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‘Amazake’: The wintertime sake that isn’t what it seems

by

Special To The Japan Times

For more than 1,000 years, a sweet, thick beverage known as amazake has been produced in Japan. Amanotamuznake, an early version of amazake, is mentioned in the “Nihon Shoki” (“Chronicles of Japan”), an early history of Japan compiled in 720. While the drink fell out of favor for a while, it has made a comeback in recent years because it is naturally nutritious.

Amazake is also drunk during Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) festivities held on March 3 every year, instead of the mildly alcoholic shirozake that was traditionally served on this day because amazake made a certain way contains no alcohol. (People used to be more sanguine about serving alcoholic drinks to children. Children in medieval Europe drank ale instead of water like the adults did as water treatment methods were unknown.)

Amazake is regarded as a cold-weather drink these days, but in the Edo Period (1603-1868) it was consumed in summer to combat heat-induced fatigue. Amazake sellers were considered such an integral part of summer in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) that “amazake” is still a kigo (a word or phrase indicating the season) used in haiku. It was also considered to be an essential energy source for the populace by the government and was price-controlled — a serving cost only a few yen. Making amazake was also one of the ways in which rōnin (unemployed samurai) could eke out a discreet living.

Amazake literally means “sweet sake,” but when produced it’s either low-alcohol or alcohol-free. The low-alcohol variety is made by mixing sake kasu (the lees left over after sake has been extracted) with steamed rice and water. The non-alcoholic variety is made by mixing plain steamed rice and water with kome kōji, rice that has been inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae, the fungus that is the basis for many kinds of fermented foods such as miso, nattō (fermented soybeans) and soy sauce as well as sake. This mixture is allowed to ferment until the starches in the rice are saccharified and converted into glucose as well as oligosaccharide, which is said to be the ideal food for intestinal flora, thus helping combat constipation. The amino acids and B-vitamins in the rice are also converted into an easily digestible form. The non-alcoholic version is often fed to weaning babies since it’s so easy to digest.

If you have food allergies, amazake may be worth looking into as something to introduce into your diet. Unprocessed, it looks like rice pudding, but when it’s pureed it has the consistency of cream; thin it out with water and it’s like milk. Since amazake is made with rice it’s naturally gluten free.

While bottled or canned amazake is readily available, making it yourself is surprisingly easy. All you need is rice, kome kōji, which is available at many supermarkets or online, and plain water. Amazake made with medium-grain (regular) rice is subtly sweet, while short-grain rice makes amazake that is almost cloyingly sweet — I prefer to make a 50-50 mix of the two types. You’ll also need a way to keep the mixture warm for at least eight hours. Many people use their rice cooker on the “keep warm” setting, with the lid open and covered with a clean kitchen towel. The temperature should be maintained between 55 and 60 degrees Celsius, so an inexpensive kitchen thermometer comes in handy. A more reliable tool for making amazake is a yogurt maker with variable temperature controls. Homemade amazake does not keep very well since it continues to ferment even while refrigerated and turns sour. If you need to keep amazake for a while (you shouldn’t keep it for more than a week though) heat it through once each day to stop the fermentation.

The grassy flavor of natural amazake may take some getting used to, but adding other ingredients makes it more palatable, as in this amazake chai recipe. The chocolate “amazake ice cream” pictured above is even simpler: Combine one batch of amazake with four tablespoons of pure cocoa powder, puree in a food processor and freeze. It tastes a lot like chocolate ice cream made with soy milk, with a smooth, creamy texture.


Recipe: Amazake and Amazake Chai

For the amazake:

  • 75 grams medium-grain rice
  • 75 grams short-grain rice
  • 400 ml and 200 ml water
  • 200 grams kome kōji
  • a pinch of salt (optional)

For the chai:

  • ½ batch of amazake, pureed until smooth
  • 750-ml water
  • 4 cm fresh ginger, sliced thinly
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, crushed with the side of a knife
  • 4 cardamon pods, crushed
  • 6 whole cloves, crushed
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 tea bags of black English Breakfast tea

Directions for preparing amazake:

Cook the rice with 400 ml water. Combine the hot rice with 200 ml water and the kome kōji. Put the mixture in a rice cooker on the “keep warm” setting with the lid open and covered with a kitchen towel for six to eight hours. The temperature should stay between 55 and 60 degrees Celcius. When it tastes sweet, it’s done. Add a pinch of salt (optional).

Directions for preparing chai:

Put the water and spices in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes, then turn off the heat, add the tea and let the mixture steep for a few minutes. Add the pureed amazake and heat to a boil. Strain and serve hot.