Written and illustrated by Misa Ono
If Japanese people have Sashimi on the table, Sake has to be next to it. Comparing to Westerners, it is commonly said that the Japanese are not strong at drinking alcohol and some of us cannot drink all; however, in Japan there are a lot of restaurants called Izakaya that serve various kinds of alcohol as well as tapas-like small dishes, and people enjoy alcohol all through the night. Actually, I am the one of them. People yell at me, “Stop drinking and work hard!”, but sake is one of the things that represent Japanese koji culture. I drink sake every night to study koji!
Koji is used for the production of not only seasonings but also sake as I mentioned earlier. One of the oldest Japanese books which was edited in year 713 states that people were producing sake using koji; therefore, it seems like they were doing it much earlier. Since some of vessels for alcohol of the middle Jomon period (3,000 – 2,000 BC) have been discovered, it is said that people seemed to be producing sake using yeast by crushing Yama-budo – Vitis coignetiae vine – at that time. In the late Jomon period, people were producing sake by chewing starches such as chestnut – the starch turns to glucose sugar with the enzyme inside the mouth—spitting out the fluid, putting it in a container, and fermenting glucose sugar and yeast. Since the Japanese have been producing sake from a long time ago, I believe my love for sake is the nature of the Japanese!
Sake is brewed like wine, but koji also produces distilled spirits like whiskey. Brewers use different kinds of koji to ferment grains such as rice, barley, and potatoes. Then they distill it and produce shochu. Generally shochu is produced in the southern part of Japan, and shochu called “Awamori” is produced in the southernmost prefecture of Japan, Okinawa. It is best to have those spirits with the specialty dishes that each region is famous for!
There is also a beverage called “Ama-zake” – which literally means “sweet sake” even though it is non-alcoholic. Brewers cook rice with more water than usual and add koji as a sweetener. It is believed to be a very nutritious drink. There is also a drink which is produced by breeding koji mold with tea leaves and fermenting it with lactic acid bacterium. Not only sake, but juice and tea are produced with koji in Japan. You can tell how important koji is for the Japanese!