Last weekend I had the pleasure of dining in the artfully psychedelic Izakaya Japanese restaurant in JW Marriott Marquis, Dubai. Apart from its groovy interiors and the ever-popular Wasabi Girl (who serves up freshly grated Wasabi at the shout of her name, has bright green hair she credits to Wasabi-eating, and even has an Instagram page of her own @izakayawasabigirl), I was quite enchanted with their Sake Cart.
We met the beautiful Kampai, who hosts the Sake Cart at Izakaya. Apart from giving us tasters of some of the world’s finest sakes, she was brimming with knowledge on this age-old Japanese rice wine, and I had to make notes to share these gems with you…
10 Sake Facts You Probably Didn’t Know
- A Little History: Sake-making is believed to date back as far as the Yayoi period (300 BC – 250 AD) when rice cultivation was brought from China to Japan. Initially, during the Nara Period (710-794), sake was strictly reserved for royalty and a special organization called Sake-no-Tsukasa was established to produce sake for the Imperial Court. During the Heian period (794-1185), sake was made in temples, shrines and in the homes of common people. Mass production in sake breweries came to being in the Muromachi period (1333-1573) and the Muromachi Shogunate started charging taxes on sake as an income for the government.
- The Traditional Method of Sake Making: Just like beer and wine, sake is made through the fermentation of yeast. Yeast fermentation produces alcohol an carbon dioxide from sugar. Sake is made from rice, koji (an enzyme used to break down rice protein to amino acids and peptides) and water. Rice grains are polished by hand, and and the fermentation mash is pressed to separate out the sake using a heat sterilization method called hiire that was invented in the 16th century. In breweries, this technique was carried out in large wooden tubs that enabled mass production and storage.
- Added Alcohol: As sake turned into a thriving business, many turned to the method of adding distilled alcohol to sake to adjust its flavor and prevent bacterial contamination.
- Sakabayashi or Sugidama: A large ball of cedar twigs is hung at the entrance of sake breweries. This is to announce that a fresh batch of sake is being made. As the fresh green needles turn brown, this is a sign that fresh sake is ready to drink.
- Sake Rice: Just like a fine wine is made of a special variety of grapes, sake is made from a special variety of rice called shuzo-kotekimai.
- Rice Polishing: White rice (never brown) is used for making sake. Oil in rice grains prevents the development of a fruity aroma, and this is why sake breweries polish off the outer layer of rice grains. Table rice is polished 10% but rice used for sake is polished 30%. When making a very special refined sake called daiginjo-shu 50% or more of the rice is polished away.
- Koji: Koji mold is a variety of Aspergillus, and is known as the national fungi of Japan. Apart from being one of the main ingredients in making sake, koji is used to make a variety of Japanese staple foods including shochu liquor, soy sauce, miso and vinegar.
- Water: Is a key ingredient in sake making. Sake contains 80% water, and it is also a crucial ingredient for the fermentation mash and soak process. Sake needs 10 times more water than rice. However, the iron in standard water can cause havoc with with the taste and aroma of sake, and the iron concentration needs to be under 0,02 ppm. Thankfully, Japan has many excellent sources of water, and you will therefore find some of the world’s finest sake breweries such as Nada and Kobe in Fushimi, Kyoto.
- There are 4 varieties of sake:
- Ginjo-shu: made of 100% rice, without the addition of alcohol or other ingredients. This is the finest, and highest priced sake on the market. It has the scent of apples or bananas, and is best served cool, at the first half of a meal.
- Junmai-shu: Made of rice and koji, and full of the taste of rice and its richness. It is very aromatic, and has a cloudy white appearance. This sake is best served with rich-tasting dishes cooked with soy-sauce, sugar and oils. It can be had cold or warm.
- Honjozo-shu: Made of rice, koji and a little bit of brewer’s alcohol. This makes the sake less acidic, and it tastes more light and dry. This versatile sake can be had hot or cold. Great for beginners and connoisseurs alike.
- Ordinary sake: Contains more alcohol than Honjozo-shu, and also includes saccharides and acidulant. It tastes sweet, light and smooth, and can also be bought in cartons. Perfect for casual drinking.
- Contrary to popular belief, sake only contains a maximum of 17% alcohol.
Once reserved for special occasions in Japan including festivals, marriages and funerals, sake has become an integral part of Japanese dining the world over.
If you’d like a taster of the various types of sake, the Sake Tasting Cart at Izakaya (JW Marriott Marquis) is the way to go! For bookings and more information on the restaurant, visit their website by clicking here.