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att. Culture - The Charm of Sake
att. Culture - The Charm of Sake
att.JAPAN Issue 19, November 2004

The Charm of Sake

SakeAmano Umashine, Dewazakura, Aizumusume, etc. Any sake connoisseur will tell you that there are an infinite number of flavors to enjoy in sake.
Try for yourself and experience the variety, the taste, the overall pleasure that real sake provides.

Sake is fermented, much like wine. But unlike wine, a drink that is produced worldwide, sake is produced almost entirely in Asia alone, and then only on a small scale when compared to wine. An industry based predominantly in Japan, it relies on the fact that the ingredients can be none other than rice, and in following a defined production method does make the production of sake a very tried and tested chain of events. As such there aren't nearly as many named varieties of sake as there are of wine but when it comes to the flavors it is a different story altogether and any sake connoisseur will tell you that there are an infinite number of flavors to enjoy in sake.

  So, which sake is right for you?
At present, there are over 2000 sake makers in the sake industry, an industry that was quick to act when forced to modernize in recent decades with the resulting change being that the larger scale sake producers now pump out 10,000 goku (18,000kl or 1,000,000 x 1.8 liter bottles of sake) per year. Sake from smaller to mid-sized breweries (those producing around 100,000 1.8 liter bottles) is categorized as 'jizake,' or regional sake. Handmade jizake flavors are solely dependant on the skill of the touji, or the chief brewer. Famous brewers rake in a huge demand for their sake so as a result such sake is very difficult to get your hands on. Although getting hold of such popular sake is a real treat in itself, tasting many sake from various kuramoto, or breweries, by yourself and seeking the sake that suits you is also fun.

  The Element of Taste
One more important thing that taste is dependant on is the prime ingredient in sake: rice, and especially the degree to which the rice is polished. With the outer layer (the nuka) completely discarded, the remaining mass is the far purer center of the grain. Seimai buai (milled rice ratio) is the percentage of rice remaining from the original grain. For example: "Seimai buai 70%" remains 70% of the original grain, having the outer 30% of the grain ground away. A seimai buai 60% means rice which has had the outer 40% of the initial grain removed leaving the inner 60%.
Of course, a lower number seimai buai would be the most elegant of sake (a lower number means there is little bar the purest part of the grain left over after milling), as will be reflected in the price payable to obtain such a bottle. Sake, as a result of the polishing, has a whole ranking system based simply on the degree to which the initial rice intended for use in sake is actually milled. If the milled rice ratio is between 70%-60% is called a hon-jozo (though honjo-shu made from only rice or rice malt is called pure rice wine, or junmai-shu). Anything between 60% and 50% is known as a ginjo-shu (again, as with the hon-jozo, the pure version of ginjo-shu is called junmai ginjo-shu). If the ratio is below 50% it is called a daiginjo-shu (another purer version being called junmai daiginjo-shu). These rankings can always be found on the bottle so are worth considering before purchase.

 Onto the Fun Side
Though sake of lower seimai buai levels have a clearer and more fragrant taste, those of the higher seimai buai grades also offer some interesting and unique flavors of their own, making for two characteristically different groups to choose from and enjoy. Just think, sake can be, and in winter often is, warmed. (the Japanese verb for such an action is: "kan wo suru," that in sake terminology means 'take it hot'). Much more than just a gimmick, this method of drinking offers another face of sake and is one enjoyed by many. Going perfectly with nabe (hot-pot dishes), especially in winter it is a body warmer well worth trying out. The low mill-ratio ginjo-shu however, isn't quite cut out for heating up and instead you should go with a higher ratio hon-jozo, or junmai-shu.
So, now we have seen that sake has many factors that lead to the product in the bottle, of both the high and not so high quality varieties: the brewing giants as well as the little independent guys and of course the individual flavors and characteristics of sake offering an uncountable number of taste possibilities and ways of appreciating Japan's most famous beverage. Try some for yourself and experience the variety, the taste, the overall pleasure that real sake provides.
Here are some of the shops in Tokyo where you can purchase interesting and delicious sake. They can also show you a great many kinds of jizake they have on sale.

 Sake no Eiraku
JA Bldg. B1, 1-8-3, Otemachi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Tel 03-3245-7838
Marunouchi or Hanzomon Subway Lines, near Exit A3
The clerks are friendly, and will help you find the sake you are searching for. Though they don't seem to understand much English, the sincerity with which they serve customers more than makes up for linguistic difficulties.

(Sake sold here)
Amanoto Umashine (Akita Prefecture)
Using local rice, this is a form of hand made sake - plain and simple. On the back label is a full length picture of all the men who made it. This sake has a strong aroma yet is very mellow.

Dewazakura (Yamagata Prefecture)
Though this maker is a sake industry giant, the flavor produced is actually quite unique. Other than being famous for its effect on the palate, the ginjoshu known as "Ohka" has a lovely drawing of cherry flowers on the label.

AizumusumeAizumusume (Fukushima Prefecture)
Aizumusume's maker uses only locally produced rice and sticks stringently to traditional production methods, evidenced in production being no more than 200 koku per year due to all products being hand made. "Yukigasumi-no-Sato," the junmai-shu which is sold only in February, is perhaps the cream of the crop and also has a delightful label wrapped around the bottle.

Godaiten kuu (Hiroshima Prefecture)
"Godaiten kuu - sky" is the ultimate daiginjo whose seimai buai is 38 %. The calligraphy-brush characters used in its name are powerfully written on its label and headlines a selection of sake falling in line behind the seimai buai level, such as "Godaiten chi - earth," "Godaiten sui - water," "Godaiten kaze - wind," and "Godaiten hi - fire."

Masumi (Nagano Prefecture)
Although "Masumi" started as a jizake, or, locally-brewed sake, it is now very popular throughout Japan. However, although production has increased, the taste and spirit of Masumi's sake has not changed and the ever present main feature of "Masumi", its dry taste, remains. Masumi goes well with Japanese food.

5-45-5, Kamata, Ota-ku, Tokyo
A three minute walk from JR Kamata station
Tel 03-3739-4141
Hikariya has an entrance that looks like an ordinary convenience store but once you enter the shop, you will find that the interior is very Japanese indeed. All forms of sake sold here are personal favorites of the establishment's master and ones he thought worthy of putting on sale.

(Sake sold here)
Kamoshibito-Kuheiji (Aichi Prefecture)
The young master of the brewery, Kuno Kuheiji, produced "Kamoshibito-Kuheiji" in the hope of producing a sake which would become as popular as wine and as a result "Kamoshibito-Kuheiji" is even included on the wine list of "PIERRE GAGNAIRE," a three-star restaurant in Paris, France. The taste depends on the individual labels but each of them carries its own distinct taste.

Ryu (Kanagawa Prefecture)
"Ryu" is one of the most popular sakes in Japan despite having been produced in Kanagawa Prefecture, an area with the lowest level of sake production in Japan. "Ryu" features 7 to 8 different colored labels with each item sporting its own unique taste.

Tenpou (Nagano Prefecture)
Tenpou's maker is a new-wave brewery founded as recently as 1996. After inviting one of the best touji, or the chief brewer, Segawa Hirotada (known for producing "Isojiman" in Shizuoka Prefecture), his natural talent has come up with the deep tasting Tenpou. "Junmai ginjo muroka namazake (fresh and nonpercolated junmai ginjo)," not sterilized by heating, is a particularly recommended sake produced here.

Dassai (Yamaguchi Prefecture)
Although it is difficult for even Japanese to read the Chinese character in this name precisely, this sake is famous for being polished to the lowest percentage level in sake today. "Junmai dai-ginjo migaki niwari-sanbu ( Junmai dai-ginjo with polishing ratio 23%)," is a sake whose main ingredient retains just 23% of the original rice after shaving and polishing. While a little expensive, its clear taste is truly astonishing.

MasuizumiMasuizumi (Toyama Prefecture)
"Masuizumi" is a sweet and fruity sake which reminds drinkers more of wine and some of it is actually bottled in containers similar to a wine bottle. "Koshu," is a local vintage sake aged for just a few years and is extremely tasty.

 Places to drink good sake (Tokyo)
Sake is good alcoholic beverage to drink with dinner. It matches pretty much most types of Japanese food, especially fish and seafood. Here are some places in Tokyo where you can eat good Japanese food and also find excellent nihonshu.

Kinariya Gatten
1-6-1, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
1 minute walk from Ginza-itchome Station on the Yurakucho subway line
Tel 03-3561-2235
Kinariya Gatten is a western style pub in which tourists from overseas can easily feel at home. It serves a fusion of Western and Japanese cuisine. There are other kinds of alcohol in addition to sake, such as shochu, a clear type of distilled liquor most commonly made of sweet potatoes, rice, or buckwheat. Whiskey and cocktails are also readily available.

Shimbashi Koju
Shimojima Bldg. B1, 1-2-17, Higashi-Shimbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo
5 minute walk from JR Shimbashi Station
Tel 03-3575-0939
If you want to really master sake, you should visit Shimbashi Koju. Its range includes many kinds of sake from the more famous brands to those much harder to come by. The food here is relatively cheap but delicious making it a popular spot for sake fans. So much so that reservations are again recommended.

1-18-10, Tsukishima, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
7 minute walk from Tsukishima Station on the Yurakucho subway line
Tel 03-3534-8483
The Tsukishima area is famous for "monjayaki," a specialty of Tokyo which is similar to the "okonomiyaki," dish popular in the Kansai area and all over Japan. As such, a wealth of monjayaki shops can be found in the area and especially along Monjayaki Dori. Ajisen, however, is located a short distance from Monjayaki Dori though the extra walk is worth it. Served are an extensive range of sake and accompanying foodstuffs with specialities including ni-anago, or simmered conger eel, and satsuma-age, fried fish balls. Both are well recommended. Always popular, reservations are a necessity at Ajisen.

Shukyoan Maroudo
Isami Bldg. 2F, 3-20, Tsukudo-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
5 minute walk from JR Iidabashi St. Higashiguchi (east exit)
Tel 03-3269-1106
Having visited Kagurazaka in the daytime, Maroudo is a well recommended spot in which to spend the evening. Sake is served with Shinshu soba, (buckwheat noodles) and only sake produced in the Shinshu region is available here. All rather tasty, they also go well with seafood.

There are many good restaurants and shops we don't have the space to cover although I'd like to describe them for you some time.

 Good sake and tasty appetizers

Asari no SakamushiAsari no Sakamushi - Short-necked clams steamed in sake
500g asari (short-necked) clams, 4 Tbsp sake, 2 cups water, 1 tsp salt
1.Soak the asari calms in salted water overnight to make them expel any sand contained within.
2.Wash the clams well by rubbing the shells against each other.
3.Put the clams and sake together in a pan, cover and steam on a high heat for a few minutes until the clams open naturally.
4.Serve the clams and accompanying liquid in a bowl.

Yasai stickYasai stick - Vegetable Stick Salad
1/2 carrot, 1 stick celery, 1 cucumber, 10 cm long Japanese radish (daikon)
<For the dips>
miso, cheese, salt, mayonnaise
1.Cut the vegetables into pieces about 10cm in length with a thickness to suit personal taste.
2.Eat the vegetables having dipped them into your favorite condiment.

Enoki butterEnoki butter - Steamed enokidake mushrooms
200g enokidake mushrooms, 1 Tbsp butter, Salt / pepper to taste
1.Remove the hard tips from the enokidake mushrooms and break into smaller clumps.
2.Put the mushrooms, butter, salt and pepper in a pan. Place a lid on the pan and heat until the mushrooms are tender.

Nasumiso - sauteed eggplant with miso
2 eggplants, 2 green peppers, 2 Tbsp miso, 1 Tbsp sugar, 3 Tbsp water, 3 Tbsp sake, 1 Tbsp salad oil,
1 tsp sesame oil
1. Cut the eggplants and the green peppers into bite size pieces.
2. Put the miso, sugar and water in a bowl and mix.
3. Pour the salad oil into a pan and heat. Add the eggplants and green peppers and fry over a high heat.
4.When the vegetables become tender, add the sake and stir gently. Next, add the miso, sugar and water mixture (see2. above), and bring to the boil before adding the sesame oil.

YakitoriYakitori - Skewered and then grilled chicken
1 chicken thigh: boned and skinless, 1 naganegi (long leek / green onion), Salt to taste
1.Cut the chicken into bite size pieces and the leek into pieces around 3cm in length. Spear three pieces of chicken and leek alternately on each skewer. 2.Salt to taste and grill.
2 chicken breast fillets, 1 umeboshi (pickled plum), 1 Tbsp kezuribushi (dried bonito shavings)
1.Remove the stone from the plum. Pound the plum and the kezuribushi with the back of a knife and make neriume.
2.Remove the strings from the chicken and grill. Cut each chicken breast in half and add the neriume prior to eating.

Chazuke - Rice with hot green tea poured over it
1 bowl of rice, Hot green tea or hot water, umeboshi (pickled plum), mentaiko (salted cod roe spiced with red pepper), nori (dried pressed laver seaweed), 3 cm long trefoil, 1/2 salmon fillet
1.Remove the stone from the plum and pound it with the back of a knife to make neriume.
2.Cut the mentaiko into bite size pieces.
3.Grill the salmon. Remove the skin and any bones and cut into bite size pieces.
4.Roast the nori and tear it into 5x5 cm pieces.
5. Serve the cooked rice in a bowl, place your favorite topping onto the rice and then pour hot green tea or water over the dish.

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