Sake and I got off on the wrong foot.
My first encounter with sake was at a young age, many, many years ago, back when I was still studying science at uni. I remember spending a particularly gruelling and long day in the lab performing experiments to extract DNA from bacterial cells (never thought I’d ever utter those words in a food blog!). One stage of the procedure guaranteed to sow the seeds for RSI and neck cramps later in life involved me painstakingly adding and then extracting ethanol from countless tiny tubes – all whilst holding the tubes at eye level. After several rounds of these experiments, I’d invariably be tired with eye, neck and back strain from staring intently at tiny volumes for hours on end, and brain strain from having concentrated so hard and inhaled so many chemical fumes whilst working with them at eye level.
After this particular day, a friend turned up at my lab bemoaning his failed experiments and suggested we hang up our lab coats for the day and head out for dinner. We found ourselves at a small Japanese eatery in Chinatown, ordered our food, then having spied sake on the menu, decided on a whim that we should try some. Neither of us had tried sake before, but had romantic visions of Mr Miyagi-lookalikes, their cheeks rosy from long sessions at sake houses, tottering off kilter down cobble-stoned streets, singing Japanese folk songs off-key with only the mottled light of a swinging paper lantern to guide their way home – so we both desperately wanted to like sake.
And then a gleaming white sake canister adorned with sakura flowers was placed before us, piping hot sake poured into waiting cups and eagerly brought to my nose for a sniff of its scent. The plume of hot ethanol from the sake filled my lungs, singing my nostrils and eyebrows and the many hours spent working in the lab with ethanol came flooding back. I tried my best to cast the thought aside and take a tentative sip of the brew. It tasted just as I expected – like hot, raw, untreated rocket fuel. Or as we like to call spirits that fall in that category, “unleaded“. As much as I tried to like it and drink it, the smell and taste was revolting and I couldn’t help associating the flavours with the ethanol in my experiments. That’s because it’s essentially what alcohol is – ethanol. Whilst I usually use ethanol in concentrations upwards of 75% in the lab for everything from sterilising to purifying, drinking those concentrations would surely be a one-way ticket to the morgue for me. The concentration of ethanol in sake is closer to 15-20%. So it wasn’t the strength of the sake that was off putting – it was just the taste. I gave up on it, but demanded my friend make a better effort. Little did I know that he couldn’t drink, quickly turned a lurid purple (see my last post to understand why), and I had to drive him home. It was a memorable if underwhelming first encounter with sake.
Since then I’ve tried sake on a few occasions in restaurants both here and in Japan and have even tried the Australian made sake, Goshu, but I wasn’t yet a convert. It has always tasted harsh and despite being not much stronger than a fortified wine like port, it sure tastes like it could grow hairs on my chest. But, ever the optimist, I keep trying as I inherently want to like sake.
So when the opportunity arose to attend a sake master dinner at Ocean Room, I immediately accepted. This was my chance to actually learn to appreciate this mysterious liquor.
The event was primarily attended by a contingent of food journalists, bloggers, friends and special guests and held in the restaurant’s private dining room. The first sight to greet me as I entered the room was a line up of bottles of sake, each representing a different style of sake.
The magnificent view behind the sake wasn’t lost on me either. We settle down and are given bamboo cups, hand-crafted by Ocean Room’s chef Raita Noda himself and filled with a Yellow Blossom Sake from Kyoto. I sniff it warily before tasting and find the scent is not the harsh volatile fume I expect but slightly sweet and delicate in scent. The flavour is similarly mellow with a hint of the green herbaceous aroma from the bamboo cup. I’m pleased that this sake is already a magnitude of order better than the sakes I’ve tasted previously and it bodes well for the night to come.
No sooner were we settled in were we offered some natural oysters seasoned simply with a wedge of lemon and sitting on ice in a bamboo canister. Simple, fresh and delicious!
Whilst Chef Raita Noda is responsible for the night’s sake inpired menu, his colleague and good friend Toshi Maeda: chef and owner of Sake and Grill Maedaya in Richmond and connoisseur of fine sake is the mastermind behind the menu’s paired sakes and tasting notes. He takes to the stage and gives us an introduction to the night’s sakes – and a glimpse into the many different types of sakes available. As an introduction to sake and by means of comparison to the usual alcohol of choice paired with meals, we are presented with an amuse bouche taster, a glass of premium sake and a glass of Chenin blanc, a dry and slightly fruity French white wine from the Loire Valley. There is an obvious difference in how the food tastes when paired with either wine or sake. To my untrained palette, the flavours are sweetened and mellowed with the wine and taste drier and sharper with the sake.
Our amuse bouche was followed by another speech by Toshi and so the routine went for the night. Toshi would provide details about the different types of sakes available, how they were ranked and critiqued, how to choose a sake to suit your palette and tasting notes on each of the sakes we sampled. It was a lot of information to take in on the fly, but it was fascinating and thankfully most of the information was replicated on Toshi’s site.
So for all those keen on learning all about sake – did you know…
- Sake is known commonly as a type of rice wine, but is more correctly a fermented alcohol from rice as it is not a wine, beer or spirit. Sake is not classed as a wine as the fermentation agent is a type of mold called “Koji mold“
- Sake is made by milling down rice till only the starch remains. The starch is then fermented into sugar which is further fermented into ethanol or alcohol
- The degree to which the rice is milled forms an important classification for sake types and is known as “seimeibuai“. The degree of rice milling represented as a percentage where the number represents the amount of rice remaining (for e.g. a seimeibuai of 60% means 40% of the rice has been milled away leaving 60% behind). The higher this number, the higher the amount of rice remaining for sake fermentation and the higher the probable umami or savoury flavour content. The lower the seimeibuai, the more delicate the flavour and generally speaking, the more premium the sake.
- Sake appreciation is much like wine or other liquor appreciation – sake tasters assess the colour, scent and taste of the sake
- Sake tasting makes use of small rounded cups called “o-choko“. This is typically white with blue rings on the bottom – to allow colour assessment and it is small to encourage frequent pouring and re-filling.
- There are 2 main grades and 4 different categories of sake. The 2 grades are differentiated between their use on special occasions. About 75% of sake is designated as “futsu-shu” or normal sake, whilst the remaining 25% is designated as “tokutei meishoushu” or special designation sake.
- Now the complicated part – there are 4 sake categories are Honjozo, Junmai, Ginjo and Daiginjo – these all differ based on their seimeibuai or rice milling degree, their distilled alcohol content (Jozo), the additives, the type of rice used and the fermentation techniques used.
- Honjozo: contains a small amount of distilled alcohol or Jozo; minimum seimeibuai of 70%; usually has a sweet, earthy flavour
- Junmai: 100% pure rice sake without additives; usually has a clean smooth flavour with a subtle rice fragrance
- Ginjo: special techniques are used in this sake’s making including a special yeast and low fermentation; minimum seimeibuai of 60%; usually has a fruity fragrance
- Daiginjo: the most premium of sakes; minimum seimeibuai of 35 – 50%; renowned for its fruity, floral perfume and recommended chilled or at room temperature
- Sakes can be enjoyed hot or cold – depending on the drinker’s preference, but as a general rule heat often destroys the sake’s delicate flavours and nose so premium sakes are recommended chilled or at room temperature. If sake is consumed heated, 40 – 55 degC is recommended for warm to hot servings. Heating sake over 55 degC is not recommended and reserved for masking the undesirable flavours of poor quality sakes.
- Sake bottles will also display a Nihonshudo value, or the sake meter value (SMV). This number indicates the amount of sugars in the sake that weren’t converted into alcohol and instead provide a level of sweetness to the sake. The lower this number the sweeter the sake; the higher, the dryer the sake. Amusingly, the break-even or neutral point between sweet and dry sakes is not zero as one would expect, but +3.
- If you see the word “tokubetsu“, it means “special” and indicates a premium sake made with extra care. This term can be applied to any of the 4 sake categories.
- Last, but not least in this concise guide to sake tasting, it’s important to remember that sake does not keep or age well. If you purchase a bottle, drink it “young”!
I love the level of classification detail! All theses classifications and ranking systems takes much of the guesswork out of sake tasting. It would make choosing wine a simpler task if you could note from the bottle label not only the alcohol content, grape variety and the general characteristics associated with that grape – but the actual level of smoothness, sweetness or dryness in that wine!
With barely anytime to digest and make sense of my new sake knowledge, the first matched course was brought out. Raita impresses us with his sous vide Alaskan king crab with sake, sour plum jelly, parilla and gold leaf that sits in a stemless martini glass balanced on a large bowl filled with crushed ice to keep the dish cool. It was an arresting sight both visually and sensorally. I have long held that Alaskan king crab is by far the most flavourful of all the crab species, and being prepared sous vide ensures there is no oxidation to interfere with the cooking process. The result is a deliciously pure crab flavour and a startingly vibrant red colour to the crab flesh. The sour plum jelly flavour adds a subtle fruity tartness that complements but doesn’t overpower the crab’s flavour.
This first course is destined to be a showstopper as Toshi has pulled out all the stops as well. One would expect that there might be an intriguing build up before the best sake of the night is revealed and shared, but no, accompanying this first course is the most premium sake we will taste, one that has won the gold medal at the Japanese New Sake Awards 10 years running, the Eikun Ichigun Junmai Daiginjo (Seimeibuai 35%; Nihonshudo +3.5). From the sake tasting guide above, you’ll note that this sake is the most premium of all sake categories; has been made with no additives and should have a clean, smooth, fruity nose. Indeed, in his tasting notes Toshi describes this sake as having a soft, clean, with a mid-body, dry taste and beautiful fruit fragrance like Nashi pear or Muscat.
It was the moment of truth – this is the best, critically acclaimed sake available and possibly the best one I’ll ever taste in my lifetime. If I don’t like this sake, I don’t think I can ever be converted to sake. Thankfully, I do like it. The aroma is pleasant even before it touches my lips – the delicate fruity perfume is obvious and smells of apple and lychee to me, the texture is smooth – thanks in part to the naturally soft water in Kyoto which goes into the making of this sake and the flavour is rather incredibly mellow with barely any acidity or harshness to note of.
How does one top that first couse? Having just served crab to a crab-obsessed fiend and pairing it with the best sake possible suggested that the night was destined to go downhill from that climatic point, but the next course was equally impressive.
The second course is aptly named “East meets west” as each element on the plate mixes typically eastern ingredients and western techniques.
We are presented with ocean trout flash smoked with houji tea hidden under a shot glass. Lifting the shot glass releases thin wisps of the smoke trapped within and the test tube of vinaigrette is shaken up and poured over it. It is subtly smoky, tart and very moreish.
The crystal bay prawns are just poached through, smothered in a spicy, herby salsa and gone all too quickly. The cuttlefish ravioli is similarly amazing – the translucent, slippery smooth cuttlefish forms the ravioli skin hiding creamy sea urchin within.
This is paired with a Niwano Uguisu Tokubetsu Junmai sake (Seimeibuai 60%; Nihonshudo +3). It’s a special Junmai style sake from Fukuoka with a clean, dry taste, tropical nose with notes of lychee, passionfruit or pineapple and a vanilla aftertaste. Personally I found this sake quite pleasant – it wasn’t as fruity and smooth as the sake paired with the first course but sweeter and still easy to drink.
The third course was perfect for tuna lovers and provided a delectable morsel of tuna done in 5 ways using different tuna cuts, ingredients and techniques. Ranging from raw sashimi-style to just lightly seared, truffle to dried natto beans reminiscent of black beans, each style provided such a different flavour and texture it didn’t seem like it was the same core ingredient. This course was paired with a Ginjo sake called Tateyama Junmai Ginjo (Seimeibuai 59%; Nihonshudo +2), served chilled and described as being dry with a green apple nose and sweet umami from its constituent rice sources. Toshi emphasized this was his favourite sake of the ones being showcased tonight. Personally I thought it tasted more like what I expected a good, classic sake to taste like and it was less remarkable for me.
The Japanese flair for presentation and visual spectacles was evident in the next course. Carafes containing Hatsumago Tokubetsu Honjozo (Seimeibuai 60%; Nihonshudo +4), were brought to our tables and placed on tealight candles. The shadows cast by the sparkling light amplified through the sake created a romantic atmosphere. Like Asian tea etiquette, it is customary to serve others before you serve yourself so my neighbours and I get busy filling our cups and chinking them to the chorus of “kanpai“! This sake happens to be a special type of Honjozo sake from Hatsumago, a famous brewery in Yamagata and has a earthy, dry flavour with a hint of bitterness. The heat seemed to make the sake more volatile – the aroma seemed stronger, headier and the taste drier than the previous sakes we’ve sampled. And it’s taught me one thing – I think I prefer my sake chilled.
Our accompanying main was similarly stunning as extravagant cellophane wrapped dishes were placed before us. They were cut open to reveal delicately flavoured chunks of snapper, scallop and vegetables steamed in sake and topped with grated fresh yuzu zest.
With only 2 courses to go we were offered a mid-meal cleanser. Instead of sorbet we’re given shots of semi-frozen sake flavoured with umeshi plum wine and yuzu zest. And boy, did it taste strong! I’m sure freezing didn’t increase the alcohol content in the sake but around me there are certainly widened eyes and raised eyebrows at the perceived strength of this cleanser. Not for the faint-hearted!
The fifth course and second main is the roasted Angus beef. A succulent slab of juicy Angus beef is placed before us, sitting in a very subtle sake jus. It is tender and delicious, but the sake scent is barely perceivable, particularly with the Roquefort cheese on the side. A tasty steak & blue cheese combination nonetheless.
The paired sake is Garyubai Junmai Ginjo (Seimeibuai 55%; Nihonshudo +3), described as a strong sake from Shizuoka, with a big impact, dry sharp body with a hint of ripe apple and white chocolate aftertaste. I got the hint of fruit but definitely not the white chocolate aftertaste. Perhaps it was the Roquefort cheese overpowering my palette.
Finally, after hours of dining, we’ve arrived at the last course. In preparation for dessert we’re poured a glass of cloudy sake called Shirakawago Junmai Nigorizake (Seimeibuai 70%; Nihonshudo -25). This so-called cloudy sake is named so because unlike most other sakes that are filtered, this sake is left unfiltered so the rice lees (a fine sediment leftover sake production) are left in the bottle. The tasting notes for this sake describe it as having a rich, sweet, milky, flavour and is well-matched to milk-based desserts.
I was excited to try this particular sake. In preparation for the sake tasting I’d done a little preparatory research and this sake sounded the most intriguing. It is described to have a milky, sweet flavour so I imagined it to be akin to an alcoholic sweetened condensed milk. Ah, but I was disappointed. The texture and consistency was much thinner than anticipated and I liken it more to a thin, grainy congee with sake added. As much as I tried to like it, each sip would send involuntary shivers down my spine. Cloudy sake is not for me.
In the nick of time, dessert is served to save my tastebuds.
Like all the other courses, dessert is sake-inspired and we’re presented a square of light and fluffy chiffon cake covered in a blanket of sake flavoured creme fraiche; a sake-infused blancmange topped with extra sake jelly which was not sweet enough for some diners but fine for my lack of sweet tooth and fresh jobocabla. The last item I’m not familiar with nor can Google identify it. It tasted like a mangosteen, but with the fiddliness of a hard shelled grape. It was “something different“.
With the conclusion of dessert, both Chefs Toshi and Raita take to the stage and answer questions from the crowd regarding both the meal, the inspiration and the sakes. As it turns out, Chef Raita found it difficult to create a sake-inspired menu, but took on the challenge with much gusto. Personally I found the event very stimulating – the combination of trying a fairly foreign ingredient to me, learning its various aspects and dimensions and tasting it’s application in food was a novel experience. Interestingly, with all the Asians in the room, I didn’t observe much Asian red flush happening either. Evidently, most of those in attendance were endowed with ADH genes.
So, the question is – after all that, have I converted to sake?
I wouldn’t call myself a “convert” per se, but I’m gaining an understanding of the subtleties involved in sake appreciation. Through this one informative session, I now know I prefer the smoother, fruitier subtle varieties to drier versions with savoury rice umami flavours, and I feel empowered enough to seek out sake tasting on my own. It seems an obvious conclusion to make but I prefer the most premium sake, the daiginjo, but followed then by the Junmai and Ginjo varieties. I guess the only thing to do now is to keep getting acquainted with sake.
I attended Ocean Room’s sake master dinner as a guest.
Bay 4, Ground level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, Circular Quay West, The Rocks, Sydney
Tel: (+612)9252-9585; Fax: (+612)9252-9586; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Open for lunch Tues – Fri noon – 2pm; dinner from 6pm – 10pm (till midnight on Fri & Sat)
Foodie in the know:
It’s hard to find good sakes in Australia, so Toshi Maeda has started his own sake website that stocks all the sakes we enjoyed during the event and more. Visit www.sakejapan.com.au to find out more and order online.
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