Know the ancient traditions of Japanese drink ‘sake’

Walking into the Consulate-General of Japan situated at Cumbala Hill, one is easily mesmerised by the sheer beauty of the space, and it perfectly complemented the event being organised here.

The consulate arranged for a talk on sake followed by a tasting and food pairing session. We pulled out our choko (small ceramic cup in which sake is served) from our collectible cabinet and headed over. By the time the sake master was done taking us through the sake story, we were enchanted by this drink, which hasn’t gained a lot of prominence in our Asian restaurants yet.

The sake story

Sake is known to be first produced in China in 4800 BC, making it the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world. From there it spread to Japan, in 300 BC, and underwent several developments to produce the sake that is enjoyed today. Used mainly for religious and ceremonial occasions, sake is popularly known as the ‘Drink of the Gods’.

Sake is prepared from rice, rice malt and water with a special process unique to Japan. It is made from a special variety of rice called Saka Mai or Sake Rice, which is much larger than the rice that is commonly used for food.

Since water takes up 80% of the components of sake, the quality of the drink depends on the water; ground water or underground water is mainly used in the making.

You could mix sake with another beverage, but it’s taste and aroma are best enjoyed straight up, hot or cold. The hottest sake, Tobikiri Atsukan (which translates to exceptionally hot sake), goes around 55 degrees Celsius while the lowest goes around -10 degrees. The drink is known to have a higher alcohol content than both beer and wine.

A rather interesting thing about the traditional sake process is that spit used to be a key ingredient. Now Koji fungus is used to ferment the rice, but long ago villagers used to gather together to chew on the polished rice and spit its mashed remains into a tub. The enzymes of their saliva helped the fermentation process. Aren’t you grateful for the development this alcohol has seen?

A drink for all seasons

A few other things we learnt about sake is that there is a name for the situations in which you drink it. During the spring, you look at a sakura tree (cherry blossom) and enjoy your sake, its called Hanami Zake. During New Year, you drink it in a Sakazuki (ceremonial cup) and its called Toso.

During autumn, you admire the full moon and enjoy your sake, its called Tsukimi Zake. During the winter, you stay indoors and enjoy your sake while watching the snow fall, its called Yukimi Zake.

The etiquette of serving sake is known as o-shaku. Unlike other drinks, it’s considered rude to pour your own glass of sake; it suggests that you don’t trust your host to take care of you.

This creates an atomosphere of social bonding. Traditionally the drink was served in a choko accompanied by a tokkuri (ceramic flask). The drink would be poured in such a way that it spilled over the rim of the cup, as a sign of the generosity of the host.

Bringing sake to the world

The Japanese are very keen on sharing their sake with the rest of the world. And today, there are several variants of the traditional drink. One which is popular among the ladies given its bright pink hue had a jelly-like consistency to it. While another sake had several fruity flavours infused in it, of which we found the plum and the peach variants the most delightful to our palate.

Here’s hoping our restaurateurs soon incorporate this delicious drink into their menus and we can sit back and mindfully sip on some sake come rain or shine.