From May 2 to 8, New York City's rice pots will be going full steam as the Luckyrice Festival returns with a packed slate of events celebrating the best of Asian food and drink in NYC. Tickets to some events are still available. With the party atmosphere in full swing, we're pretty certain that the sake and shochu will be flowing. And since most of us rarely make it past "hot," "chilled" or "what's the cheapest?" when determining what bottle to order, we asked chef Masaharu Morimoto and his sake sommelier, Yuno Hayashi, for an entry-level tutorial in ordering the rice-based libation. Here are some quick tips to guide your next NYC sake experience.
Sake vs. shochu
Sake is made by fermenting rice and involves four key ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji, a fungus that breaks complex starches into sugars for the yeast to ferment (it's similar in production to a wine or beer). Shochu, on the other hand, is distilled like a spirit and can be made from any starch, like rice, potatoes or buckwheat. At around 25 percent alcohol by volume to sake's 15 percent, shochu will have you on the karaoke mic a lot sooner.
A full account of sake's styles and variations would crash our server, but in general there are two major factors to look out for:
• Junmai and not junmai. A sake designated as "junmai" gets it kick from only fermented rice. Non-junmai sakes have added grain alcohol which some brewers believe brings out certain flavors. Neither is inherently better, they're just different.
• Purity (also known as milling percentage). The outside of a rice grain contains fat, protein and vitamins which give rice most of its flavor. But the carbohydrate core is what gets fermented. According to Hayashi, "the more you mill away the more expressive and elegant the sake becomes."
Confused yet? Us too.
Morimoto adds that there hundreds of possible sake flavors and variations depending on which rice strains, varietals and regional water supplies are used.
Warm vs. cold
There's a good chance your first sip of sake came warm and from a machine—we know ours did. Turns out we started on swill. "When the sushi boom hit America, most restaurants had hot sake machines," Morimoto explains. "This was kind of like a 'house' sake. This was not a very good sake."
The toasty temperatures help hide impurities and off flavors in the low-grade stuff. Most high-quality sake, daiginjo in particular, is served cold or chilled—or at very least at room temperature—which helps preserve the nuanced flavors. Still, on a cold day a steamy cup seems in order, and some of the darker, earthier junmais, honjozos and gingos work very well when slightly warmed. As Hayashi concludes: "At the end of the day, it's just your preference."
What can you learn from the bottle?
Unless you read Japanese, probably nothing. Ask your sommelier or waiter for help.
Pairing sake with food
Purists prefer deep earthy junmais and honjozos with hearty dishes like ramen and steak, whereas clean, sophisticated daiginjo's are better suited for delicate slivers of sashimi. While Morimoto does suggest thinking of daiginjos as white wine, the chef is not so picky. "Most Japanese food goes well with most sakes," he says. "Sashimi, udon, everything's fine."
Favorite sake spot in New York?
"Sakagura on East 43rd," blurts Morimoto excitedly. "Good food and great sake. They have everything."
Morimoto's favorite sake?
"Mine!" he jokes. Morimoto has his own line of sake and shochu. He also recommends trying Kamoizumi from his home town of Hiroshima.
Photo by Noah Fecks