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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Versatility of sake makes it great for cooking

 •  Quality of sake used in cooking depends on the recipe

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Shuji Abe's eyes light up and he laughs as he describes the ultimate sake cooking experience: Take a big bottle of premium sake (ginjo or daiginjo grade), pour sake into a pot, boil off the alcohol, place the warm sake on a brazier in the middle of the table and use it as a medium in which to cook the freshest possible seafood and vegetables.

Pork sake pupu, a simmered dish, can be served hot or at room temperature.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Ingredients for the pork sake pupu include pork shoulder, low-sodium soy sauce, sake, dashi (in powered form), brown sugar and red miso.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Sake is made in a wide variety of styles, some as light and fragrant as a summer wine, others heartier or more viscous. The type of rice used, how much of the rice's outer coating is milled away, the purity of the water, whether the sake is filtered or unfiltered, as well as the brewer's own techniques all contribute.

Advertiser library photo

Sake shabu shabu. Oishi desu! (Delicious!)

Abe, corporate chef and director of International Furusato Inc., which operates a catering firm and two restaurants here (Furusato and L'Uraku), says that sake can appear in a Japanese meal from start to finish.

"Except dessert," says sake expert Chris Pearce.

Abe politely demures. There's sake sorbet, he reminds Pearce. (Abe, who has lived in Hawai'i since 1981, clearly understands English very well but chooses to have an interpreter on hand when he's discussing culinary concepts.)

Pearce and Abe are working together on the upcoming U.S. National Sake Appraisal on Aug. 25, a judging event during which 146 sakes will be evaluated by a panel of distinguished judges from the United States and Japan. Abe will be among 10 judges, five of whom are traveling here from Japan, who will award gold and silver medals in four divisions after a painstaking, all-day evaluation of sakes based on balance, aroma, taste and overall impression. The event was the first of its kind in the United States when it was launched in 2001, and attracts the interest of more sake breweries every year.

Pearce, founder of the Joy of Sake consulting firm in Honolulu, is readying for The Joy of Sake event, Aug. 27, offering sake-tasting, a People's Choice sake award competition, and appetizers from 13 fine-food purveyors, including L'Uraku, Roy's, Tokkuri-Tei and others (see box). The event has grown into a multistate presentation, with Joy of Sake tastings scheduled for San Francisco and New York, as well, mostly at the request of restaurant beverage buyers eager to learn more about sake.

Pearce said there's a great deal of curiosity about and interest in sake on the Mainland that has translated into increased use of sake in cooking, expansion of sake offerings on menus and sake pairing with foods. He just returned from a meeting with celebrity chef Ron Siegel, formerly of Masa and now of the Ritz Carlton-San Francisco, and his wine manager. "Honolulu is behind the curve on this one. It's not happening here, but it's definitely a trend there."

Other events that round out The Joy of Sake calendar include seminars for the industry on Aug. 26 and the 17th annual Kokusai Sake-Kai moon-viewing party at the Queen Emma Summer Palace on Aug. 28 (a few tickets may be available for this; contact Joy of Sake at 739-1000).

Third annual The Joy of Sake event

• 6 p.m. Aug. 27, Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i

• Sake-tasting, appetizers, new People's Choice awards

• Participating restaurants: Chai's Island Bistro, Gyotaku, Kacho, Kyo-Ya, L'Uraku, Marians, Momoyama, Musashi, Orchids at Halekulani, Roy's, Tavola Tavola, Tokkuri-Tei, Yabusoba

• Tickets: $65; Joy of Sake, 739-1500, or

• Fujioka's Wine & Spirits, 739-9463

• Information: www.joyofsake.com

In the Western tradition, wine infrequently appears in stocks or sauces. But in Japan, sake — which is neither a wine nor a brewed product, despite common misconceptions — is an integral ingredient in many daily recipes. Many cooks put a little sake in their dashi, for example, the fish-and-seaweed stock that is at the heart of Japanese cooking. Food may be sprinkled with sake before it's grilled or steamed, immersed in sake-based marinades, drizzled with sake-based sauces, steamed in or over sake mixtures.

"If you're talking about Japanese food, you're using sake every day," Pearce quotes Abe as saying. Whenever he uses the word, Abe gives sake it's honorific — ozake — indicating its place in Japanese culture and culinary tradition. "Even if it's not used in tempura, per se, for example, it's used in the dipping sauce."

Sake plays three roles in cooking, explains Abe, who apprenticed for five years under a master chef in Tokyo before coming to the Islands to serve as chef at Furusato, mentoring the likes of Hiroshi Fukui:

  • It helps to tenderize foods, breaking down the tissues slightly, softening the texture.
  • It eliminates any unpleasant odors, especially in cooking with seafood.
  • And it imparts an extra dimension of flavor, the indescribable component called umame (oo-mah-may, the so-called "fifth flavor" or extra deliciousness).

In Japan, you can buy a litre bottle of cooking sake for $6 to $8. Or you can spend as much as $50 on very fine sake. Most of the time in cooking, less-expensive sakes will do. Do use a ginjo (see Types of Sake) with delicate foods such as fresh seafood. With heartier foods, such as pork, you can use even a slightly stale sake with good results.

Pearce said good sources of premium sakes here are Marukai ($10 annual membership, but worth it) and Fujioka's Wine & Spirits.

Asked about pitfalls in using sake in cooking, Abe says it's important to burn the alcohol off, either by bringing the sake to a brief, gentle boil or by flaming it off — the latter technique is not used as with cognac, to caramelize food, but to quickly burn off the alcohol in simmering sake. This is used when the cook or chef is seeking usu aji (light, delicate flavors). The alcohol can lend a bitterness and harshness, Abe said, adding with a smile that you also don't want children imbibing alcohol with their noodles.

When it comes to more-refined cooking with sake, in which you're trying to match the sake to the flavors of the food, or to match the food with premium sake to drink, there's no substitute for experience. Abe likens it to cooking with wine and matching foods with wine. "When people do wine matching, they are aware of the characteristics of the wine," he said. A sake label is the source of a great deal of information on its likely quality and style; a good book (see resource) can help you decipher the label.

Another commonality between wine and sake is that sake is almost invariably drunk with food. Even those infamous businessmen's pau-hana drinking sessions involve a goodly spread of bar foods. "If you are drinking sake, you are always eating food," says Pearce. And often, if you are eating Japanese food, you are benefiting from the addition of sake.

• • •

Hot or cold?

Drinking taruzake. The wooden boxes in which it is stored and served give a cedar flavor to the sake.

Advertiser library photo

• Sake writer John Gauntner's short answer is: Serve premium sake chilled. Cheap sake slightly warm.

• The reason for serving sake hot in the past was that it was a much harsher drink. Brewing techniques have been refined.

• In general, serve ginjo, daiginjo and taru sakes lightly chilled; hardier junmai slightly cool, at room temperature or lightly warmed. Genshu and nigori sakes are good on the rocks.

• To warm sake: Place a filled flask in a saucepan of hot water or in the microwave; heat to just above body temperature (about 100-104 degrees). Never heat premium sake beyond warm: It ruins flavors.

• • •

Sake types and grades

(The suffix -shu, often seen in combination with sake types, refers to alcohol.)

Sake: Brewed from special starchy rice varieties. Mash is mixed with water, koji starter culture and yeast, steamed, fermented and pressed.

Junmai: "Pure rice" sake; contains only rice, water, koji and yeast; no added alcohol. Full-bodied, slightly acidic; Good match for food

Hanjozo: Sake to which distilled alcohol has been added (less than 25 percent by law); light and dry.

Ginjo: Premium sake; rice milled to less than 60 percent of original size; with or without added alcohol. It is layered, complex, fragrant and light.

Daiginjo: Ultra-premium sake; rice milled to less than 50 percent of original size; with or without added alcohol; fruity and very light

Futsuu: "Basic sake," ungraded; no special ingredients or processes; character and quality varies.

Sanzo: Undistinguished commercial sake made with sugar, flavorings and distilled alcohol

Jizake: Not a true classification, but a descriptor indicating the sake is hand-crafted in a small enterprise

Nama sake: Unpasteurized sake

Nigori-zake: Sake that is only roughly filtered through cloth; creamy and sweet

Taru-zake: Old-fashioned style of packing sake in wooden containers to absorb cedar-like flavors

Sources: www.sakeusa.com; "Sake Pure + Simple" by Griffith Frost and John Gauntner (Stone Bridge Press)

• • •

Sake facts and tips

  • Look for sakes labeled ginjo, daiginjo or junmai.
  • Sake is best stored cool, away from light, in refrigerator or wine storage unit.
  • Keeps six months to a year; take note of brew date.
  • Sake is free of sulfites and low in hangover-inducing congeners.
  • Color is transparent to light amber; don't buy brown sakes.
  • Calories and carbs — 180-240 calories, 20-27 carb grams per 5.5 oz glass; protein and fat negligible
  • Alcohol content — 15 percent to 17 percent

• • •



"Insider's Guide to Sake" by Philip Harper; Kodansha, paper, $14.95. Includes guide to sake-buying, with kanji directory to help decipher Japanese labels.

"Sake Handbook" by John Gauntner; Tuttle, paper, $12.95. Complete, detailed and insightful; especially helpful if you're traveling to Japan

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