MICHELLE Lin is getting ready for a weekend house party to celebrate a girlfriend’s engagement. Usually, the 28-year-old entrepreneur would get a selection of wines, but this time she has decided to serve Japanese sake, since sushi, sashimi and chicken teriyaki will be served along with cheese, ham and salad.
“My friends all love Japanese food, and it’s only natural to have sake to go with the food,” Lin says. “Plus, it goes well with other dishes.”
As with Lin and her friends, most Chinese were introduced to sake through Japanese cuisine, and the fermented rice alcohol is gradually getting more popular to pair with other food, or to drink for fun.
Many northern Chinese consider sake (less than 20 percent alcohol by volume) too mild, since they are used to drinking strong, distilled ‘baijiu’ (usually more than 40 percent).
Southern Chinese, such as people in Shanghai, tend to like sake.
An increasingly wide selection of Japanese sake is now available in Japanese and Chinese restaurants, bars and supermarkets in Shanghai, For example, city’super has been holding a Japanese sake festival since 2010, and sells more than 100 labels.
In Japan, by contrast, many people have been switching from traditional sake to Western drinks such as wine and whisky, and the consumption of sake has fallen sharply over a decade.
Most sake makers are small family businesses scattered around the country where good rice and pure water are available. Over the years, they have been trying to attract more young people to sake and promote the beverage overseas.
“The story behind sake is very important,” says Atsuhide Kato, the 11th-generation owner of Japanese sake “Born” Brewery Katoukichibee Shoten in Fukui prefecture.
“I brew the sake according to the image and the story I designed beforehand, and the stories make it easier for consumers to pick different sakes for different occasions,” says Kato, who was recently in Shanghai to promote the “Born” sake.
He is proud of the label Yume Wa Masayume, or Dream Comes True, a gold prize winner at the 2013 Los Angeles International Wine & Spirit Competition. It has a mature and smooth texture — an ideal or dream sake.
Its golden package bears the large character for yume, or dream.
“The bigger, the better,” he explains.
Backed by this good wish of dream coming true, the label is popular among people celebrating special occasions and congratulating others.
Kato’s store, established in 1860, was originally a processor of rice, and soon afterward became a sake brewery, since naturally good sake needs quality rice and water.
Kato exports 15 percent of his production overseas, mainly to the United States, and he is eyeing China as the next big potential market, as are many other sake brewers.
The name such as Dream Come True is easier for Westerners to understand. That’s a big consideration in the naming process since poetic names, a significant part of the sake culture, are often lost in translation when they are sold in the West.
Sake brewers like naming the beverage after elements in traditional Japanese art and culture, such as pine, bamboo, plum, mountain, birds, and even ancient Chinese poems or texts from Confucius or Taoist scrolls.
Shang Shan Ruo Shui, a top-notch sake brand, is taken from “Tao Te Ching” by the philosopher Lao-tze (5th or 4th century BC). It means that the supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to take anything.
The name that highlights water also points out the key quality of this brand — purity in color, flavor and taste. As with tea, purity and smoothness are significant factors in the quality of sake so that the subtle fragrance and taste can be easily detected.
In 2012, overall exports of Japanese sake were around US$87 million, a tiny fraction of Japan’s total production of sake, or France’s total exports of wine. A third of Japan’s exported sake is sold to America, while the majority is of a lower grade, with added flavors from distilled spirits or fruits.
While Chinese rice wine, also made from fermented rice and water, is made from whole rice, the rice used for Japanese sake is ground. The grading is essentially decided by the percentage of the outer kernel containing protein and fat.
The less kernel, the purer, more fragrant and better the end product. Then, sake is further divided into categories to which distilled spirits or fruit may be added.
“Essentially, it is the quality of rice and water that decide the sake,” says Kato. “Unlike wine, the fresher the sake is, the better the taste. Generally, it can be served cold or hot. There are sake cups, but I like them in big tall wine glasses, which can help the fragrance to get out.”
Japanese sake producers and government have all been trying to increase its impact and sales abroad since the domestic sales have fallen for decades, as Japanese switched to wine, whiskey and beer.
Early this year, the Japanese government sponsored sake-tasting booths at international airports around the country.
China is a natural target market since labels that seem to be code to Westerners are much more accessible to Chinese. Sake itself, like Chinese rice wine, is made from rice and water, though the brewing process is more complicated.
Sake is good to pair with Chinese food, except for very spicy Sichuan and Hunan cuisines.
“I basically like it with all seafood, since the fragrance and end taste of the sake are very good at eliminating the fishy smell and highlighting the sweetness of ocean products,” says Jackie Zhuang, a Shanghai trader of Japanese products including sake.
For example, now is the season for mantis shrimp and chilled Japanese sake really brings out the freshness and umami taste of the shrimp, he says.
Kato, the sake brewer, recommends pairing sake with Italian food, especially pastas, whose rich flavor will be tweaked and balanced by the subtle sweetness of sake. Japanese-style Italian pastas, such as mentaiko pasta, pair well with sake.
The marinated roe of pollock and cod is a common ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and the saltiness and spice of the roe combine into a unique flavor of pasta, enhanced by sake.
The subtle fragrance of sake also goes well with Mediterranean cooking that uses a lot of herbs.
But the most popular pairing is still with Chinese food, especially seafood.
“It’s not too different from wine pairing,” Kato explains, “and because it’s made with rice, it goes well with almost all Chinese food, except for the spiciest.”
His personal favorite pairing is sake with mapo tofu (typically bean curd, sauce, ground meat and tofu). “Sake brings out the balanced composition of all the spices,” Kato adds.