Written and illustrated by Misa Ono
Freshly-made sake with rice koji, steamed rice and water have bacteria in it. The bacteria are still actively changing the taste of the sake. To prevent it and keep the perfect taste, sake is sterilized by heat before it goes to the market. However, in the earlier time when people didn’t have a fridge, it was difficult to preserve sake only by the heat sterilization, especially in warm areas. Then what people invented was putting ashes of charcoals into sake. They found that ashes could sterilize sake. Really? Apparently, adding ashes slightly alkalizes the sake and preserves it longer.
Using the ashes to foods and drinks weren’t unusual at that time in Japan. They used the ashes to remove harshness of wile vegetable, coagulate konjac and even to make a snack “akumaki” by simmering glutinous rice in ash soup. The edible ashes used for food were not ordinary, they were made from hinoki cypress and camellia trees especially for this purpose. At that time there was even an official occupation making and dealing with ashes and some skilled people made the best quality ashes that nobody else could make. Some of the best ashes were believed to be magical and as good as “making sake strong and better, getting rid of evil sicknesses, and giving people a great peace of mind.”
The sake sterilized by ashes is called “akumochizake”. The name can be different in other regions but the best-known one is “akazake” in Kumamoto. It is light brown and quite sweet. On a New Year’s Day, people drink “toso” that akazake (or mirin), sake, and some spices are mixed together. That is traditionally believed to remove the evil of the year and give a long life. Akazake is often used in Japanese restaurants instead of sugar or mirin. As akazake is slightly alkaline, it makes the meat and fish nicely tender and glazed. I also simmer the meat and root vegetable together in akazake and soy sauce, or make vegetable salad mixing with akazake and vinegar. Of course, you can drink akazake by itself, or with soda water. Delicious♡
To make sake, the rice is polished 50 to 70% while for akazake, 85 to 90%. Besides, for sake the amount of water is same as the rice while for akazake, it is half of the rice. That is why akazake is much sweeter coming from the rice.
I love akazake toso. Most people only buy the spices for New Year’s toso. However, in my case, I buy an extra amount of spices and make toso to drink in other days too.
*the food made from the corms of konjac plant by boiling, grating, and then coagulating it with the ash soup. It is also called “Devil’s tongue” in English.