Everyone knows you can be a sommelier for wine, but did you know that the Sake also has its own sommelier accreditation? Our guest today, Satomi Dosseur, is one of the leading Kikisake-shi in the UK, having worked at Zuma and Roka restaurant group for 9 years, Chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa and also the Park Hyatt Tokyo.
One of her goals is to get us to drink Sake with all different kinds of foods, not just Japanese. I met with her before a fantastic evening that JFOODO (Japan Food Product Overseas Promotion Center ) had organized in collaboration with The Oystermen restaurant in London. Satomi didn’t have to convince me that oysters and Sake made a great combo, but hearing the scientific reasons why they work so well together was news to me!
This episode originally aired on November 12, 2019.
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Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Satomi Dosseur. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!
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Susan: Hello Satomi. I know this sounds crazy, but you are the first sake sommelier I have ever had on the show. In fact, the first person to speak to me at all about sake. Why don’t you begin with a little bit about its history.
Satomi: Sake is basically Japan’s national alcoholic beverage, made from rice and then fermented. You are probably thinking that sake is quite strong because it is fermented alcohol. Well, it’s not! It’s only about 14%, 15% or 16% ABV (alcohol by volume). That’s it! It’s not as strong as everybody thinks. Maybe because it’s clear and served in small cups that many people automatically think, “I have to down this!” or “I have to drink it slowly or take it slow!”
Susan: Can it be made with any rice?
Satomi: No, there is special rice, which is called sakamai and has a component which is slightly different from table rice.
Susan: Can it be grown anywhere?
Satomi: Yes, it can be grown anywhere, but there’s over 100 different kinds of sake rice which have been registered and those sake rices have to be inspected by the government.
Susan: Does that mean that there are over a 100 different sakes coming out of that rice?
Satomi: Yes, there are so many different kinds all made with different rices.
Susan: How do they take the rice and make it into sake?
Satomi: To explain that, I have to go through the history of sake. Sake history goes back over 2000 years, an era called a Heian period. During that time, the Chinese brought the rice cultivation process into Japan. The Japanese people were really, really fascinated and impressed how they made the rice. So they started growing the rice themselves and then producing alcohol with it.
They made it by basically gathering young females in the center of the village where they would start to chew on cooked rice. Then they would spit it into a pot. It was saliva that contained the enzyme to be able to break down the starch into the sugar.
Of course, if there’s a sugar, they can make alcohol. So the natural yeast started to grow and ferment. Then sake was born. First it was offered to the Gods or used for religious rituals, then everyone began to drink it.
Susan: Haha, that’s crazy that they even discovered that. Let’s hear if for the ladies!
Satomi: Yes, apparently that’s the real beginning of the sake making process, because they didn’t have any water nearby to add water. It was more like a porridge. Obviously from there, the process started to change. The process today does not involve the ladies in the village!
Now we have got an ingredient which is rice, and then the water, because the rice grain doesn’t contain any juice. We have to add water to be able to break up the rice and make it a drinkable alcohol. Then the next is micro organisms, one if which is yeast obviously, and then other one is called koji.
Koji is basically a fungus which contains the same enzyme that saliva has. That’s the reason, we don’t need to chew rice these days. This enzyme break down the starch in the rice and turns it into sugar, then yeast can start fermenting alcohol.
Susan: How long does the whole process take to get sake out of the rice grain?
Satomi: It usually runs 60 days before thinking about storage and aging.
Susan: How long is it until you have something that you can actually drink?
Satomi: Most sake has been aged or sits in a brewery about three months or six months, and some one year.
Susan: When the liquid comes out, how is it aged? Is it put in a barrel like whiskey?
Satomi: No, it’s usually kept in either a glass bottle or a stainless steel tank. Every sake is different.
Susan: About how many different types of sake are in the market?
Satomi: There’s aged, three months, six months. It softens it up, because if you drink a freshly brewed sake, it’s really, really bright. Almost like a little cheeky teenager, full of energy, and there’s so much going on. The older, more mature ones are calmer and very easy to talk to. Easy to taste. The longer that it sits, the more mellow it gets.
It can even color just by sitting in a standard steel tank or glass bottle, because sake has got lots of lots of amino acid and remaining sugar in it. It reacts and produces a different color, a golden amber.
And then there’s the sparkling, like champagne where the second fermentation happens in the bottle.
Susan: I have to admit that the first time I ever had sake was when I was 21 or so and it was hot. Everyone ordered it hot. Hot sake was the cool thing to drink. Then I learned a little bit about sake and I found that it’s not the cool thing to do, that anyone who knows anything about sake always has it cold. Can you tell me about this prejudice against hot? Does anyone in Japan drink it hot?
Satomi: The thing is that hot sake is very seasonal. Sake drinking began as a celebration of seasonal events, like a harvest. This is one of the reasons why we don’t really have been vintage sake, because so many sakes are available for different seasons. Like in the Spring, we have Flower Viewing Sake and, in the summer, we have Waterfall Viewing Sake, in Autumn we have something different and in winter as well. Hot sake can be good for warming you up because winter is very cold.
Susan: That’s super romantic, What is the winter one called??
Satomi: The winter one is called Snow Viewing Sake.
Susan: I love that – Snow Viewing Sake! And is there a specific kind of sake that’s meant to be warmed up as opposed to one that isn’t?
Satomi: Yeah, I would sake is quite tricky. Certain ones work both warm or cold. So many sake producers put on the back of the label if the sake can be drunk hot or cold, which can be really helpful. But it’s not written in English and so doesn’t make sense to anybody except for somebody who speaks Japanese.
I would always say if the sake has got quite a savory style, something classic or rich or has an umami depth of character, than it can be work really well when it’s warm. When the sake is quite fruity or really aromatic with a fine, clean, elegant style, then it’s better to have chilled, because warmer temperature could mess up its character. At the same time, warm temperature can create amazing characteristics, opening up the flavors, bringing out the sweetness, and act almost like a blanket in the winter, warm and cozy.
Susan: I’m definitely going to look on the label and have someone Japanese translate it. Now let’s move on to food with sake. Every time I go into a Japanese restaurant, I have sake with my meal. But when I am in a French restaurant, I don’t think sake. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about the kind of seafood or food pairing with sake outside of a Japanese restaurants?
Satomi: We always think sake goes well with Japanese food, which is true. I always find it quite tricky to pair was sushi because it has got all the different toppings. Tuna has got a quite ionic flavor or scallops which are really sweet and kind of meaty. So to pair with those different toppings of sushi can be difficult with one sake. But sake can be paired with so many different things, such as cheese or steak, even Indian food. French food and pizza surprisingly works fantastically!
Susan: How do you know where to start? You’re a sake sommelier, but for someone who doesn’t really know that much about sake. You’re in a restaurant and it has sake. How do you even know where to start?
Satomi: You’re right. This is a sommelier secret. Sake has got a lot of interesting kinds of acidity – one is umami and the other is amino acid. The other is succinic acid, which can be found in shellfish. So this combination usually works amazingly well with pizza with cheese, tomato, and rich, juicy flavors.
I know it’s quite difficult to pick which sake you should go for. But if you are having rich, you should go for a quite rich style of sake. And if you’re going for something like a curry, or a flavorful dish, you can go for something aromatic, fruity style of sake. That would usually balance really well.
Susan: Are those age dependent? I mean are the richer fuller sakes the ones that were aged longer?
Satomi: No. There are premium sakes and non-premium. It’s similar to table wine with Premier Cru, Grand Cru, etc. About under 70% of the sake that is produced in Japan is non-premium and it’s a huge amount. And the other 30% is a premium.
Within a premium style, there are about eight different categories, depending on how much rice grain has been polished before making the sake. So if the rice grain has been polished more, then it becomes usually more expensive. And the fine product is a bit like a Grand Cru. If the rice grain has been polished less, that’s a sort of classic, bottom line non-premium sake. The reason why they have to polish the rice is because the outer layer of the rice grain is not really important for second production. It removes the roughness or bitter flavors, all that kind of stuff, which is not very important for second production.
Susan: And that’s the stuff that you need to chew and chew, like the ladies in the village! You spoke about why sake goes so well with pizza, but how about seafood and shellfish?
Satomi: In my opinion, there are two reasons it goes well with both. First one is the combination between acidity and umami. Umami is the fifth taste which was discovered by Professor Kikunae Ikeda of the Tokyo Imperial University over 100 years ago. Unami is often described as the depth of the savoriness and acidity.
As I said, acidity can be found in sake. There’s so many different kinds like succinic acid, malic acid, for example. They naturally mate through the fermentation process. But one of the acids is called succinic acid, which can be found also in a shellfish or seafood. Having this all together, the sake is not only a pallet cleanser, but enhances the flavors, almost like an orchestra.
The second reason is that sake has got low, the lowest amount of iron content. The majority of us, when we are having seafood, would choose white wine. Nobody really wants to have something that increases the fishy flavors in our palette. That’s the reason white wine really works well with your lovely seafood dish, it cleanses your palette, which is exactly what we want.
When the iron in the wine and a type of the fat within the seafood contact each other, they react and increase the fishy flavor. A glass of white wine contains about 0.4 milligrams of iron, on average. And for the red wine, the iron content is about 0.7 milligrams. That’s the difference. It’s very tiny, but it’s the reason why we choose white wine more than red wine when we having seafood.
So back to the sake. The iron content for the sake is 1/100th of the wine. This is a reason the sake doesn’t increase the fishy flavors. It will just blend really well with the seafood.
Susan: I think you’ve given us some ideas on how to start with sake and food. Should we go have some sake ?