There Is Such a Thing as an Ultimate Cooking Sake

Like a magic potion, it makes everything delicious

Tammie Teclemariam
Heated
Published in
5 min readNov 12, 2019

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Photos by Tammie Teclemariam

I have been cooking Japanese food as a hobby for over a decade, but only recently has it started to feel like I’ve acquired any intuition with it. For a long time, I followed recipes to the letter; though I typically prefer to improvise when cooking, I always found that when I didn’t follow the instructions exactly, the final result never hit right.

Japanese cooking demands a precise pantry of imported ingredients to be convincing, but once you’re set, you can make magical food in moments. Even the most basic dishes rely on specific flavors like bonito flakes, fermented soybeans, and daikon radish. Sure, you can try to substitute chicken broth for dashi, but it’s never going to taste like the fried tofu from the izakaya. It’s no secret that choosing better ingredients increases your odds for success in the kitchen, but it’s not always obvious which things make the biggest impact when you’re learning an unfamiliar cuisine.

I’ve benefited most by focusing on the core set of condiments providing the tasty foundation on which most Japanese dishes are prepared: soy sauce gives depth, sweetness comes from mirin, dashi lends the elegant scent of smoke, and sake is cooking alcohol with umami.

After curating my soy sauce collection, finding a legitimate mirin, and upgrading from instant dashi granules to sachets of shaved dried fish, I wondered if there was something more impressive I could do with sake. Not necessarily, it turns out.

Sake is divided into premium and non-premium categories. “Premium sake” is made from rice that has been polished down to at least 70 percent of its original size. The outer layers of rice contain more amino acids that contribute to savory and grainy flavors, while polished rice has a higher sugar content and can produce light sakes that are delicately fruited. In addition to how the rice was milled, the taste also depends on the types of koji (a mold that converts starch into sugar) yeast, and water used.

Sometimes, neutral alcohol is added during sake production to release certain flavor elements. If no alcohol is added, a premium sake will say junmai, which means “pure rice.” Sake polished to 70 percent…

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Tammie Teclemariam
Heated
Writer for

Freelance wine/spirits/sake/coffee/food journo in Brooklyn. @tammieetc on twitter, @tammieeverytime chez instagram, clips and light blogging at www.icey.cool