I first tasted sushi at a mall food court when I was a teenager. It was god-awful, rank, foul-smelling stuff, and the experience convinced me that I hated sushi.
Years later, I realized that I really only dislike bad sushi, while freshly prepared, pristine sushi is now among my favorite foods.
I had a similar first encounter with sake: Hotly alcoholic, it smelled and tasted like nail-polish remover and artificially sweetened gasoline. Eventually I learned that cheap-ass sake bears as much resemblance to the good stuff as bad sushi does to the expertly prepared variety.
In Japan, sake refers to any alcoholic beverage; what Americans call "sake" is known as Nihonshu. Sometimes called "rice wine," sake is basically fermented rice, and the way it's produced is similar to that of beer. In fact, sake is produced in "breweries." (Koreans, on the other hand, drink soju, a distilled rice beverage that's relatively higher in alcohol.)
It's believed that sake was originally made by chewing rice and then spitting the mash into a bowl.
Salivary enzymes helped convert starches to sugars that could be fermented. The resulting "sake" was a soupy, low-alcohol gruel. Sound appetizing?
Luckily, technology has improved considerably over the centuries, and the art of sake brewing is now much more hygienic. Each grain of rice is polished to remove proteins and oils from the husk.
In higher quality sake, only a small percentage of the grain is left, so only the purest starch is fermented. Of course, throwing away half of each grain means that better sakes can be expensive.
Many sake labels now are beautifully packaged, but they can be off-putting for novices. Though there's usually a lot of information provided, it's spelled out in artistically rendered Japanese characters as arcane as Yakuza tattoos.
That's why English-language labels are often adhered to the back, and better sakes are labeled with special designations. Look for the word Junmai, which means the sake is pure, with no additives or distilled alcohol. Ginj#244 is made from rice that's been polished to 60 percent or less of its original weight, while Daiginj#244 is made from rice that's been polished to 50 percent or less. Sometimes even the rice variety is indicated (e.g., yamada-nishiki).
Finally, sake is sometimes served warm. For centuries it was a sweet, woody, rough beverage (remember that gruel?), and heating made it more palatable. Inexpensive sakes can still be heated, though today's better, more-delicate and refined sakes are usually best consumed slightly chilled.
For more information on sake, including notes on specific products, go to www.sakeexpert.com. Locally, Jungle Jim's in Fairfield has an excellent selection of sake and soju.
Still not convinced you'll ever be a sake convert? Just try Ozeki's lightly sparkling Hana Awaka Sake (about $5/270ml). In its attractive pink bottle, it reminds me of a lightly sweet Prosecco. Drink it as an aperitif or even dessert!
Contact Michael Schiaparelli: firstname.lastname@example.org