Saturday, 2 August 2014

Sold on Sake

A short holiday was spent exploring the city of Nagoya, and probably eating too much food than would be considered healthy. My host for the day expressed amazement when just an hour and a half after a multi-course lunch I pronounced my readiness for the next gustatory adventure. Could you blame me though? This was Japan, known for its rich culinary heritage and devotion to perfection, where a single wrongly placed fern in a delicately arranged dish could cause serious consternation.

No one should go to Nagoya without trying its famous Hitsu-mabushi, or grilled eel with rice. Served with a variety of seasonings including seaweed, green onions and wasabi, the simple dish can be eaten in one of three ways; as is, with a mixture of all three seasonings, or with a mixture of all three seasonings and clear fish stock. There are two convenient locations in the city to try this dish which are both in department stores, Atsuta Horai-ken on the 10th floor of Matsuzakaya (South Wing) and Bincho on the 8th floor of LACHIC. The latter has a window through which you can see the chefs preparing the eel.

Japan is also famous for sake, commonly called rice wine. This is a misnomer, as the production of sake bears more similarity to beer than wine. The main ingredient of sake is rice, of which the variety Yamadanishiki is the most popular. The rice has an internal starchy core called shinpaku that must be converted into sugar before the yeast can work on it. Before the fourth century this was achieved through a method known as kuchikami-sake, where rice or other cereals were chewed and then spat into a container. The amylase enzymes present in saliva converted the starch into sugar. Wild yeast present in the environment then fed on the sugar and turned it into alcohol.

Fortunately, modern production methods are more efficient and hygienic. The conversion of starch to sugar is now achieved through koji-kin, a black mold that is sprinkled onto steamed rice to make komekoji. Steamed rice, water and yeast are then added to make shubo, or yeast starter. The next step is the fermentation itself, or danjimoki, a three-step process of mixing the shubo with steamed rice, komekoji and water over four days. The mash is called moromi, which is then pressed, filtered, pasteurised and bottled.

There are two broad categories of sake which are futsu-shu and tokutei meisho-shu. Futsu-shu is ordinary table sake and accounts for the majority of sake in the market while tokutei meisho-shu refers to premium sake with special designations determined by the National Tax Agency. The specifications for tokutei meisho are shown below (with thanks to the National Research Institute of Brewing).

Seimai-buai refers to the degree of polishing the rice has received. For example, a seimai-buai of 40% has had 60% of the husk polished away. The outer husk contains proteins and oils that are not desirable to the production of delicate sake thus the more polished the rice, the more refined the taste. Beyond a certain amount (around 35%) however the taste of the sake does not improve and the cost rises significantly. The picture below shows the various degrees of polishing.

(photo credit: Hakushika Sake)

The Japanese take their sake seriously, so much so that each season brings about a different type of sake. In autumn hiyaoroshi is drunk, a sake that has been pasteurised once and aged from the preceding winter. From winter to early spring shiboritate, or fresh sake, is consumed. This is sake that has just been pressed and bottled, often without pasteurisation. In hot summers, a chilled glass of namazake (unpasteurised sake) is most welcome. There are also unfiltered (nigorisake) and sparkling sakes available. The former has a milky texture while the latter tends to be sweet and low in alcohol, though not always.

Being light, smooth and delicate, sake is an ideal companion for many Japanese dishes. Its flavour dissipates rapidly (unlike wine, a long finish is not a positive trait in fine sake), making it a great drink to reset the palate between courses. In combination with fish dishes in particular, sake has the effect of mellowing the fishy taste to create a more balanced flavour.

No comments:

Post a Comment