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 amazing drink. It's internationally known as sake, but it’s not always the case in Japan. The word sake, in fact, means alcohol or alcoholic beverage. The proper way to refer to it is nihonshu which translates to Japanese alcohol.
The secret ingredient
Centuries ago, when most sake was produced in temples and shrines, they used a very peculiar ingredient to make sake: human saliva! Yes, you got that right.
Japanese discovered that by chewing the rice, it would become sweeter. Usually, young girls were hired by temples and shrines to chew rice and leave it in a bucket to ferment. And it was considered a big honor! Most of the sake was then gifted to the gods or used in religious rituals, and being part of it was a big deal.
What they didn't know at the time is that the enzymes in our saliva work as a tool to transform starch into sugar. Luckily for us, koji mold later replaced that and nowadays it's used for the saccharification process instead of saliva. So don't worry, this is just a fun fact and sake is no longer made this way!
Nigori: a modern tradition
In recent years nigori, or cloudy sake, is becoming quite popular.
Sake is typically pressed to separate the liquid part from the rice paste left from the fermentation. To make nigori, the mash is either passed through a coarse mesh or simply, after pressing, part of the paste goes back into the bottle. And that's how it gets its milky look and thick consistency.
Recently, nigori is getting more and more popular and it’s often used to create cocktails. The fun thing is that in the past all sake was nigori. Centuries ago the brewing process wasn’t as refined as it is nowadays so sake pressing was either rough or skipped altogether. It's interesting to see how often history repeats itself and how the perception of things change!
The truth about warm sake
Warm sake has a really bad reputation overseas. Most people think that the reason why sake is warmed up is to cover its poor quality. And 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. Also, warm sake helps digestion and that's why a lot of people have it at the end of the meal.