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California Steamin'

Producing Fine Sake Is Becoming a West Coast Industry

April 21, 2002|PHIL BARBER

Outfitted with a hairnet and surgical/comical plastic shoe covers, I enter the koji room at the Takara sake brewery in Berkeley. The air is steamy and pungent, and it's clear that mold has infested the entire 2.5 tons of rice that sit in a circular tank. This is good, explains Teisuke Kainuma, president of Takara USA. The spread of koji fungus is a fragile and crucial step of sake production.

Sake dates back as far as 4,800 BC in China, and to about AD 300 in Japan, where it has been raised to the level of art. And though machines have replaced most of the human laborers, the fundamental flowchart has changed little over time. Rice kernels are milled and polished, washed, soaked and steamed. Then comes an intricate blending of cooked rice, koji, water and active yeast. The resulting "main mash" is pressed after 20 days, with the liquid sake proceeding to further steps of settling, filtration, pasteurization and aging for three to four months in tanks.

More and more, this is a process that occurs in California. Ozeki opened the first mainland sake facility in Hollister in 1979. It was followed by Takara and Kohnan (under the name Hakusan) in Napa, and Gekkeikan in Folsom. All four are subsidiaries of Japanese companies that gravitated to California because it satisfies the three prerequisites of sake production: proper temperature fluctuations, pure water and, most important, viable rice cultivation. The japonica rice grown in the Sacramento Valley might not offer the microregional distinctions that characterize grains grown in Japan, but it is uniformly suitable for sake production.

As America gets acquainted with sake, a couple of long-held myths are going belly-up. One identifies sake as rice wine. Though it has the subtle balance associated with white wine (and an alcohol content, 15-16%, that's pretty close), they are not one and the same. Nor is sake a type of beer. Sake's "multi-parallel fermentation"--koji converts starch to sugar while the yeast converts sugar to alcohol-- makes it unique. Like beer, however, sake is not meant to age in the bottle and should be refrigerated after opening.

The second enduring myth is that sake offers all the sensory delights of nail polish remover. This idea germinated in the decades when most Americans had access only to Japan's low-quality exports. Sipped hot, there was little chance that you might actually taste them.

Sake comes in a multitude of guises and quality levels, including ultra-premium. The California breweries offer light sakes, dry sakes, "draft" sakes, unfiltered sakes and organic sakes, not to mention a variety of plum sakes (pleasant with dessert) and mirins (the Japanese answer to cooking sherry).

Sake also happens to be one of the four pillar ingredients of Japanese cuisine--along with dashi stock, soy sauce and miso. Beyond its own flavoring, it is believed to tenderize food and suppress saltiness. In Los Angeles' Little Tokyo, the New Otani Hotel applies sake to everything from sukiyaki to simmered mackerel with radish. With such culinary versatility, it can't be long before California sake becomes a trusted institution--as American as rock 'n' roll, apple pie and Kazuhisa Ishii pitching to Ichiro Suzuki.

New Otani Sukiyaki

Serves 6-8

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 pounds lean ribeye or New York steak, thinly sliced into 1/2-inch pieces

2 medium onions, sliced

1 bunch green onions, cut into 3-inch pieces

1/2 Nappa cabbage, thinly shredded 1 bunch spinach, washed, stems removed (about 6 cups)

1 19-ounce package tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 7-ounce package bamboo shoots

8 small dried black mushrooms, soaked in water for 10-15 minutes and stalks removed

1 3.5-ounce package enoki mushrooms, stalks removed

1 pound yam noodles (optional) sauce

6 ounces soy sauce

8 ounces sake

4 ounces mirin (sweet cooking sake)

1-1/2 ounces sugar (or to taste)

Heat large wok over medium flame. Add oil. Saute beef for 1-2 minutes. Add onions and green onions, continuing to saute for 1-2 minutes. Add vegetables, tofu and mushrooms. Pour well-mixed sukiyaki sauce into pan and simmer for 5-6 minutes. Serve over boiled yam noodles, if available.


Phil Barber last wrote for the magazine about popcorn.


Food stylist: Christine Masterson

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