Feature - Food


 日本酒 / SAKE -Enjoy drinking sake on long autumn nights-

Summer is over and autumn has come, bringing with it one of the season’s luxuries: to sit in the light of the moon slowly tasting the great food and drink that this time of year has to offer. Take a break from the usual wine and occasionally enjoy some ‘Wa-in’, Japanese beverages. There are numerous ways to enjoy Japanese sake (also known as ‘Nihon-shu’*), so why not give it a go.
*In Japanese, ‘sake’ simply means alcoholic beverages in general, however the name for the specific drink known in the West ‘saki’, is Nihon-shu.

Nihon-shu is made from fermented rice and is Japan’s best known brew. Yeast, water and kōji (polished rice fermented in kōji fungus; the same fungus used to ferment soy beans for soy sauce and miso) are brewed to create shubo (a starter for the fermentation process) which is then added to steamed rice and allowed to ferment. This is then pressed to separate the liquid from the solids and filtered to produce the favoured alcoholic drink.
Unlike wine, which uses yeast to convert the sugars from the grapes to alcohol, nihon-shu uses the kōji to convert the rice’s starch into sugars and then the sugars into alcohol with the yeast. With over 2000 years of history, there are multitudes of different types of nihon-shu all made different by the varieties of rice, kōji, shubo and water used to make them.


The History of Nihon-Shu

In Japan, people first began using rice to make alcohol back in the Yayoi period (around 400BC) and it is believed that it originated in the Kyūshū and Kinki Regions. At that time, grains were warmed and chewed in the mouth before being spat out into a dish. The enzymes from the saliva (called diastase) would convert the starches into sugar, with natural yeasts to allow the mixture to ferment. This method was known as kuchi-kami (literally ‘mouth-chewing’).
During the Nara period (8th century), the Chinese method of making alcohol from kōji was brought to Japan. Making alcohol using rice kōji became popular, and brewing became a thriving industry. During the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (13th to 16th centuries) the construction of liquor stores in downtown Kyoto began to increase. By the Azuchi-momoyama period (16th century) techniques for crafting large tubs had allowed production of alcohol to rapidly increase, establishing the foundations of Japan’s modern sake industry.
During the Edo period, many new techniques were devised for the treatment of alcohol and, combined with the development of distribution networks, the brewing industry became one of Japan’s largest industries. This was taken to Edo (Tokyo) and became extremely popular among the masses. During the Taishō period (1912-26) it became popular to sell nihon-shu in the large 1.8 litre bottles (known as isshōbin) seen commonplace today. Then, during the Shōwa period (1926-89), modern manufacturing processes improved efficiency.
In 2008, 717,153,000 litres* of nihon-shu were consumed in Japan (that equates to 6.88 litres for every person over the legal drinking age of 20). In addition, more than 10 million litres were exported to other countries (an increase of 30% over the previous 5 years), going to show that nihon-shu is enjoyed by many people both in Japan and overseas.
*Sourced from statistical data relating to the imposition of liquor taxes

Varieties of Nihon-shu

Nihon-shu can be divided into several different types with the basis being the rice polishing ratio (seimai-buai), which is the percentage of weight remaining after polishing. For example, if the rice is polished to a ratio of less than 60% (meaning that over 40% of the rice bran and germ has been removed) it is known as Ginjō-shu; if it is a ratio of 60~70%, the nihon-shu is known as Honjōzō-shu. A rice grain has a greater the proportion of sugars in its centre, thus a more highly polished grain will produce a sweeter nihon-shu. Also, the rice germ and rice bran produce a less refined taste. Incidentally, the polishing ratio of the normal rice we eat is 90~92%, making you realise just how extravagant nihon-shu really is and helps to understand its high cost.

● Dai-ginjō-shu
A variety of ginjō-shu, this nihon-shu is made from rice with a seimai-buai of 50% or less giving it a particularly exquisite flavour and clarity. Its mellow aroma, combined with its refined taste, make it the work of art amongst nihon-shu. It was once known as the ‘illusion sake’ due to its rarity.

● Ginjō-shu
Made from 60% seimai-buai rice, it is slowly fermented at low temperatures giving it a characteristic aroma.

● Junmai-shu
Junmai-shu is made from rice with a seimai-buai of less than 70% and is made only with rice kōji and water, without adding any sweeteners or brewer’s alcohol. The characterising feature of this “pure rice sake” is its strong rice flavour.

● Honjōzō-shu
Like junmai-shu, honjōzō-shu is made with rice polished to less than70%, rice kōji and water, but it also has a little brewer’s alcohol added to extract extra flavour. Being made in the old fashioned ways, this nihon-shu can also be enjoyed warm.

● Nama-zake
Unlike other types of nihon-shu which are pasteurised twice during production, once during storage and the other when it is bottled, nama-zake is not pasteurised. The unrefined nihon-shu is simply pressed and strained, consequently, the yeast and enzymes remain alive, giving it its distinctive fresh flavour.

● Nama-chozō-shu
Like nama-zake, this type of nihon-shu is not pasteurised during its storage, however it is heated once when it is bottled.


Nihon-shu Trivia

What’s the difference between nihon-shu and shōchū (Japanese potato sake)?
Put simply, nihon-shu is fermented (as is wine) while shōchū is distilled (as are spirits). Fermented alcohols use grains and fruits and add yeast to create alcohol. Distilled alcohols heat this fermented mixture to make it evaporate, before being cooled and collected. Thus you can make rice shōchū by distilling nihon-shu. Distilled alcohols also usually have a greater alcohol content.

Sweet vs Dry

Broadly speaking, the flavour of the nihon-shu relies on the balance between the amount of sugar and acidity. You often see a rating of +3.0 or -2.0, for example, written on nihon-shu labels. This shows the amount of sugar; the ‘+’ represents the dryness and the ‘-’ shows sweetness. Ginjō-shu is usually shown as a ‘+’ meaning it is a dry sake.


Nihon-shu which has a good aroma or a smooth taste is best enjoyed chilled, but be careful not to over chill it as the flavour will diminish. In general, when you heat nihon-shu for drinking it is called ‘okan-o-tsukeru’, however the name changes with the temperature; heated to around 30℃is known as ‘hinata-kan’; 35℃ is ‘hitohada-kan’; 40℃ is ‘nuru-kan’; 45℃ is called ‘jō-kan’; and around 50℃ is known as ‘atsu-kan’.


Ways to enjoy nihon-shu

In Adelaide, nihon-shu is gaining popularity in Japanese restaurants. Men tend to like dry types while women seem to prefer the slightly sweeter ones.
Delicious food combinations include:
・An aromatic nihon-shu: sashimi and other seafood dishes;
・A light smooth nihon-shu: salad, seafood and omelette;
・A full-bodied nihon-shu: steak and fried foods;
・A strong mature nihon-shu: foods such as lamb steak, beef stew and stewed pork belly.

At home, some foods that go very well with nihon-shu include:
- Frozen edamame (soy beans in their pods); defrosted at room temperature or under running water. They are fantastic with chilled nihon-shu.
- Sumiso (sour sweet miso) or yuzumiso (miso infused with citrus); used as a dip for vegetable sticks or poured over warm vegetables. The salt in the miso paste deepens the flavour of the nihon-shu.
- Canned broiled sanma (pacific saury - type of fish); the aromatic sweet soy flavour and juicy sanma go perfectly with nihon-shu.


Slightly unusual nihon-shu à la carte recipes

Nihon-shu sherbet

Pour some nihon-shu into a glass, wrap it and simply place it in the freezer. Give it a stir occasionally and it will become sherbet in about 4 or 5 hours. Place some lime, or perhaps some peach or even an olive on top, or you can pour honey or sugar syrup over it. It’s a delicious dessert.

Orange cocktail

Just add one teaspoon of sugar and some orange juice to warm nihon-shu. Apparently it not only tastes great, it also is said to prevent sunburn.

Tomato cocktail

Pour equal amounts of tomato juice and nihon-shu into a glass. Add a little lemon juice and ice and you have a refreshing drink which is believed to help improve your skin.

Egg sake

Bring some nihon-shu to the boil and add some sugar and beaten egg. Stir and add a little ginger juice. This drink is really good to help your body fight colds.


 But remember; don’t drink too much!


Photography assistance: LITTLE TOKYO