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May 13, 2021


Like many New Yorkers, the first Japanese restaurant that I remember going to was Benihana’s in Manhattan. It is not named after anyone that bares that name, but after a saffron flower that Yunosuki Aoki discovered growing in a nearby empty lot in Japan.

It was his son, Rocky who opened the first Benihana’s in the United States and didn’t succeed until dad suggested that American’s get some form of entertainment. Thus begat the art of hibachi cooking and the tossing of utensils. The decision was made not over a few Martinis or shots of Tequila, but over some fine sake, or what Rocky’s father called, “Water From Heaven”.

I recently met Rocky and his son, Kevin at a Sake Tasting at the Benihana’s in Westbury. Sake tasting? How many “sakes” are there? According to Rocky, there are 1700 kinds of Sake in Japan of which about 200 are imported to the U.S. Not every Benihana’s can take part in a Sake Tasting, so Rocky decided to write a book entitled “Water From Heaven” (I don’t have to tell you who it’s dedicated to).

The true tradition of drinking sake is not from the little ceramic cup, but from a square box made of wood. But for the sake…I mean sake…of doing a tasting, we used shot glasses. One of the sake’s was Benihana’s own made from rice grown in California. Yes, it’s not just Wine Country out there and since Japan controls the high price of rice, sake is cheaper when made in the U.S.

Although sake is referred to as “rice wine”, it is not a wine at all…wine can only be made by using grapes. The process of making sake is more like the brewing of beer. It is the starch in the rice that turns into glucose before the fermentation can take place and unlike beer there is no carbonation.

Sake requires four ingredients: rice, water, koji (an enzyme) and yeast. With so many varieties of white rice alone, of which only about 50 are suitable, the taste rests on, above all, the quality of the rice and water.

The particular types of rice, of which is not good for eating, are polished to clear out the impurities of the outside. The more the impurities are removed, the less of a hangover. “Most sake rice is polished down to 70% of its original size, while the rice used in premium sake is milled down to 50%, or even less, of its original size. This ultra-premium sake is called Daiginjo. Sake that is milled to under 60% is called Ginjo, and next level down, with about 65% milled, is call Tokbetsu”. American sake is basically called, Jisake.

Back to the tasting. Sakes are classified for their acid flavor (sanmi), bitterness (nigami), astringency (shibumi) and “satisfying richness”(umani). Another quality is “fragrance” (If it has a strong odor, it has turned).

If you happen to be at sake bar, you can request the assistance of a “Kikizakeshi”, similar to a Sommelier. Most people have the sake served hot. It may have a stronger alcoholic effect, but having it served cold brings out the flavor.

Many American sushi restaurants have what is referred to as “futsu”, the bottom of the barrel, or shall I say, a large carton. This type of sake is made from table rice, adding more grain alcohol and often served warm to mask the taste. Like bottles of wine, ask to see the bottle and the pouring of it.

Most sake if aged for about six months and then quickly sold, as it should be drunk young. “But some sake called koshu, is aged for two to three years, and hizo-shu is aged for five years or more. These aged sakes have a mellower flavor.”

Rocky recommends that if you were to have one type of sake at a restaurant, choose Junmaishu. Sake can also be used in cocktails, of which Benihana’s has a variety of sake recipes including a Sake Margarita. Are you reading this, Andra? It’s made with 1 oz. sake, 1 oz. Grand Marnier, 2 oz. frozen lemonade, 2 oz. water ½ oz. Calpico and a splash of lemon juice.

“Water From Heaven” not only explains Rocky’s story and how sake is made, but a section on the characteristics of brands of sake and suggestions on what to serve them with. So, get thee to a sake bar and enjoy! Here’s a toast to you. KAMPAI!!!

March 24, 2005 - Queens Times


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