Kanpai: Sake to us all
It seems there continues to be a major resurgence in interest and consumption of sake in the U.S. as American palettes become more prepared to invite novel flavors and culinary ideas. Or maybe sake bombs are simply downright fun!Just as we, as a nation, are more willing to try new foods like sushi, we have become more open to trying the accompanying beverages that complement each food-type. Several decades ago, as Mexican fare – often bastardized as Tex-Mex – found itself gaining the hearts of American diners, Margaritas (and subsequently premium tequilas) also found their way down the throats of spicy-mouthed gringos. Now with a booming taste for delicate and fresh Japanese sushi, it is apparent that Americans have acquired a fondness for fine sake, too.What is sake though?Sake is a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage (though not technically a wine, as commonly referred) made from rice by methods that date back 2,000 years. Polished sake rice grains are fermented with water to create a generally clear, mildly-acidic wine ranging between 13-18 percent alcohol by volume. The alcohol is converted from starches which are concentrated toward the center of a grain of sake rice. Polishing or milling the rice before brewing removes the outer layer, which consists mostly of fats and proteins. Inclusion of these layers may adversely alter fermentation, contributing off-flavors and unwanted components.
Therefore, as a general rule, the more the rice has been polished, the cleaner, more elegant and refined the sake will be. A designation system in Japan allots only six percent of sakes as “super-premium” (Ginjo or better). These are all sakes that have been polished around 50 percent (meaning the rice is half its original size or less before fermentation begins). Finer sakes also typically endure longer and colder fermentation periods, and generally favor traditional and labor-intensive methodology to modern mechanism. With myriad sake breweries creating several sake brands each, there is a deep expanse of rice wine waiting for exploration. While the world of grape wine seems truly infinite, the realm of sake is also vast, with flavors depending on the brewmaster’s style, the rice and water qualities, the fermentation duration and conditions, and polishing. Variations across these factors will affect and contribute to a sake’s sweetness, aromas, complexity, acidity and body.Much like in the wine-producing Old World, Japan’s many prefectures and villages produce their own beloved versions of the national beverage, complete with local tradition, climate, conditions and sake rice. Likewise, each region features its own cuisine, also based on available produce, knowledge and weather. Interestingly, and again as with Europe’s wine regions, the locally produced beverage is often the most natural complement to the local dishes. Character in a sake is derived from several qualities such as a sake’s fragrance, its sweetness verse dryness, and its acidity level. Its fragrance might be either fruitful or rice-laden. A sweet sake will accent richness or saltiness in a dish, while dry sakes symbiotically enhance fresh and light seafood flavors. And high acidity cuts through bolder foods such as the oiliness of tempura appetizers. Contrawise, low acidity sake harmonizes well with softer tastes, such as the gentle flavors of sashimi.Several elite Japanese sakes sell for over $200 a bottle, and while these are almost always wonderfully refined and delightful sakes, there are many much more modestly priced sakes, including some domestic brands that will give you an innovative and pure sake encounter. These are often available in the $10-$15 bottle range, or comparable to a glass or two of house wine at the North Tahoe restaurants listed below.And one more word of advice: It is supposed to be bad luck to pour your own sake, so go with a friend, or make friends with your neighbor.
Java Sushi (530-582-1144) in Truckee pours the celebratory Timon Gold Flake sake. Its shimmering, infused flakes of gold make it the Goldschlager of the sake world. And I’m not sure, but Java may have been the first to introduce the sake bomb to the area, in which drinkers drop a shot (choko) of sake into a splash of beer (a la “Japanese Car Bomb”) and throw it all back.Hiro Sushi (530-546-4476) is unsurprisingly the only place in Kings Beach to fulfill requests for Kaguyahime with a creamy rice drink with a big, full body and subtle tropicality. One might exclaim “Kanpai,” which means “to your health,” and is the Japanese version of “cheers.”Yama Sushi (530-583-9262) features both hot and cold sakes made by Sho Chiku Bai. Made by a Berkeley division of Japanese giant Takara, Sho Chiku Bai uses rice from the fertile Sacramento Valley, and cold snowmelt from right here in the Sierra Nevada to produce America’s best-selling sake.
Mamasake (530-584-0110) is Raw at Squaw. My vote for best sake selection in the area, I also like the traditional hot sake method. If you must drink it hot, try it from a hot-water bath, in which the porcelain carafes are partly submerged, allowing the sake to retain its flavors. Also try any of the Momokawas for a great example of a clean, delicious domestic sake.Sake may be hot, but please drink it cold!It must be noted that most true sake aficionados drink their sake cold. Sure, a hot sake is a warming cap on a winter’s eve, but the best sakes should be sipped between 50 degrees and room temperature. Heating sake seems to be the most popular offering in the U.S., but the heating mutes many unique tones. Perhaps that is why most hot sakes are cheap, somewhat lifeless varieties – because the heat also nullifies flat and undesired tones that come from the fats and proteins retained in unmilled rice. Likewise, heating super-premium sake might be akin to using Grey Goose vodka in collegiate jungle juice. If you really want to experience the highlights of sake, I urge you to order it cold next time, and to sip it slowly, contemplating the flavors like a big glass of Bordeaux.
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