Now if you have never seen Austin Powers you probably wont get the reference in the title. Hopefully you got that this article is about Sake, the traditional Japanese alcoholic drink. Now this beverage is still rather foreign to me, as I have always been more of a beer and wine drinker, but the longer I live in the land of the rising sun, the more I become intrigued with this nationally ubiquitous drink.
When I traveled to Takayma earlier this year with my family ( See also Hida Gyu. A lesser known Japanese beef for more info on Takayama restaurants) I was able to sample some of the local Sake, and I’ve got to tell you, it wasn’t half bad. For a couple hundred yen (2-5 dollars) you can grab a box, yes that’s right I said box, of locally brewed sake. I was overwhelmed with the variety of sake and also the difference in taste and texture. So, I decided that I need to familiarize myself more with it and I wanted to share with you what I have managed to find out so far…
What is sake?
Sake is basically fermented rice wine. To brew Sake is not an easy feat. You need complex knowledge and training to create a beautifully tasting finished product. The first step is to convert the starch in the rice to sugar, then the sugar is converted, using yeast, into alcohol. The season for making sake is Winter and even the type of water used during the fermentation process is key to achieving a unique and delicious taste, much like when making other types of alcohol.
How is sake different?
Most adults in western countries have tried wine, beer and other types of alcoholic drinks. Each of them have unique tastes, alcohol content, health benefits and draw backs. Sake differs from the most common alcohol (wine and beer) by having a higher alcohol content at around 15%. Sake has quite low acidity levels, but is very high in amino acids. The high amino acid count contributes to the “umami” taste found in sake. Umami is a Japanese word used to describe a perfect culmination of all the different taste senses and it is also one of the most commonly used words in professional kitchens and breweries all over the world today. This umami helps make sake a great pairing for a number of different dishes, not just Japanese food, but Western food as well.
Sake and food.
Japanese cuisine is very unique when compared to other Asian countries. It does not tend to use herbs, most of the dishes are mild in flavour, and they don’t have a lot of spice to them. Most of the tradition Japanese food is usually raw, pickled or fermented. The great thing about sake is that it pairs really well with these types of food. Most countries around the world use salt, pickling and fermentation to create different types of dishes, making sake a perfect choice to pair with your next meal. Sake is also used a lot in the cooking process. A certain form of sake called “mirin” is commonly used in Japanese cuisine. It has a lower alcohol content to the type of sake you would drink and it helps add a nice sweet flavour to the dish. If you have ever tried REAL teriyaki chicken, then you have tasted the effects of mirin in cooking.
Types of Sake.
There are around 1,500 producers of sake in Japan and because of all of their unique geographical locations and varying climates they are able to produce a wide range of sake. Here are the main types of sake you can find:
- Ginjo-shu – A highly refined, specially made sake with a mild fruity taste.
- Junmai-shu – Made using rice and rice koji (aspergillus mold), it has a rich taste.
- Honjozo-shu – Well-balanced taste and flavour. Made from rice, rice koji and specific amounts of neutral alcohol.
- Nama-shu or Nama-zake – An unpasteurized sake that has a very fresh flavour.
- Nigori-zake – This is a cloud y sake that has a soft pleasant taste and mouth feel.
- sparkling sake – A more modern take on sake, very popular served chilled.
- Long-aged sake – A mellow taste with special flavours.
In researching Sake I managed to find out a lot of information that I did not know before. It’s given me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the alcohol that I see almost every day living in Tokyo. I hope that anyone reading this, next time you go to a bottle shop, liquor store or supermarket to buy some booze for the weekend or just a quiet night in, you will consider getting your self some sake.
For more detailed info on Sake please head over to the National research institute of brewing (NRIB), Japan website, or you can check out the Japan Sake and shochu makers association webpage.