Written and illustrated by Misa Ono
In the document written in 713, early Nara period, there is an article about sake and koji. It proves that Japanese people were already making sake from koji much earlier. But how could they find out that they could make sake from koji? And before that, how did they find koji itself that is too small to see without microscopes in the first place? Here are some interesting theory to explain it.
The Japanese have been eating rice made in the rice fields for a long long time. They believed that any water disasters including typhoon and heavy rain were made by a god (*). So people treated the God with gifts and pray for their safety and good harvests for the year. The gifts should be the best they could give.
They offered rice at first as it was a very precious item in the era. Then it was changing to steamed rice or rice cakes. When they were left for a several days, the mold grew. One day, a brave man tried eating the mold and found it…sweet? And licking the rainwater on the molded gifts made people feel good and funny. Why?
That’s because it became sake. As mentioned, rice was very precious and there was no way for people to leave and waste it for long enough to get mold except offering it to the god. Koji mold usually exist on the ears of rice, and the altars where the gifts were offered were normally located besides the rice fields. So it was quite possible to think that the koji mold fermented the gifted rice producing rice koji, the enzyme of koji changed the rice glucose to sugar, and some natural yeast dissolved the sugar to alcohol and carbonic acid, transforming it to sake at the end.
I wonder what people thought of this unexpected discovery that the offered gifts turned to delicious sake. They probably thought “It is a gift from the god!” In fact, koji is an essential ingredient for Japanese cuisine today. Sake, miso, soy sauce, salt koji, amazake, mirin, vinegar… all are made from koji. I personally believe koji is really a gift from the god. That would be romantic too!
*Most Japanese people believe that god is not the only one existing but there is a god for each natural thing like rice’s god, sun’s god and mountain’s god.