Japanese Drinks – Amazake!

Ahh, December. The end of the year is full of festive indulgences. Parties, decadent foods and drink, as well as hectic schedules take their toll. In Japan, a wonderfully warming, sweet drink called amazake is the perfect antidote to keep one energetic and vibrant.

Similar to kombucha, which is widely known in the West, amazake is a fermented drink made of short-grain rice fermented with water and kome koji, or rice malted with the mold aspergillums oryzae. Amazake is produced at home as well as in commercial facilities, and the drink is purported to provide essential amino acids, B vitamins, enzymes and carbohydrates. Amazake is generally non-alcoholic, although one variation of the drink is made using sake kasu, or the lees from fermented sake, which results in a drink with less than 1% alcohol.

Amazake kome koji


Amazake has a rich and varied history. It was originally mentioned during the Kofun Period of Japanese history (250-538 AD) in the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest book of Japanese history. In the Edo period it was consumed during the hot summer months to prevent Natsubate (summer fatigue). Containing vitamins B1, B2, B6, B12, pantothenic acid, biotin, inositol, oligosaccharides and fiber, it is so nutritious that it was even given to weaning babies. Today, Japanese people typically enjoy amazake during cold winter months, when the mixture is pureed and heated, providing much needed energy and benefits to skin, hair and nails during harsh climate.

While enjoyed ‘neat’, amazake can also be used as the liquid in smoothies and as a substitute for milk in ice creams and desserts, as it is naturally sweet and low calorie. It may also be served as a substitute for yogurt. And one of the most fun uses of amazake is as a hangover cure, replenishing the body and brightening the skin after excess drinking.

Amazake yogurt


Amazake can be made at home, similar to the way yogurt is made. Rice and kome koji, available online and at Japanese supermarkets, are mixed with water, and heated to between 131°F-140°F. It’s kept at that temperature for eight hours and then the resulting mixture is pureed into a smooth liquid. In Japan, amazake can be found in almost any supermarket or convenience store, and in the US, at specialty health food stores and Asian supermarkets.

We hope you try amazake this winter, bringing you warmth and health for the end of the year!


Japanese Drinks – Wine!

Varietals. Aromas. Complexity. Palettes. Terroir.

Wine inspires passion, joy, camaraderie, sweat, tears and toil. Cultures and industries throughout history have focused on the creation of wine from crushed and fermented grapes. And this infinitely varied drink is becoming a staple in modern Japanese cuisine.

Wine is made from the grapes, typically of the Vitis vinifera family of grapes, which originate from the area that spans Western Europe through the Middle East until the banks of the Caspian Sea. From ancient times, grapevines were highly prized and traded, and grape cultivation is now common on every continent on Earth except for Antarctica.

Grapes were introduced to Japan during the Nara Period (710 – 794 CE), at a time of diplomatic, cultural and religious exchanges between China and Japan. Grapevines were cultivated in Yamanashi, Yamagata and Nagano Prefectures along with some areas in Hokkaido. Until the 16th century, when Jesuit missionaries from Portugal brought wine as gifts for the Japanese nobility, grapes were simply consumed as fruit, not wine. Japanese people tasted wine only through the missions, and the unfamiliar beverage did not gain popularity until the 19th century, during the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912). Cross-cultural exchange thrived during the Meiji Era, and the diplomats of the Iwakura Mission famously traveled to America and Europe, gathering information about many advances and industries, including viticulture. The first native Japanese wine was attempted using sake equipment and koshu grapes that were cultivated in Yamanashi Prefecture.

Today, wine drinking is increasing in popularity and many varietals pair beautifully with Japanese food. According to Peter Kasperski in Food & Wine, “Sake is legendary in Japan because of its ability to offering subtlety and nuance – just like dishes such as sashimi. Wines with similar subtlety and nuance tend to fall into the category of light, white and crisply acidic, with bright fruit notes… with a chameleonlike  way of matching a variety of dishes.”

These characteristics are inherent in two of the most popular indigenous Japanese grapes: the white “koshu” and the red “Muscat Bailey A”. These two grapes make up the majority of grapes used in native Japanese winemaking. Wine from koshu grapes is typically refreshing, with notes of grapefruit and lemon and with light acidity. Wine from Muscat grapes is also light in acidity, with subtle notes of cherries, peaches, rose petals, apricot and orange blossoms. Japanese winemakers utilize the well-known winemaking process developed by the French, where carefully cultivated grapes are harvested, crushed and pressed, then mixed with yeast, sugars and water into a mixture called a must. This mixture is fermented, then strained, or clarified. The clarified liquid undergoes a second fermentation, after which it is bottled and aged. Once produced, Japanese wines are categorized as kokunaisan, wine made exclusively from domestic materials; kokusan, wine made from imported ingredients but fermented in Japan; and yunyu, imported wine that is bottled in Japan.

Japanese food pairs beautifully with wine. Sashimi and sushi lend themselves to crisp white wines, including light, sweet Rieslings, mineral-rich, full-bodied Pinot Blancs and dry koshu-based wines. Fried foods such as tempura and karaage ideally pair with sparkling wines as well as light, mineral-rich red wines, such as Sancerres, Muscats and even some varieties of rosés. And grilled meats such as yakitori and teppanyaki complement fuller, fruit-forward white and red wines such as Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignons, Sauvignon Blancs and certain Bordeaux.

Almost any type of Japanese food is delicious when paired with wine!

We hope you try your favorite wine with some of our favorite foods, and as always, don’t forget to share your best pairings with us!

Japanese Drinks – Shochu!

Vodka. Whiskey. Gin. Tequila. Rum. Shochu.

Some of the most famous liquors in the world are the distilled alcohols of fermented grains, vegetables and herbs.

And Japan’s shochu is easily one of the most enjoyable and drinkable of the list.

Shochu is a distilled beverage made from water, koji, yeast and other ingredients such as rice, barley, sweet potatoes, brown sugar or buckwheat. Enjoyed throughout Japan, shochu, like sake, has become increasingly popular all over the world. And while shochu is a quintessentially Japanese drink, its origins are international.

The production of shochu in Japan has been documented to the 16th century. Historical information indicates that shochu was introduced to the area known as Ryukyu, or modern-day Okinawa, by traders from Siam, or modern-day Thailand. That drink was called arrack, the origin of which has been traced to ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilizations where an anise-flavored liquor called arak was made from the distillation of fermented cereal grains.

Rice mold, or koji

The Okinawan style of shochu, called awamori, is still made today, although the more popular honkaku shochu is considered the most authentic Japanese shochu and is primarily produced in Kyushu region. Honkaku shochu production became varied and robust during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) in Japan. The process begins similar to sake production, in that steamed short-grain japonica variety rice is inoculated with black or white aspergillius oryzae mold, or koji. Once the rice has been broken down into starch, amino acids and citric acid, yeast and water is added to complete the koji. Left to ferment for approximately one week, the resulting mixture, or moromi mash, is the initial source of alcohol for the shochu. A base ingredient, such as more rice, sweet potatoes, brown sugar, barley or buckwheat, is added to the mix. The base ingredient gives the final shochu its distinctive flavor. This mixture produces the second moromi mash, which is let to ferment for two weeks before it is heated and cooled in a traditional distillation apparatus. The distillation process retains the characteristic flavor of the base ingredient, which is mellowed and refined while the shochu is aged from several months to a few years in stainless steel, wooden or ceramic vessels. Once the shochu is aged, it is diluted with water to the appropriate alcohol content of either 20%, 25% or 30% and then bottled and shipped.

Honkaku shochu

Awamori shochu is produced using long-grain Thai indica variety rice and only black koji. While honkaku shochu goes through two mixing stages, awamori is made using only one mixing stage, going quickly into the fermentation step and after distillation, it is aged for a minimum of three years. Awamori shochu, because of its long ageing stage, has a characteristic vanilla flavor and much higher alcohol content – 43%!

Drinking shochu is a pleasure, especially at Japanese bars called izakaya in southern Japan. Beginners typically drink a rice-based shochu, called kome shochu, or a fruity cocktail called chuhai. The simplest way to drink shochu is neat, simply poured into a glass at room temperature. But shochu can be enjoyed over ice or mizuwari-style, that is, diluted with a small amount of cool water to round out the edges of the alcohol. Oyuwari-style, or diluted with warm water, is ideal during cold weather and enhances the depth, flavor and aromas of the shochu and purists often enjoy shochu warm, without any added water.

With the cold winter months coming up, we hope you’ll try some shochu at your local Japanese izakaya or restaurant. And as always, don’t forget to share your favorites with us!

Japanese Street Food:  Yakitori!


Who doesn’t love grilled chicken on skewers?

Yakitori is one of the most popular and ubiquitous types of kushiyaki found in Japan and in areas where Japanese food is popular. Yakitori are bite-sized pieces of chicken, skewered and grilled. In Japan, yakitori can be found at yakitori-ya restaurants, street food festival stands and more commonly, at izakaya, or bar and grill style restaurants.

Having them at a street fair or izakaya is quite an experience!

Generally paired with beer or sake, yakitori are perfect for after-work happy hour or after-party noshing. There are quite a few varieties of yakitori. One of the most popular ones is tsukune, which are ground chicken meatballs, glazed with a thin teriyaki-style sauce and often accompanied by shichimi pepper. Negima yakitori are small pieces of chicken thigh skewered on bamboo sticks with stalks of green onion, and occasionally salted or glazed. Without the green onion, these yakitori are called momo, literally meaning “thigh”. Kawa is a traditional yakitori preparation where chicken skin is folded and grilled extra crispy. Tebasaki are grilled chicken wings. Sunagimo are chicken gizzards, rebaa are chicken livers and nankotsu are breast cartilage… marinated, glazed and grilled to perfection. You can even get chicken heart, neck and hind end!


Grilling yakitori is an art form. Binchotan charcoal is used to heat the grill, which is smokeless and odorless, and made from hard Japanese oak. The wood is fired at extremely high temperatures in an oxygen-poor environment and quickly cooled to make it smooth and long-burning. This charcoal is the best to grill with, as it doesn’t adulterate the flavor of the food.

Eating yakitori is half the fun. Skewers are usually ordered in sets of two or as part of a combination plate called moriawase. You pick your sauce or tare, or just have your skewer sprinkled with salt. Sometimes, ordering sides of boiled eggs, potatoes or vegetables rounds out the meal, but mostly yakitori are delicious with beer and sake and good friends!

Share your izakaya or yakitori-ya story with us… from here in the US or from your trip or stay in Japan. Then stay tuned for next month’s street food showcase!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Sake and Mirin


We’ve talked about the five basic elements of Japanese cooking so far in this series, showcasing salt, sugar, vinegar, soy sauce and miso in ryori no sa shi su se so. But we have yet to explore sake and mirin, both of which are essential to Japanese cooking, and are the topics of this month’s post.

Sake and mirin are alcoholic liquors that are both imbibed and used as ingredients in cooking, similar to the way wine is used in French cooking. Both sake and mirin were originally cultivated as drinks–sake as a sacred offering to the gods, and to be enjoyed in ceremony by the Japanese people— and mirin as a popular aperitif among the upper classes. Today, their culinary uses have permeated all of Japanese cooking.


A sake brewery

Sake, or nihon-shu, is a rice wine made from rice, spring water, rice koji and shubo. The technique for making sake was originally introduced to Japan from China, around the same time that the rice plant was introduced. The entire brewing cycle is overseen by a brewmaster, or toji, who carefully orchestrates the multiple steps that go into producing this wine. Rice from the last harvest in autumn is typically used to make sake, and once it is milled, it’s washed, soaked and steamed until the texture is ready for cultivating koji. Koji is a fermentation agent made by mixing the fungus Aspergillus oryzae to the steamed rice and allowing the enzymes from the mold to convert the starches in the rice to fermentable sugars. After about 48 hours, one part koji is then mixed with three parts steamed rice and placed in a temperature controlled tank or vat. A special type of spring water is used in sake brewing, containing very little manganese and iron, and containing high quantities of potassium, magnesium and calcium. This special brewing water and shubo, or yeast, is added to the koji rice mixture, allowing the yeast to consume the sugars created by the koji, and turn them into alcohol over the course of approximately three weeks. When the toji believes the brew temperature, sugars, alcohol levels and acidity levels are just right, the mixture is poured into cloth bags that are placed neatly in a pressing tank, which compresses the mixture and drains the liquid sake out of the base of the press. The sake is aged for up to four months in refrigerated tanks, after which it is either pasteurized or kept cool and packaged for sale.

Sake is powerful stuff. It’s got up to a 20% alcohol concentration!

Mirin is sweeter, and milder. Brewed in a way similar to sake, mirin is made with glutinous rice (instead of the rice used for sake), koji, and shochu (a type of distilled spirit), then fermented up to two months. The shochu suppresses the production of alcohol in mirin, so the final product is contains less of it than does sake. Two types of mirin are generally available: hon-mirin, also known as real mirin, and mirin-fu chomiryo, also known as mirin-like condiment, which has virtually no alcohol but a similar flavor.

A bowl of mirin (photo credit: Badagnani)

A bowl of mirin (photo credit: Badagnani)

Both sake and mirin are wonderful ingredients in Japanese dishes. Sake is often used to tenderize meat, poultry and seafood, eliminates unpleasant odor and draws out the natural flavors of the foods it is cooked with. Mirin can firm up meats and seafood, and add a touch of sweetness and sheen, especially to glazes and sauces, such as teriyaki sauce.

While mirin is almost exclusively used in cooking, sake is still a beverage enjoyed from the beginning to the end of a Japanese meal. Grab a small cup and pair it with Chanko-Nabe, a one-pot stew flavored with sake and mirin, or Teriyaki Yellowtail, marinated with sake and mirin.

As always, we’d love to hear about your experiences as a beginner with Japanese cooking, so leave us a comment below.