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For Sake's Goodness
by Elliot Essman
Years ago I came across an interesting rule of thumb that stuck in my head. Wine is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented fruit. Beer is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain. Sake, often called Japanese "rice wine," seems to be a hybrid: brewed from a malted grain just like beer, then refined into a product that looks and acts like wine. Once the alcoholic beverage of choice in Japan, sake has been eclipsed in recent years by both beer and whisky. Yet sake still holds a special place in Japanese culture. Japan boasts over 6000 sake brands, with over 2000 producers. Over 200 brands of sake are now produced in the United States, accounting for $200 million in annual sales. According the US sake producer SakéOne of Forest Grove, Oregon, one out of every five glasses of wine served in the world is sake. Sake (first brewed in China nearly 7000 years ago) has a real future as an American beverage.

Yes, I like to drink good sake, but I also like to cook with it. (Invariably, when I cook with an appealing liquid, I drink some in the process.) Sake fits into my definition of a "secret" ingredient: something I can keep on the shelf and splash into a dish to add my own individual touch. Sake keeps longer than traditional wines, which oxidize rapidly once you open them, as long as you store the beverage in a cool, dark place. The alcohol content of most brands of sake will run between 14 and 18 percent. I use sake for marinades, sauces, stews, soups and even dips. "What did you do to get that sweet, nutty taste," I am sometimes asked. I usually let on, then break out the sake to drink with or after the meal, even if the theme isn't Japanese. Grif Frost, the CEO and sake-master of SakéOne, claims that his premium sake, and in fact most premium sakes, are so pure as to be hangover-free (no sulfites in his, of course). I'd be skeptical, if I hadn't independently noticed the same phenomenon. I don't suggest experimenting with the bargain brands.

The Japanese know a thing or two about rice; the Japanese word gohan, meaning cooked rice, doubles as a word for "something to eat." Japanese farmers produce over 300 varieties of short-grain rice. Sake is made from a special variety of rice that is too hard for eating. The first step in sake production is to refine the rice by shaving off the fat and protein in the outer husk, leaving just the core. The more you shave, the higher the quality. Next the rice is soaked in water, steamed at high temperature, cooled, then left 48 hours to turn into a rice malt called koji. The producer then adds a yeast infusion and water to make a mash, ferments the mash for several weeks, then lets the sake mature in brewing tanks for several months. The quality brands, of course, are those that take the extra labor and time. Cheap sakes often contain added brewing alcohol or sugar. The Japanese word junmal refers to quality sake brewed from rice only. The word ginjo also connotes quality: sake made from rice refined (shaved) at least 50 percent. Daiginjo sake is refined even more. Ginjo is best enjoyed chilled, junmal warmed. SakéOne's Momokawa Premium Sake line (available, chilled, at Whole Foods) includes both dry and sweet additive-free ginjo sakes.

You can buy sake sets in most Asian markets; they usually consist of four small sake cups and a tokkuri, or sake jug. To warm sake the way they do in Japanese restaurants, first fill a small pan half way with water, bring it to a boil, then lower the heat to minimum level. Fill your tokkuri three-quarters full of sake, place the tokkuri in the water, then leave it five minutes or so, or until it emits a pleasant warmth for drinking: 105 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. To enjoy chilled sake, use a tulip-shaped wine glass and chill to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Sake goes well with many foods, especially seafood, poultry, and vegetable dishes.

I recently discovered the Japanese art of sakamushi: steaming foods that have been sprinkled with small amounts of sake and seasonings. In conventional steaming, food is placed directly upon a perforated rack or steaming basket, water is boiled beneath to create steam, a cover is added, and the steam alone cooks the food. In sakamushi, the sake-doused ingredients are placed on an oven-safe dish, then the dish itself, kept raised a few inches over boiling water, is placed into the steamer. The food steams, but also simmers in its own juice. You can contrive your own sakamushi steamer using any large pot you can cover. I discovered that the center lifting rod of my metal vegetable steamer could be screwed off, so I used it to keep my sakamushi dish raised above water level, but you can also use a metal trivet or even bunched-up aluminum foil. I put my meat, chicken or fish in an oven-safe dish on top of the steamer base, then steam over four cups (one quart) of water.

Sakamushi steaming time will of course depend on the type of meat, fish or poultry you use, on the size of the portions, and on the number of portions you steam at any one time. You need to experiment a little, but once you do, you will own a very effective way to cook protein foods without added fat (sakamushi will work for tofu, too). I get good results by covering each portion with two tablespoons of sake and one tablespoon of soy sauce before I steam. My single-serving one inch yellow fin tuna steak (8 ounces) was perfect after steaming for nine minutes; a pair of boneless chicken breasts required twelve minutes; a one pound package of firm tofu, cut into chunks, softened to my liking in five minutes.

To get the best results with sakamushi, make sure you raise your ingredient dish high enough over the boiling water so the water doesn't actually touch the dish. At the same time, make sure the cover of your pot does not cover up the oven-safe dish in a way that prevents the steam from flowing freely onto the food. With any kind of steaming, you have to take care not to scald yourself, so use long oven mitts when you remove your dish from the steamer.

Sake's goodness can elevate any dish, whether Japanese or not. Cook with quality sweet or dry sake varieties as you would any fine wine, or rig up your own sakamushi steamer. Your guests, even your family, may comment that your dishes reveal a certain special something. It's your call whether or not you divulge this secret ingredient to your guests once you sake it to them. Top -- Food Articles Home

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