Before we speak about technics, geography, history and other themes in this blog, I thought it was important to take a few moments to break some images we can have about Sake an sometimes about Japan.
Idea number one: Sake is a strong spirit
We start with the oldest, the most deep-rooted and maybe the most annoying of beliefs about sake, this idea which makes that many people are a little scared when you propose a sake tasting because, as they say, « I don’t like strong alcohols ».
This feeling is always coming from an experience we have all knew, in an Asian restaurant which offered you, at the end of the dinner, a so-called sake, in fact spirit, often served in a magic appearance naked woman glass (In France). Beyond the alcohol level, this spirit was often poor quality one, « une boisson à trois mains » (literal translation : "a three hands drink", one for the glass, the two others to stand at the table).
After that kind of moment, many people sworn it was the first and the last time they accept to drink that burning liquid.
For more than 20 years now, the culture of Japanese sake become stronger and stronger around the world, but for most consumers, the word sake still too often leads to a rejection in memory of burning mouth.
However, sake is anything but a distilled drink.
The sake comes from (in a simplistic way but I will come back to this) the fermentation of steamed rice previously inoculated with a fungus (kojikin) in order to change the starch into sugars that the yeasts will transform into alcohol. Sake, by legal definition in Japan, cannot exceed 22% of alcohol and, in most sakes I tasted until now, alcohol is often beetween 16% and 18%. But beyond the level of alcohol, which is only one of the elements of the taste, the words that come to my mind when I taste sake are more finess, elegancy, discrete, sweetness. We are so far away from the burning memories of afterdinner’s drink. You can really discover an other level of sensations and that would be a shame to deprive ourselves of this pleasure.
"Sake brought me into a new world of tasting". Serge DUBBS, Best World Sommelier 1989
Idea Number 2: all sakes are the same to me!
Even if it’s less widespread, I still heard this sentence almost equally than "it doesn't have really taste".
The discovery and tasting of sake very often leads to a complete recalibration of your tasting ability. The discrete aromas and the subtle tastes of sakes force the palate to be more awaken as if you listen to sensitive music an try to hear all the nuances and discover all the instruments.
In we speak mathematics, the best analogy I found (hope i twill speak to you) is to imagine going from a scale of 0 to 10 graduated from 1 in 1 to a scale which would go from 1 to 5 but with steps of 0.1.
Even if it can be strong between sakes of various origins, more or less polished rice, styles, age or even temperatures of service, the differences are sometimes minimal, both in terms of aromatics and flavors. You need to be mindful to note all the level of tastes. You also need to taste several sakes to create a new taste library between wine, spirits and beer. It’s a modest price to fully enjoy the gods drink.
Idea Number 3 : Sake only goes well with Japanese dishes ...
...and I don't like sashimi.
We will, finally, speak about two generally accepted ideas for one.
Let's finish with the first: raw fish (sashimi among others), even if it’s emblematic of rising sun country in the western world, is not the daily food in Japan
Historically the Japanese ate what they produced: in the countryside, mainly rice and vegetables and, in villages near the sea, fish.
One of the principles of Japanese cuisine is the Ichiju Sansai which literally means a soup and three dishes of colors (different of course). The soup is either a miso soup or a dashi (based upon katsuobushi - smoked fish - or kombu - an alga- depending on the region). The other three dishes are rice, vegetables and proteins from meat - chicken, pork or beef - or fish. Variety is very important in Japanese cuisine because food, in addition to be tasty, have to be healthy.
Of course, sakes matches very well with all styles of Japanese cuisine, not only because of their diversity but also thanks to the balance bring by Umami. This fifth flavor is particularly surprising for its ability to match with many foods.
Far beyond Japanese specialties, sake contains treasures of harmony matches with an incredible choice of dishes, spices and cuisines from all around the world, including France of course.
I will be back on this in a next episode.