Sake has a long history and plenty of fun facts and anecdotes.
Here I want to share with you some of my favourites!
Sake or nihonshu?
First and foremost, let's start from the name of this famous drink. Abroad everyone call it sake, but it’s not always the case in Japan. The word “sake” means “alcohol” or “alcoholic beverage”. The proper way to refer to it is nihonshu which translates to “Japanese alcohol”. In big cities like Tokyo or Osaka, where Japanese are more used to tourists, if you go to a bar and ask for sake, they know what you mean. But in smaller cities or very local bars and izakaya, it might me confusing. It's like walking into your local pub and asking the bartender “give me alcohol”. It might be a bit broad!
The secret ingredient
About a thousand years ago, when most sake was produced in temples and shrines, they used a very peculiar ingredient to accelerate the fermentation process: human saliva!
Young girls were hired to do this job, and apparently it was considered a big honor. Most of the sake was used as a gift to the gods or in religious rituals, and being part of it was a big deal. They realized that by chewing the rice, it would become sweeter. Basically what happens is that the enzymes in our mouth work as a tool to transform starch into sugar.
Luckily koji mold was later discovered and nowadays it's used for the saccharification. So don't worry this is just a fun fact!
Nigori: a modern tradition
In recent years, some kinds of sake are becoming quite popular, especially overseas, like nigori sake. Nigori is cloudy sake, sometimes referred to as unfiltered. To make it nigori, after the fermentation process, the mash is pressed to separate the rice paste from the actual sake. For nigori, the mash is either passed through a coarse mesh or simply, after pressing, part of the paste goes into the bottle.
Recently nigori is getting more and more popular, it’s often used to create cocktails and, in general, it’s appreciated for its milky look and consistency. Fun thing is that in the past all sake was nigori. Centuries ago the brewing process wasn’t as refined as it is nowadays, and they didn’t want to risk wasting anything. So sake was enjoyed as it was. It's interesting to see how often history repeat itself and how the perception of things change!
The truth about warm sake
Warm sake has a really bad reputation. Most people think that the reason why sake is warmed up is to cover its pour quality. This couldn't be further from the truth!
Japanese adopted from China the concept that food and drinks are better consumed warm, to keep the body warm. Especially during the cold winters, warm sake is definitely a treat.
Sake can be enjoyed cold, room temperature or warm based on the weather, the food or simply based on our preferences.
Warming up sake helps enhance its flavour so it might happen that, in some places, they warm it up to cover the taste or the quality, but it was not its original purpose!