Sazanami Saketen is a liquor shop located a couple of blocks from Hikone Station. Set back from the road, it’s hard to spot unless you already know it. Open the door and you find yourself in an Aladdin’s cave of liquor of every kind, arrayed in an attractive interior featuring a lot of dark wood. The owner, Ansai Kazuma is an accredited sake sommelier, and a true enthusiast of Japan’s national beverage.
I visited Sazanami with the mission of discovering which Ōmi sake goes best with funazushi, the signature food of the region. When we entered, Ansai-san directed us to the long table just inside the door. We brought along a variety of products from Kimura Fisheries which we arranged on plates – funazushi (carp fermented in rice), small sweetfish in oil, and tsukudani (sweetfish boiled in soy sauce, mirin, and sake).
Ansai-san cast an eye over the food and busied himself bringing a goodly selection of the large 1.8 l bottles, which he arranged beguilingly at the end of the table. He brought out the following sake;
Preparations completed, we got down to the task of tasting. I asked Ansai-san about the smell of funazushi. What does he think it comprises? Is there some ammonia in there?
“No, I don’t think it’s ammonia. When the funa and rice are pressed, the moisture is squeezed out and rises to the top of the tub. Various airborne bacteria gets into the water and proliferates. This is what causes that particular aroma.”
“When I travelled around France, restauranteurs would get out their smelliest cheeses to try out on the visiting Englishman.”
“Right. Brine-washed cheeses can be pretty smelly. It’s the same sort of aroma as funazushi. Cheeses that you buy in the supermarket in Japan use preservatives and they don’t have that freshness that you want. We order our cheeses directly from Toyosu Market in Tokyo. Would you like to try some?”
“Well that’s a no brainer. Cheese also goes very well with sake.”
After a little diversion into cheese territory, we started trying the sake with the funazushi.
“This is Biwako no Kujira from Kitajima Shuzō. It’s a clean, full-bodied sake, unpasteurised and undiluted, bottled straight from the press, so it has a very fresh, effervescent character. It’s 20% alcohol. Its flavour is rather understated, but its body has a lot of impact.”
“Oh, the effervescence is spicy and rather dry!”
“Yes, that’s the effect of the fermentation gas that’s still in the sake.”
“Right. But then a lingering sweetness takes over.”
“Yes. It’s generally a sweeter variety. The rice in funazushi is basically sweet and slightly sour, so it matches well with sweet sake. The dryness also helps to cleanse the palate.”
“It’s certainly a good match.”
Next, we tried Daijirō from Hata Shuzō.
“This is a yamahai type. Only about nine percent of sake is made using this older method. There’s a hint of cacao or chocolate in the aftertaste from the maturation.”
“Hmm. I’m not sure about this. I think the strong flavours of the sake and fish are rather at odds. The sake itself is very robust.”
“I think if we try heating the sake, they’ll go better together.”
Ansai-san pours sake from the bottle into a tin jug, placing it in a small box of hot water. He stirs it with a thermometer, checking the dial constantly. When it’s exactly the right temperature, he pours it around into everybody’s cup.
“Oh, that’s much better! That feels positively healthy!”
“Doesn’t it? When it’s served at a temperature close to human body temperature, your body accepts it more naturally. You may get drunk faster, but you also get sober more quickly.”
“The flavour that was conflicting with the funazushi has mellowed out and this sake definitely complements it now.”
“That’s right. When you warm yamahai and kimoto sake, it brings out the umami constituents. You can taste the umami inherent in the rice itself.”
Having tried the alchemy of warming sake and experienced the pleasing transformation it can bring, Ansai-san suggests we move on to Kohama from Satō Shuzō.
“I think if we warm this it will go perfectly with the funazushi, but let’s try it cold first.”
We’ve been picking at the funazushi while drinking, and it becomes apparent that different parts have a different character. The orange-coloured eggs are distinctly rich and cheesy. The chewy skin is rich in umami. And the tail area of the fish is particularly sour tasting. Meanwhile, the rice is both sweet and sour. It makes matching with the sake very interesting.
“This sake has a slight lactic acid character. I’m detecting a yoghurty aroma and a buttery taste.”
“Right. There’s also the flavour of steamed rice. And if we warm it, that character will become more pronounced and complement the lactic acid flavours in the funazushi. Sake is the only alcoholic drink where you have the choice of matching the temperature to the type of food. The flavour changes with just one degree of difference. I think that’s really cool.”
“Personally I think this goes better with the funazushi when it’s cold. This is a bit too mellow now.”
“Yes. This would go well with grilled fish.”
Next up, Ansai-san proposes we try the Daijirō kimoto, from Hata Shuzō. Since kimoto and yamahai are rich in lactic acid, they tend to pair easily with funazushi. There’s a deep pop when the cap is removed.
“This has a robust acidity that matches the rice of the funazushi.”
“It has quite a mellow character. This goes well.”
“Umm, it’s good!”
When we tried warming the kimoto, we all agreed that it was even better, so whether warm or cold, the kimoto was a clear winner. It also made a very pleasing combination with creamy cheese.
Kimura Suisan also makes ice cream using the rice from funazushi. Although the idea of combining a fisheries product and ice cream may be disturbing to some, the ice cream is delicious. The ice cream has a rich, creamy cheesiness, and no hint of fish whatsoever. Ansai-san suggested that Kazuhiro would be a good match. It has a strong sweetness combined with a sherry flavour from aging that does indeed suit the funazushi ice cream.
When we applied the same rigorous investigative techniques to the sweetfish tsukudani whose flavour is based on soy sauce, we found that the dryness of Kirakuchō provided a refreshing complement to the saltiness of the sauce. However, the sweetfish in oil are rather juicy and even fruity, calling for a sake with similar characteristics. Kazuhiro fit the bill very agreeably.
At the end of our delightful exploration of fish, cheese and sake combinations, I asked Ansai-san if he can talk about sake in English.
“‘Hello!’… That’s about it.”