Words/Pix: Henry Yuen
Chinese blog: http://blog.taiyanbao.ca/life/430786
Milder and lower alcohol content; a less floral but earthier bouquet; trimmer acidity with subtle sweetness are perhaps the reasons why sake has been favoured by Japanese and Asians. But most wine lovers would agree, sake does complement Japanese cuisine intricately, especially with sushi and sashimi. The refined flavour of sake along with the tantalizing mouth feel caress the raw seafood in our palates charmingly. No wonder sake is gaining popularity rapidly on the global beverage platforms.
Like most imported goods, the varieties of sake available in Vancouver is limited and usually of average grade. One may have to go to rather high end Japanese restaurants to find true premium sake. Make no mistake; what is available here is only a tiny fraction of the sake produced in Japan. Needless to say, my recent trip to Japan was a seven day affair of non-stop eating and drinking; with sake taking the centre stage.
We landed in Tokyo at night and the first thing on the itinerary early next morning was to visit the world famous Tsukiji Fish Market. After over 2 hours of wide-eyed amazement and sometimes disbelief of the magnitude of seafood being handled and traded daily, we sat down in one of the sushi restaurants and had the best raw seafood and beautifully plated sea urchin set for breakfast. Even though it was 9am in the morning, I reminded myself it’s night time in Vancouver; therefore sipping sake was in natural order. There was no wine list to speak of so you just pointed at the display bottles to make your selection and almost immediately sake was served, and to my delight, the authentic way – in a small square wooden box. The wooden box emitted a very faint smokiness but somehow added a mysterious character to the sake. While small sake cups, either ceramic or glass, were common, I had come across artistic sets and strange looking shapes and I must admit, they all pushed the experience up one notch. A good way to embrace the arts of sipping local sake for sure!
No matter what season it is, slightly chilled sake has always been the norm here; room temperature sake is not unusual either. However, if you prefer your sake warm, please let them know. Mind you, they do serve sake warm, but never hot! Warm sake is usually reserved for utility grade sake while premium grade is preferably served slightly chilled. Almost every restaurant, no matter how tiny, offers sake. And more often than not; serve beer, sake and wine or anything alcoholic in a very casual manner. Even the young waitress can go to the back, pick up a bottle and pour it for you. Sake sommelier? I was quite sure they were around, but I did not have the pleasure to meet one during my sake days in Japan.
Since restaurants of all sorts were everywhere, so were sake: On shelves, by the door, in boxes, barrels; lined-up in bottles against the wall or by the back exit… Palpably, sake selections were never short; a few of which I was pretty sure I encountered and tasted back home. The price points varied too, but as expected, they were much more wallet-friendly. Many restaurants offer individual (200ml) sizes which they left the bottle on the table. Some were poured directly from the magnum bottle which was lifted right in front of you for your sake by the glass orders. Sake-paired meals should be available somehow somewhere; unfortunately, no one at the front desk or dining room in any of the restaurants spoke good enough English to answer my inquiry.
Most restaurants serve their sake generously to showcase their hospitality. Not only was the cup or box always filled to the brim; there were the extra friendly and very appreciative way to over-pour so the sake cup or box was actually dripping. With a dish smartly placed underneath to catch the overflow, this gesture was not just an eye-opener, but big hugs worth, only if they let me! Ha, don’t I wish Vancouver restaurants could pick up this smart practice, even when serving beer and wine!