Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By Joe Appel
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.”
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