Sakè is a Japanese drink made from rice. The main ingredients are rice, water, a mushroom called koji (whose function is to transform rice starch into sugars and thus start fermentation) and natural yeasts similar to those used to make bread.
There are various types of sakè. Its alcohol content approaches that of wine, oscillating between 12° and 18°. Sakè can be drunk cold, at room temperature, or hot, and it is often also served at the end of a meal in oriental restaurants. The different types of sakè differ on the basis of two characteristics: the level of smoothness of the rice and the addition or not, at the end of the process, of alcohol.
Honing is a process used to remove parts of the rice such as, some types of proteins that can affect the flavor of the final product. The external part is therefore removed from the raw rice grain in a more specific way than for table rice. A greater smoothing, or refining of the rice grain leads to lighter and rounder flavors, while leaving a higher percentage of fats, proteins and starch and gives the final product more decisive and persistent aromas. Alcohol is added at the end of the production process with the aim of giving the sakè a stronger, more persistent flavor.
The processes discussed above greatly affect the final aromas of the product. As with wine, sakè tasting rituals discover hidden bouquets and reveal secondary flavors. By training the nose, we recognize the facets that the combination of these few but specific ingredients can give.
For example, we find fruity aromas (apple, pear and mainly tropical fruit) in sakè with a very high level of refinement and made with specific fermentation methods at medium-low temperatures. It is the yeast that reigns supreme in the creation of these sweet and full-bodied notes.
Long-aged sakè, on the other hand, has more spicy and wintery aromas, such as cinnamon and cloves. The strong sugary component also opens up the range of dried fruit scents, especially the walnut aroma. These notes vary in intensity according to the type of wood the sakè has matured in and also to the number of months the sakè has been aged. Cedar barrels, in particular, give sakè a woody and citrusy flavor, sometimes enhanced by aromas of green grass and rose.
A less intense smoothing process leaves the sakè with the typical flavor of cereal, while the koji mushroom, especially in “young” sakè, predominates on the scale of flavors thus giving the sakè a flavor very similar to that of mushrooms. The yeast, on the other hand, especially in particular fermentation conditions at higher temperatures, brings back acidic aromas (yogurt and vinegar) or curdled milk, butter, cheese. The sugar present in large quantities due to fermentation then offers colors and flavors of caramel, honey, sometimes even soy sauce.
TYPES OF SAKÈ
This sakè is produced without the addition of alcohol and is divided into sub-categories based on the degree of smoothness of the grain of rice. Junmai Ginjo, for example, has a degree of smoothness of 60% (which means that 40% of the grain is eliminated in the refining phase). The flavor is delicate, fruity and floral. Junmai Daiginjo, on the other hand, has a smoothness level of 50%, and is very refined and aromatic.
Futushu is the most produced and consumed sakè both in Japan and abroad. It does not fall into a specific sanding category and has a small addition of alcohol at the end of the manufacturing process.
Honjozo sakè has a minimum smoothness of 70% and a small percentage of alcohol is added to give it greater lightness and fragrance. It is ideal to be heated and has a very strong and acute taste.
Aged sakè is aged for over three years, while the average aging time of a sakè varies from 2 months to 2 years. Aged sakè constitutes a very small portion of sake production but is recruiting an ever larger number of enthusiasts, thus increasing its share of the market.
SAKÈ AT THE TABLE
It is thanks to these varieties that can be created by a combination of more or less refined rice and different quantities of alcohol that sakè is a very versatile accompaniment to food, and not only for Japanese or oriental cuisine.
A sakè and sushi pairing is the most obvious, so we put this combination in the first place precisely because of its popularity and geographical affinity. The Junmai sakè listed above is perfectly paired with the typical dishes of Japanese cuisine.
The most aged sakè, with a more intense flavors, pairs well with red meat, especially grilled meat. The sakè enhances the smokey notes due to the type of cooking and brings out more rounded, full and persistent flavors in the meat.
A fresher, less intensely aromatic sakè is recommended for white meat so as not to overpower its flavor.
The same can be said for fish, served both as a main course and as an accompaniment to a first course of pasta or risotto. Fatty fish, or fish prepared with elaborate and flavorful sauces, pairs well with a more robust sakè, served at room temperature, which serves to enhance the flavor of the fish and degrease the palate. White fish, with lighter preparations, is best paired with a light sake like Junmai Ginjo served cold, in a glass, so its delicate flavor will not be overwhelmed.
Also spicy foods go well with sakè. This combination can either soften the strong character of a very spicy food, thus attenuating the "burning" sensation given by a dish full of flavors, or help to clean up the mouth by immediately turning off the unmistakable effect given by spicy foods.
Thanks to its alcoholic component and its versatility of use, sakè is also a perfect accompaniment to fried foods, be they fish, meat or vegetables, enhancing the flavor of the dish and at the same time refreshing the palate.
The same thing goes for the cheeses that are present in large quantities and varieties on our tables in western culture; an aged sakè goes perfectly with seasoned and savory cheeses, while for fresher cheeses, perhaps soft cheeses, it is better to choose a younger and lighter sakè to make each flavor more persistent and decisive.
And how can you not finish a meal if not with an excellent dessert? Sakè is also perfect to end the meal. Chocolate-based sweets pair well with a a strong-flavored sakè that does justice to all the nuances that the cocoa presents. For more delicate desserts, perhaps prepared with fruit or light cream, a fruity sakè is the most suitable as an accompaniment. If you are a lover of Muscat wine to accompany perhaps drier pastries or biscuits, we recommend trying a sparkling sakè: a worthy substitute that can surprise you and your guests.