On the Pleasures of Saké
On miserably wintry days (like the one we had in Ottawa yesterday), there is something to be said for indulging in two things:
1) a hot bath; and
2) hot saké.
As in Japanese rice wine. Being a Nipponophile (or otaku), when I drink saké I think of the old Kurosawa samurai movies, with the rough-and-tumble Toshiro Mifune gulping down a small cupful as he contemplates his next move against the Yakuza, or perhaps his sipping from a saucer and brooding just before he sees and attacks a ghost. In other words, in Japan saké is a drink for Men, and not just for dilettantes. Which means the idea of soaking in a tub full of steaming hot water, with a small bottle of warmed saké and a cup beside you and a good book or manga at hand--doesn't that sound like a good idea for a cold night?
These days there's been a trend towards drinking sake chilled or cold, with new premium-priced rice wines coming into the market suggesting you do just that. And that's fine for the summer. In winter, though, what's needed is warmth. And saké (along with mulled red wine and mead) is one of those drinks that's nice when it's hot.
So, some tips for drinking warmed saké:
1. Use a regular brand (i.e. the cheap stuff). Brands like Hakutsuru or Gekeikkan or Ozeki; the last two are actually brewed in North America as branch plant operations of the brands in Japan. The premium stuff tends to be delicate; their flavor disappears with heat.
2. Get a proper tokkuri and cups. That's cups, plural. This is especially a good idea if your bathtub can accommodate more than two people--or, better yet, if you have a jacuzzi. Because in accordance with Japanese tradition, saké is a drink meant to be shared.
A proper tokkuri (which is what they call the small ceramic saké bottle) will have minimal decoration, if any, because it's meant to be immersed in hot water. They come in various shapes and sizes, but they are always ceramic. The cups can vary from little wooden boxes to shallow saucers to Chinese teacup-shaped dainties, but they're meant to be small. Ian Fleming's spy James Bond complained about this in You Only Live Twice, but what he failed to realize is that warmed saké can infiltrate the bloodstream just as fast as a good belt of Scotch.
3. Use the microwave. Remember, half the fun of being an Urban Possum is knowing how to cut the time for cleanup. The traditional method means heating water to a simmer in a small saucepan and immersing the filled tokkuri into the water for about 5 to 10 minutes. But why dirty a perfectly good sauce pan -- unless you're out camping?
Instead, fill your tokkuri to a safe level (usually, within an inch of the opening), put it in the microwave and heat for 30 seconds to 1 minute, on high. You need less time if your microwave has a higher wattage, and it depends on the makeup of your tokkuri. You don't want to go any more than 1 minute because overheating the saké can cause it to become bitter.
(There's a traditional Japanese maxim that says that saké is best heated between the legs of a young woman, and should be the same temperature as her body. I don't think I'd care to try that method.)
4. Snacks aren't necessary, but they sure are nice. One thing that should be clear: saké can be drunk before the main part of a meal, or after it as a socializing drink. But it's not meant to wash down your main course. The reason for that is, Japanese main courses always feature rice, and you don't serve rice dishes twice during the same course. And saké, being made of rice, qualifies.
Now, with that said, there are some snacking foods that do go well with saké, assuming you're not going the bathtub route. Saké goes will with oden (a type of Japanese stew), yakitori (grilled meat on skewers, or any form a kebab), and other finger foods.
But like I said at the beginning, there's nothing like a warm bath and warm saké to get one through a bad winter day. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to turn off the water ...