Since Natsuko Yamawaki took over as Executive Chef of Hakkoan Aki on West 4th, a cozy sushi spot in the Village, she has infused the menu with koji, a mold that is used in the fermentation process of essential Japanese ingredients. Since rice koji is fundamental to the production of sake, Chef Yamawaki held a Sake 101 Workshop at her restaurant with Tetsuya Funato, Director of Marketing and Sales at Ozeki Sake.
In addition to tasting five different Ozeki Sake labels, class attendees learned about the basics of sake production. Ozeki Sake is more than 300 years old, brewing sake in Nada, Hyogo Prefecture, since 1711. Funato says Hyogo Prefecture’s location between Osaka and Kobe is ideal for rice and sake production. In fact, the Nada area has the largest sake-producing area in Japan. The combination of mountain water and seawater creates miya-mizu, water that is high in minerals. The use of such mineral-rich water yields sake with a strong, full-bodied flavor through a faster fermentation process.
While the quality of water is a major factor, Funato says, “Koji is the key to sake brewing.”
Koji breaks down the starch in rice, converting it into sugar before yeast begins the fermentation process. Koji also produces enzymes, creating umami, the fifth taste that gives the sake its memorable flavor, alone or paired with food. Umami can be found worldwide, but it is particularly important in Japanese cuisine. Dashi, the base of Japanese cooking, is made with ingredients that are rich in umami: Kombu (kelp), katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), and shiitake mushrooms. Since sake contains the flavor enhancers found in those foods, Funato equates sake to dashi and therefore says it’s food friendly.
The first sake Funato introduced was Hana Awaka sparkling sake. Sparkling sake is a new creation in the sake industry. Hana Awaka is the result of pressing a young sake mash, or one that has a short period of fermentation. Funato says that most seasoned, hard-core sake drinkers probably wouldn’t go for a sparkling sake every day, but Hana Awaka is a good introduction into sake for the uninitiated. Refreshing and bubbly like champagne, sparkling sake is full-bodied and sweet.
As guests nibbled on Chef Yamawaki’s umami-rich appetizers of pickled broccoli stems, dried daikon with carrot and kombu, tomato with cilantro pesto, roasted eggplant and kabocha, avocado tofu, Japanese peppers, onigiri with scallion miso, and egg roll with burdock root kinpira, Funato poured more sake to complement what she had prepared.
Platinum Junmai Daiginjo This is a brand new product for Ozeki Sake, and Funato says it was created for the American market. Junmai Daiginjo is the most labor intensive of all sake, where the rice is milled to 50%. “The more we polish the rice, the cleaner and lighter the sake,” says Funato.
Yamada Nishiki This Tokubetsu Junmai, or “special pure,” has exceptional flavor. Ozeki uses Yamada Nishiki rice, which is grown in Hyogo Prefecture and is regarded as the world’s best sake rice. Funato says that breweries across Japan use Yamada Nishiki rice in their sake. Full-bodied and dry, Yamada Nishiki perfectly complements foods that are rich in umamai. Funato also served Yamada Nishiki warm. “As the temperature rises, we have the full umami flavor,” says Funato.
Trying this Tokubetsu Junmai made me realize that Junmai Daiginjo may be the most expensive kind of sake, but it’s not necessarily the best tasting. While Platinum is rich and fruity, there’s something about the smooth finish of Yamada Nishiki that gives it distinction.
Karatamba Honjozo adds pure alcohol at the final stage of fermentation to produce a lighter, but stronger, taste. The process of making a Honjozo extracts more aroma and flavor from rice.
Osakaya Chobei Another Daiginjo, Osakaya has a slight fruitiness that blended well with Chef Yamawaki’s fig and cake dessert, even though it’s not specifically considered a dessert sake.
Koji has many uses in Japanese cooking, from sake brewing to the production of miso, soy sauce, and mirin. Chef Yamawaki incorporates koji into her menus for healthy benefits, such as added nutrition, better digestion, and food preservation.
“We can’t say sake is ‘healthy’ because it is alcohol,” says Funato. But he can say that sake is “health friendly” because it is gluten free and contains no sulfites. Unlike wine, sake is low in acidity and astringency. And as Chef Yamawaki’s dishes proved, sake can be enjoyed with much more than simply sushi and sashimi.
Chef Yamawaki hosts several classes dealing with koji and macrobiotic foods. Check the restaurant’s website for more information.