For those who imbibe and are curious about their alcohol, a good Nihonshu or Japanese sake is always well appreciated. Not occupying as much shelf space as some global tipples like single malts, tequilas, old world wines and more, sake is on the uptick in India, albeit slowly.
Sake has been a difficult product to import because of the customs and taxation laws in India. “However, the Geographical Index (GI) tag for Sake in India is currently in process (for the first time a Japanese product has filed for GI Registry in India, in 2022). I am working with the Embassy of Japan in India for this. Once this is done, imports will become easier,” says Mika Eoka, Sake Sommelier and CEO - Mika Sake Global INC. As sake ambassador to India, Japan-based Eoka has been promoting sake in India for 6 years now. She also advises Japanese sake breweries on global expansion.
Last month, Eoka was in the coastal town of Mangaluru to conduct a session of sake and soju (both rice-based, the alcohol content and flavour palate of soju is stronger than sake) tasting and pairing at The Loft at The Avatar Hotel and Convention, Mangalore. With 60 guests (50 who signed up and paid and 10 invitees from the F&B sector) having attended the session, it is clear that there is a lot of curiosity about this beverage.
Sake is a rice wine made from fermented polished rice. “Sake has a 2000-year-old history and is essentially a traditional sacred drink dedicated to God,” explains Eoka. “In Japan, rice is grown in April and harvested in October and November. Freshly harvested rice is considered sacred and is first dedicated to God and then used to make sake. More ceremonial than celebratory, sake is served at milestones like births and weddings and is not drunk every day unless by personal choice. For New Year celebrations, special sake kits are created to express gratitude to God,” she adds.
India is no stranger to rice-based fermented alcohol. There is Apong from Arunachal Pradesh, Ludgi from Himachal Pradesh, Zutho from Nagaland, Handia from Bihar and Odisha, Kiad Um from Meghalaya, Chuak from Tripura and Sekmai Yu from Manipur. Most of these require indigenous herbs, and medicinal plants among other ingredients to kick-start the fermentation process.
In the fermentation process of sake, starch in rice is converted to sugar using a Koji mould (Aspergillus oryzae). This is then converted to ethanol with the help of sake yeast. For premium sake, brewer’s alcohol (a neutral distilled spirit) is added to extract additional flavours and aromas during fermenting. “The consistency and the quality of sake are completely dependent on the brewer’s skill. The micro-organisms in rice starch are not easily controllable and it depends on how the brewer handles it,” emphasises Eoka.
“The rice used is indigenous to Japan, the shorter the grain, the more premium the sake. It comprises 80 percent water and this plays a pivotal role in determining the mouth feel of sake. Hard water can make sake dry. The alcohol percentage is between 13 and 20 percent and the acidity level on the pH scale is between 1 and 2. In comparison, wine has an acidity level between 2.5 to 4.5. This makes sake softer on the palate. And with India being such a high consumer of rice, sake is quite a relatable drink,” feels Eoka. She adds climate change, has altered the nature of rice grains, making it difficult for brewers to produce sake with consistent flavours. Sake can be made from any rice grain, but short grain rice or premium quality rice are usually preferred, the more polished the better. The reference to harder here is that the grain itself has become harder.
Sake has slowly begun to find more fans in India, and Eoka attributes this to factors like gradually increasing imports, more restaurants offering the beverage, tasting sessions and more.
“For a first timer there are two main flavours profiles —an earthy, higher acidity, strong rice- flavoured one called Junmai and a fruitier version named Daiginjo,” explains Eoka adding that whenever one tries sake, the right pairing of food is important. For example, a Junmai sake is best paired with seafood like prawn tempura to complement flavours. Sake contains Glutamic acid, a common amino acid and a major source of umami. Seafood too has umami components such as inosinic acid. When paired together, the depth of umami is heightened.
In India, food with the presence of spices, oils, greens, umami-intense dishes, dairy, nutty flavours, and creamy high-lactic acid ingredients pair well with sake. “Cold kachumber salads and malai tikkas go well together with the beverage. Aromatic sakes (with infusions like peach, grape) can be savoured with vegetable fritters,” says Eoka, further adding that in Japan, sake is usually consumed warm. Sake Tokkuris (sake flasks) are kept next to warmers to reach ambient serving temperature. Sake can be enjoyed at cooler temperatures, especially at the start of the meal, progressing to warmer as the meal ends.
Sake, though still relatively nascent in India is seeing an increasing interest and Eoka is optimistic. “20 years ago, wines were not prevalent in India, but today their popularity has grown exponentially. The key is creating awareness – among chefs, servers and of course people. A comparison education, along with other beverages is key,” she concludes.
1. Hakushika Junmai Taru Sake, 300 ml, ₹1590 (approx)
2. Hakutsuru Junmai Sake, 750 ml, ₹2590 (approx)
3. Sawanotsuru Deluxe Sake, 720 ml, ₹3500 (approx)
4. Senjyu Kubota Sake, 720 ml, ₹6200 (approx)
5. Gekkeikan Traditional Sake, 1800 ml, ₹8000 (approx)
Prices are subject to change across states. These are approximate numbers.
Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.