For most wine enthusiasts in the Western part of the world, the fermented rice drink known as sake is nothing much more than a slightly exotic alcoholic beverage they tried once at a sushi restaurant.
But in Japan, sake (pronounced “sah-keh,” not “sah-kee”) plays an integral role in the sophisticated world of Japanese cuisine, which for most of us is already confusing enough.
If you’re planning on spending time in Japan, getting familiar with the customs and traditions of sake will go a long way toward helping you to truly understand both the country’s cuisine and its culture.
After your flight to Japan has landed and you’ve checked into your hotel, you’ll probably be ready for your first truly authentic Japanese meal … and perhaps a touch of sake to go along with it.
If that’s the case, here’s something to bear in mind once you settle on a restaurant:
In Japanese, the word “sake” is generally used as a generic term for any sort of alcoholic beverage. When locals in Japan want to order sake at a bar or restaurant, they’ll often ask for “nihon-shu,” or “Japanese liquor.”
The drink is said to date back as far as the fourth century, when it was traditionally used for religious or ceremonial purposes.
Sake is commonly referred to as rice wine, and in fact it is made of fermented rice and water. Interestingly, its brewing process is somewhat similar to that of beer — it all begins by grinding, washing and steaming rice, and then deriving yeast from that rice.
How Sake is Served
In Japan, you may be served sake in any of three different ways: chilled (reishu), at room temperature (jōon), or heated (atsukan). And while you can certainly request a hot or cold drink, the temperature at which sake is served often has much to do with its quality and its specific style.
Hot sake, for instance, tends to be served during the wintertime. Exceptionally high-quality sake, however, is always served cold — the better to maintain its complex flavors and aroma. Old or lower-quality sake, meanwhile, tends to be served hot in an effort to mask its taste.
So what’s your best bet when it comes time to choose a variety? Definitely ask your bar or restaurant server to make a sake recommendation.
Why? Consider this: There are four fairly distinct categories of sake, and incredibly, Japan is home to some 1,600 sake producers, according to an interview with a top-ranked sake sommelier in The Telegraph.
What’s more, there are over 10,000 brands available worldwide. And while sake is traditionally enjoyed straight, or neat, its popularity as a cocktail ingredient is growing steadily in Japan.
All of which is to suggest that you’ll never need to be shy or embarrassed about asking a sake expert for his or her top recommendation.
In Japan, sake is often served in small, cylindrical serving cups that are referred to as choko, or in the honorific form, o-choko. You may, however, see sake served in a square wooden box known as a masu, which is made of Japanese cypress or cedar wood. Historically, masus were used to measure out the exact proportions of cooking rice.
Should you be lucky enough to receive sake served in a masu during your trip to Japan, you’ll almost certainly find the small box filled to the brim. It holds exactly 180 milliliters of liquid, which is just over six ounces.
Your sake will be poured from a ceramic flask, or tokkuri. But while in Japan, be mindful to never pour your own drink. If your sake isn’t being poured by a host or hostess, the tradition involves individuals in a group pouring sake into each other’s cups. Remember to hold the flask with your palms facing downward. And when sake is being served to you, use both hands to gently support your small cup, or choko.
Once every drinking member of your party has been served, anyone among the group can offer the customary Japanese toast of “kanpai.” Touching cups during a toast in Japan is traditional, just as it is in the West.
Ready for a Genuine Sake Experience?
Even in the ultra-modern Japan of the twenty-first century, sake continues to play an integral role in the cultural lives of locals, just as it has for hundreds of years. It’s still consumed formally during religious, ceremonial, and business events, and it’s regularly enjoyed socially with friends. All of which means that enjoying the tradition — however you choose to — will be essential to soaking up the Japanese spirit during your travels.
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