food, embracing at the same time the western taste.

"Bitterness, we know, is a traditionally Italian product, while the taste of goya is absolutely recognizable by the Japanese population -explains Rachetta-. The feedback we have received is that Yuntaku is very much appreciated, and the person who drinks it tends to require it. Moreover, there is to consider the fact that the premises dedicated to Japanese cuisine, usually, prefer to offer products of an Asian character: ours, in short, breaks an open door".

Yuntaku has been designed to be a fine meal, but it is also true that there are no limitations. The bartenders interviewed were very attracted and intrigued: the first experiments were done in combination with sake and super classic revisited as the Japanese Boulevardier and Yuntaku-tonic. The possibilities, in short, are many also in mixology, and all open.

Going back to goya, as we said, in Okinawa it is held in very high regard, and it is the main ingredient of chanpuru, a representative and widespread dish made with tofu paired with vegetables, meat or fish, often used as a source of energy and nutrients during the hot summers of the island. Goya is so popular that there is even a fast food restaurant that makes goya burger. There is also a special festival where goya is celebrated, which is held on may 8 each year.

"It’s a bit like tomato in Italy, it’s really part of the local culture -says Santinelli-. Inevitably, therefore, our Yuntaku generates a lot of interest there. We just returned from another trip to Japan, and the feedback was amazing. Goya had never been used inside an alcohol, and this for the Japanese was a pleasant and surprising novelty, also because it is actually extremely consistent with their culture and tradition".
Benedetta and Simone’s project starts at the most complicated moment, in full lockdown. 

"We did a thorough research, exploring among all those spices that are native, or at least strongly used in Japanese culinary culture -recalls Santinelli-. We did tests, infused various kinds of spices and flowers, made selections. All this with the collaboration and help of friends Eleonora De Santis (mixologist) and Riccardo Tuttolomondo (herbalist), and with the owner of the distillery where we rely, or the historic distillery Paolucci Sora, in the province of Frosinone".

Goya and other spices are infused separately, with various balances of durability and quality for each ingredient, with a rather complex production process, which obviously includes a secret part. It should also be noted that the percentage of sugar is 15%, very low compared to that of other bitters.

"We use only cane sugar: something that nobody does, at least among the most important and widespread bitters -Rachetta emphasizes-. It is not a random choice, but a specific tribute to Okinawa, where there is a very high production of cane sugar, although little known abroad. A typical product of the island, in addition to goya, is the cane sugar syrup".

Speaking of future projects, Santinelli and Rachetta cultivate the ambition that the Yuntaku represents the first of a series of concrete experiences, that illuminate a new concept of bitterness. This category has, they say, so much richness from the point of view of tradition, but it has never been questioned, as if we had settled a little on the laurels of a bitter digestive that "has always done so". 

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EFA News - European Food Agency