Nihonshu, Japan’s national drink, is more commonly known to the rest of the world as sake. Once an Eastern enigma, sake is now a familiar beverage that is savoured for its unique taste and distinct flavour. This refined Japanese rice wine pairs beautifully with all cuisines, not just Japanese food, and therein lies its universal appeal.
While sake is made from just three ingredients, water, fermented rice and koji – a mold that influences the aroma and flavour, it evolves into a complex drink that may be rich, dry, fruity, fragrant or full-bodied. Like wine. Also, Japan’s traditional drink is distinct owing to the high mineral content of its water, making it soft and lending an added dimension to its taste.
The rice has to be sake rice, an autumn rice that is harvested the following spring. There are four kinds, of which Yamada Nishiki is the most famous, followed by Omachi. The type of rice, the extent to which it is polished, and the brewing method together influence the quality and price of the beverage.
Take a sip of Dassai to really savour the experience. This premium or junmai daiginjo-shu brewed by Asahi Shuzo is especially sought for its smooth, sophisticated taste. But this finesse comes from using top-quality Yamada Nishiki rice, which is milled to 23% its original size. The process is stringently controlled using a combination of traditional and cutting edge technology, and the labour is orchestrated to perfection in its efforts. The use of the centrifuge to separate the sake results in a tastier beverage, and the Dassai 23 is carefully packed by hand, signalling an extravagance and class that remain unparalleled. So sip, don’t drink. That’s how you enjoy the complex flavours that reveal themselves in layers, through exquisite traces of mild sweetness, fruity expressions and the hint of minerals.
The best thing about sake is that it pairs beautifully with almost any food, or may be enjoyed solo. Its mild mouthfeel pairs it perfectly with seafood, but surprisingly, it pairs just as well with meats and cheese. And perhaps, the next best thing is that it doesn’t leave you with a hangover the next day.
Unlike wine, sake is best when drunk fresh. It has a shelf life of 2 years, although once you’ve opened the bottle, it should be finished within a week, as the freshness begins to diminish. So bring out those little cups (sakazuki), and indulge! You’ll have the more premium sake served chilled while the fortified ones will be served slightly warm.
But Japan’s traditional drink can be enjoyed in more ways than one! Like wine, you can even cook with it, and whip up some mouth-watering dishes. Try soaking salmon fillets cured in a mixture of salt, sugar, lemon zest and dill for 90 minutes and then soaking them in sake for an hour and experience the delicate flavour and smooth texture that it imparts to the fish. Or try marinating beef ribs overnight in sake, for ultra-tender results. You could even replace white wine with sake when you steam shellfish! The results are nothing short of delicious. Get creative, because sake lends itself to food flavours, tastes and textures in so many delectable ways.
It might be interesting to know that in Japan, once you open a bottle of sake, you serve each other and leave the bottle on the table. You never serve yourself, because it’s considered a privilege to pour it for your guests. So have someone pour you a glass of liquid tradition and sit back and savour each delightful sip.