As I’ve told various people I want to write a column about sake, one colleague said, “You might as well write a single column about beer.” He didn’t say I shouldn’t try, but his gently disparaging comment accurately conveys the odds I face in attempting an intelligent primer.
The subject of sake is vast, complex and enthralling, and I need to admit that my attempt to discuss it in a single brief article betrays ignorance and culturally determined prejudice. I’ve been drinking quite a bit of sake lately, though, and I’d like you to drink some too.
Rather than attempt to provide an overview, I mostly want to help break sake out of the stereotypes it calls to mind in this country: Drink it with sushi, drink it warm, get drunk, sing karaoke, have headache. I’m interested in how sake works with a wide variety of foods (Asian, “fusion,” Western), and how it rearranges a palate that is based on certain unacknowledged assumptions.
It’s this rearrangement that for me is especially enjoyable. Sake pulls the rug out from a wine drinker’s personal history, expectations and hopes for drinking and eating.
Whether consciously or not, we all come to wine expecting an interplay among acidity, sweetness, fruit, spice and earth, an interplay that follows certain rules. With sake, the rules are different, and the primary attributes I pay attention to are textural, weight-based; acidity isn’t so important.
This is a terrific time to explore sake anew. On the local level, even restaurants with a European focus increasingly offer sake on their lists.
In Japan itself, the centuries-old sake traditions are in revolution mode: Like beer’s craft-brewing movement, for the past 15 years or so small breweries have sprouted up in many small towns, as a new generation of artisans reinvent the craft.
Globally, chefs are decreasingly beholden to borders. Just because a restaurant focuses on “Greek” cuisine, or “Austrian” or “Nordic,” doesn’t mean Japanese influences are absent.
Indeed, in a certain sense the Japanese approach suffuses all of the most exciting action in food today: the primacy of direct flavors, unmasked by heavy sauces; the value placed on simplicity and subtlety; the focus on textural interaction; the use of umami.
Ah, yes, umami. Although this “fifth” taste (along with salty, sweet, sour and bitter) was only formally named in 1908 by the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, gastronomes through the centuries have recognized the sensations of glutamates and nucleotides. I think of umami as “meaty deliciousness,” prominent in such disparate foods as beef broth, Parmigiano Reggiano, mushroom, miso, cured meats and fish sauce.
Whether in fine or plump mode, fruity or floral or fungal, sake is uniquely suited to these, as its round, glossy textures and weighty softness harmonize with the comfort-food attributes of umami.
(My 9-year-old caught my breath the other night after I’d drunk a nigori, and swooned, “You smell like when a steaming bowl of rice first comes to the table at a restaurant … mmmmm.” He’s never happy smelling wine.)
Masa Miyake and Will Garfield, of Portland’s beloved Miyake restaurant group, are uniquely suited to introduce a wider public to sake’s deep pleasures, so immediate that even a 9-year-old can relate. I sat down recently with the two of them, and both were effusive about the quality and diversity of sake now available on these shores.
“It’s been a challenge to educate the people of Portland about the subtleties of sake,” Garfield admitted, “but our biggest goal is to get people to recognize that sake is not what it used to be.” While Miyake noted regretfully that “there are no real ‘sake maniacs’ in Maine,” he is encouraged that “it’s so open now,” and Garfield added, “Even just in the last 10 months, (Maine) distributor portfolios have expanded greatly.”
Miyake just opened its third restaurant, Miyake Diner, in the original West End location that housed Food Factory Miyake. Its “izakaya” home-cooking is matched to an intelligently honed sake list, which won’t be a surprise to anyone who has dined at Pai Men Miyake or the flagship Miyake restaurant.
But the thing to remember is that Miyake’s brilliance lies in his exposure to European haute cuisine traditions, and his stunning ability to remain true to his roots while incorporating flavors, combinations and ingredients suggested by his own Maine farm.
This is the lesson I’m trying to learn for myself, by buying a small bottle every so often (a true alcohol value, sake comes in small bottles, which once opened remain fresh in the refrigerator for several days at least), and cooking something simple to match my impressions.
I stay away from lemon, cheese and garlic, and commit to umami: scallops, richly poached fish, thickly sliced mushrooms, ginger, butter, custard, winter squash. Maine-harvested sea vegetables, an amazing 12-month/local/nutritious food to always have on hand, go a long way toward bridging sake with non-Japanese preparations.
So far, to my chagrin, I have spoken of sake monolithically, as if it were a single beverage. Sakes are classified in part according to the rate of milling: more polishing wipes away more bran, leaving ever finer levels of starch, leading to ever more delicate sakes.
The particular water used, and variety of rice, and koji (the fermenting mold) matter a lot.
Most sakes have water added to reduce alcohol from a natural 20 percent or so to around 15 percent, but some sakes (Honjozo, Ginjo and Daiginjo, unpredicated by Junmai) have a small amount of alcohol distillate added, which alters mouthfeel and another trait I can only call presence. Nigori sakes are unfiltered, cloudy with rice residue and delicious, often presenting a tangy character akin to an unrinsed yogurt container after a couple of days (I mean that as a compliment).
All the designations matter, and don’t. Polishing increases in unfortified sakes from Junmai to Junmai Ginjo to Junmai Daiginjo, but this doesn’t necessarily lead to higher quality. I love the impossibly fine and gauzy ones, but it’s actually easier for an amateur cook to prepare meals to match the coarser, funkier expressions.
For instance, I’ve enjoyed a beautifully juicy, graceful, smooth Junmai Daiginjo, the Dassai 39 ($20, 300ml, National), with dumplings and ramen at Pai Men Miyake, and the supremely clean, fennel-flecked Bunraku Dress Bottle ($15, 300ml, Mariner) is heaven-sent for complex vegetable preparations.
But it is the somewhat stranger sakes, like the funky, homemade-yogurt-like Hitori Misume Nigori Junmai ($22, SoPo), or the Nanbu Bijin All Koji Junmai 2008 ($36, 500ml, National) that proved most versatile at home.
Almost all sake is made by combining plain rice with koji, the mix of mold and rice responsible for the initial starch breakdown. This combination yields a more pristine flavor profile but with less actual concentration of flavor. For Japanese food this is helpful. But the Nanbu Bijin All Koji is made only from the koji itself, and is much more robust because of it.
There’s almost too much going on in it, like opera: an opera of cedar, shiitake, lobster broth, dead flowers, maple, balsamic and a definite spore-y mushroomness. I cooked alongside it for several days – French onion soup, mushroom risotto, sausage; nothing “Japanese” in sight – and was exhilarated every time. The sake opened and transformed over these days, too, which you can’t observe in a restaurant.
The key is to find an importer or two you like, and go from there. You will need help. For now, no local retailer is able to offer it reliably, so you should dine somewhere with a good list of sakes, and ask questions.
Watch the flavors dance with each other; watch how the textures undulate. Photograph the label with your smartphone, buy a bottle somewhere, and start cooking.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at email@example.com. Not all the wines mentioned in this column are necessarily sold at Rosemont, but distributor information listed in parentheses permits special orders through any Maine retailer.