Sake and the Culinary Secrets of Traditional Washoku

I’ll just come right out and say that “Taking an Interest in Yet Another Fermented Beverage” is pretty high on my list of “Things I Don’t Need In My Life.” Beer, cider, kombucha, mead, wine – I have those covered, but until recently, I hadn’t much cared about sake, the traditional Japanese “wine” made from fermented polished rice. I’d drink it if someone placed it in front of me, sure, but I wouldn’t derive any real enjoyment from it, or subject it to critical thought beyond “meh, it tastes like funky rice-water.”

What changed? Well, a couple years ago, I finally took the plunge and dined at the venerable NAOE, Miami’s preeminent Japanese restaurant, helmed by the talented chef Kevin Cory. There, I tried sake from his family’s brewery, the Nakamura Brewery in Kanazawa, Japan. Paired with the delicacies I was enjoying, I finally had my sake revelation – it could be every bit as complex, as refined, as great a partner for certain foods as the finest Belgian saison or Napa Valley cab.

It follows that when recently given the opportunity to attend a culinary demonstration and sake tasting at the residence of the Miami Consulate General of Japan, I was excited. The event was held in two parts – first, we were treated to a brief demonstration from chef Shuji Hiyakawa, formerly executive sushi chef at the highly-regarded restaurant Kuro inside the Seminole Hard Rock. He showed us how to make sushi rice, mixing it in a large traditional wooden bowl and adding vinegar at precisely the right time:

Then, he processed a lovely side of bluefin tuna fresh from the waters off Spain into different cuts – the deep-red akami, the lean, meaty loin most are familiar with, chutoro, which is a cut between the akami and the more fatty tuna belly meat, and otoro, a very fatty, rich tender cut. The demonstration was fascinating, but at this point I was becoming hungry, and also curious about the chutoro, as I’d not had that cut of tuna before. After chef Hiyakawa finished, we were invited to make ourselves a plate of delicacies – as you can see, I was most interested in tasting and comparing the different tuna cuts:

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While all the cuts were delicious, I have to admit that otoro is still far and away my favorite. The texture is just so luxurious, so rich and tender, it comes close to physically disintegrating upon the palate with little or no chewing required. Akami is something I could eat every day – it’s so lean and downright meaty, if I close my eyes it almost seems as if I’m eating rare beef. Chutoro, as I stated above, is kind of an intermediate cut between akami and otoro, not as lean as the former and certainly not as fatty as the latter – this is chef Hiyakawa’s favorite. Moderate marbling is noted, and it is indeed a very pleasing bite. If pressed for a choice, however, I would still reach for the otoro almost every time!

Time for some sake tasting. 13 sakes that currently aren’t available in South Florida were set out on the table. I wasn’t sure that I’d have the chops to get around to tasting all of them, but the tasting portions were mercifully small enough that I was able to indulge and try all of them, without rendering my next morning at work a hung-over struggle.

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Most of these were daiginjo and ginjo – premium sakes. Daiginjo is a sake made with rice that has been milled and polished to at least 50%, up to 75%. It’s a matter of grades – the idea is, the more the rice is milled and polished before fermentation, the more fats and proteins are stripped away from the grain, attempting to leave only the starches at the core, which is really what the sake brewer is looking for. This leads to a very clean, yet complex flavor profile.

Most of the sake I tried was indeed quite clean, floral and perfume-y, with no off-flavors; however, my favorites ended up being Gokyo from Sakai Shuzo, Yuki No Bosha from Saiya Shuzouten, and Tateyama Ama Harashi from Tateyama Shuzo. After trying all of these excellent bottles, I felt as if I was able to further refine the kind of flavor profile I prefer in a sake – I tend to like them off-dry, not treacly sweet, but then again, not so austerely dry either…..just a light honey sweetness with notes of elderflower and hints of coconut.

Coming from a longtime beer appreciators’ background, I feel that tasting sake is much more of a delicate endeavor. The entire flavor spectrum of the beer world is notoriously vast, from the lightest-bodied table beers to adjunct-laden high-ABV imperial stouts that taste like Mexican chocolate. A rank novice would be able to immediately taste the difference between, say, a Baltic porter, and a Belgian witbier. Even in wine circles, a casual imbiber can easily taste the difference between a sauvignon blanc and a malbec. With sake, it’s just not that simple and easily-defined. I find the flavors to be more delicate, requiring me to pay closer attention to get a handle on what I’m tasting. Evaluating sake requires more of a refined, dialed-in palate, and I’m not quite “there” yet. I know that this will prove to be a fun education, though….and if it requires an eventual trip to Japan in the name of furthering said sake education, so be it!

Many thanks to the Japanese Consulate General for hosting this event, and inviting me to take part.

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