For the past several years now my friends Magdalena and Michael have helped organize the Joy of Sake event here in New York. I’m always been especially glad about this, as it tends to translate into some very tasty “thank you” bottles in their apartment. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the ones I’ve tried—without having the slightest idea about their context or what differentiated one from the other. This year, I decided to live in sake ignorance no longer. For the nuts and bolts, I consulted the team behind Joy of Sake—headed by sake expert Chris Pearce. I also did a cursory health search, and (for no particular reason) capped it all off by asking Chef Masato Shimizu of New York’s 15 East restaurant for a food recipe that would qualify as “very sake-friendly.” Below, the accumulated spoils:
Health: As I’ve written here before, sake has about twice the number of calories as does wine (39 calories per ounce versus 20). It’s also higher in alcohol (18-20 percent versus 12-13). In other words, there’s a reason we drink less of it. Here’s something interesting, though: I was able to find a pretty recent study from the Kyoto Pharmaceutical University in Japan that showed that when stomach cells were exposed to wine, sake, whisky, and pure alcohol, respectively, only the latter two caused damage.
What’s especially relevant about this is that the whisky and alcohol were diluted down in solutions to give them about the same alcohol concentration as the sake—so the difference wasn’t due to the amount of alcohol the stomach was exposed to. The researchers think that the glucose that’s in both wine and sake may have some protective properties.
Buying: Don’t buy sake in a store unless it’s kept under refrigeration; heat degrades it. And don’t buy sake that doesn’t have the bottling date printed on the label; unlike wine, sake actually gets worse with age.
Flavor: Sake is made from fermented rice in a process similar to beer brewing. Fascinatingly, it turns out that sake’s flavor is profoundly affected by the type of water it’s brewed it. Soft water yields a mellow flavor, while more minerals creates a crisper one. Personally, I’ve always been a little curious about the “serve cold versus warm” (though never hot—apparently this kills the aroma) thing. Here’s my answer: Sakes with a floral or fruity flavor are best drunk cold, while earthier ones with more rice taste can be enjoyed either warm or cold.
Kinds: Sake categories have to do with the degree of the rice kernel polishing. There are three main ones:
- Junmai (about 30% of the outer rice kernel is polished off). Known for fuller, more robust and earthy flavors. Pairs well with food.
- Ginjo (at least 40% of the outer rice kernel is polished off). Lighter, more complex and delicate flavors. Often fruity and floral
- Daiginjo (at least 50% of the outer rice kernel is polished off, and often much more). Very labor intensive to make. The most complex and refined of the bunch.
*In addition: The cloudy sake you’ll sometimes see is called nigori. The consistency comes from the fact that, unlike most sake, it’s not filtered. Sake is also typically aged, but in the spring, a kind called namazake is released (sort of like Beaujolais). It’s unpasteurized and undiluted.
What to pair with it: There are loads fewer things to think about here than what you hear with wine. The basic rule is to match lighter sakes with lighter dishes and heavier sakes with heavier food. Junmais are a bit fuller and more assertive, so they go well with a variety of food. Ginjos and daiginjos, however, would be served with more delicate dishes. While you can have sake with any cuisine (“anything but pizza” I’m told), it goes especially well with fish, meat, cheese, nuts, and vegetables (Magdalena told me she recently had some at home with a salad—this sounded pretty great to me).
A few to try: Dewazakura “Oka,” Masumi “Okukden Kantsukuri,” and Hoyo “Kura no Hana” all regularly win awards at the U.S.National Sake Appraisal and frequently show up on restaurant menus.
And now for the recipe: Definitely a first for me. And with a few ingredients that don’t necessarily jump off the shelves, so I’ll admit I’ve yet to try it. But, personally, I got some value out of reading about how the raw fish was prepped. I’ve always wondered about that.
Tai Arai From 15 East Executive Sushi Chef Masato Shimizu (Serves 4)
8 oz Tai (Japanese red snapper; preferably cut from the back)
4 oz ponzu sauce (You can buy it, or, here’s a recipe from Mark Bittman)
½ tsp finely sliced scallions
Momiji oroshi (grated daikon mixed with red pepper)
1) Slice the fish very thinly (about 3 mm; Chef Masato says it should be just a hint thicker than “usuzukuri.” If that meant as little to you as it first did me, I can now tell you that it’s very thinly sliced sashimi). In a small bowl, make a bath of ice water with crushed ice and a dash of salt.
2) “Wash” sliced tai in the ice water until flesh turns from transparent to white. Strain and blot on a cloth, removing any pieces of ice.
3) Place a new mound of crushed ice in a bowl or on a plate. Arrange the snapper slices over the ice to form a “flower.”
4) Mix ponzu with scallions and momiji oroshi in a small sauce holder. Serve with the fish.