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May 27, 2008

The Art of the Cook in Zhuangzi

In previous posts about Japanese cuisine and sake-making I have talked about the obsession with ultimate quality in cooking (and in cutting, which is very important in Asian cuisine as the diners themselves do not have a knife!), as well as of sake brewing as a handicraft that in the end is practiced on a spiritual level...

Reading the Zhuangzi again (see my post on Zhuangzi here), the great Chinese Daoist wisdom book from around 300 BCE, I found this passage that expresses this perfect spiritual art in very clear terms (I cite from the old translation by James Legge, which is open source):
His cook was cutting up an ox for the ruler Wen Hui. Whenever he applied his hand, leaned forward with his shoulder, planted his foot, and employed the pressure of his knee, in the audible ripping off of the skin, and slicing operation of the knife, the sounds were all in regular cadence. Movements and sounds proceeded as in the dance of 'the Mulberry Forest' and the blended notes of the King Shou.'

The ruler said, 'Ah! Admirable! That your art should have become so perfect!' (Having finished his operation), the cook laid down his knife, and replied to the remark, 'What your servant loves is the method of the Dao, something in advance of any art. When I first began to cut up an ox, I saw nothing but the (entire) carcase. After three years I ceased to see it as a whole. Now I deal with it in a spirit-like manner, and do not look at it with my eyes. The use of my senses is discarded, and my spirit acts as it wills. Observing the natural lines, (my knife) slips through the great crevices and slides through the great cavities, taking advantage of the facilities thus presented. My art avoids the membranous ligatures, and much more the great bones.

A good cook changes his knife every year; (it may have been injured) in cutting - an ordinary cook changes his every month - (it may have been) broken. Now my knife has been in use for nineteen years; it has cut up several thousand oxen, and yet its edge is as sharp as if it had newly come from the whetstone. There are the interstices of the joints, and the edge of the knife has no (appreciable) thickness; when that which is so thin enters where the interstice is, how easily it moves along! The blade has more than room enough.

Nevertheless, whenever I come to a complicated joint, and see that there will be some difficulty, I proceed anxiously and with caution, not allowing my eyes to wander from the place, and moving my hand slowly. Then by a very slight movement of the knife, the part is quickly separated, and drops like (a clod of) earth to the ground. Then standing up with the knife in my hand, I look all round, and in a leisurely manner, with an air of satisfaction, wipe it clean, and put it in its sheath.'

The ruler Wen Hui said, 'Excellent! I have heard the words of my cook, and learned from them the nourishment of (our) life.'

In other words: we are not talking about a mere technique here, a procedure that may be mastered, but about something that goes way beyond this. We might call it a "Dao," a "Way" or an "Art." Any activity, whether butchering a carcass, making sushi, or brewing the perfect sake, becomes a Dao when it is performed in a spiritual state of heightened awareness. (See Zhuangzi in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

May 19, 2008

Sake Files: What water is suitable for Sake brewing?

Sake is for 70% water, so water is by far the major ingredient. Water used in the sake brewing process is called "Shuzo Yosui" and can be divided into two types: "Jozo yosui," or the water used for the fermentation process and "Binzume yosui" or the water used for bottling and other processes. The first type encompasses the water used for washing and steeping the rice as well as the water used directly in fermentation tank, the second type the water used to clean the bottles, but also the water used to dilute the sake to obtain the proper alcohol level.

As with the rice, some elements that can be found in water are good for the brewing process, others not.

Good elements, which help micro-organisms such as the yeast grow, are:
  • Potassium
  • Phosphoric acid
  • Magnesium

Negative elements are:
  • Iron (colors the sake!)
  • Manganese (same)
  • Heavy metals (bad for humans)
  • Ammonia and nitrous acid
  • Wild yeasts
Sake breweries take their water - especially the all-important water used in fermentation, from wells and springs, or from subsoil water of rivers. In other words, they use very pure and natural water. Many breweries have their own, private well.

We also have to take into account the difference between hard and soft water. Hard water has a high mineral content (often the "good" minerals mentioned above), soft water much less so. In the Edo-period, sake brewers preferred relatively hard water, as the "good elements" in it helped the fermentation process, making it faster. In the Meiji-period, brewers discovered that it was also very much possible to brew excellent sake with soft water, only the technique should be different. Anyway, the Ginjo type sake - which became a technical possibility in the 20th century thanks to rice polishing by machines - should always be brewed slowly.

A famous example of hard water is the Miyamizu ("Temple water"), discovered 160 years ago in Nishinomiya by the Sakura-Masamune Brewery. This water contains little iron and mangan, but a lot of phosphoric acid, and also a relatively large amount of potassium and magnesium. The hard water gives a dry taste to the sake and that became characteristic of the sakes made in the Nada districts of Kobe. All breweries in the area started using this water, transporting it in casks to their premises. This "masculine" sake, as it was called, became very popular among the population of Edo, where it was shipped.

Excellent soft water can be found in the Fushimi ward of Kyoto or in Hiroshima Prefecture. Sakes from these areas are sweeter and have therefore been called "feminine."

Water is important for sake brewing - it is the only element that gives a clear local identity to the sake, as "terroir" in the case of grapes (sake rice nowadays is shipped all over Japan, and anyway, most of the typical local elements are lost during the polishing process). So the water drawn from local wells, is the only "terroir" for Sake!

May 18, 2008

Sake Files: What rice is suitable for Sake brewing?

Rice and water are the two main raw materials in sake, but for sake, not all rice is equal. The rice used for sake is called "sakamai," "Sake rice;" about 5% of all rice grown in Japan is "Sake rice."

One particular type of "Sake rice" is the so-called "Shuzo Kotekimai," the "Rice ideally suitable for sake brewing." These are specially developed and cultivated strains of rice that possess certain qualities that make them most suitable for sake-brewing (they are not suitable as rice for at dinner!). About 30% of all sake rice (so roughly 2% of all rice grown in Japan) is "Shuzo Kotekimai."

Rice contains various elements, some of which are good for sake brewing, others much less so. Here are the five main elements:
  1. Carbohydrates (starch): 70-75%. By saccharification or liquefaction this becomes sugar. The most important element in sake brewing - the more starch (the larger the grain) the better!
  2. Proteins: 7-8%. Changed into amino acid by the enzymes produced by the Koji. Bad for fermentation.
  3. Chemical elements. Necessary for the growth of micro-organisms and therefore good for the brewing process. There are 4 kinds: potassium, phospohoric acid, magnesium, calcium.
  4. Lipids: 2%. Concentrated in the germ. Influences the aroma of the sake in a negative way.
  5. Vitamins. Concentrated in the germ, also not necessary for sake.

Only 1 and 3 are good for fermentation. "Sake Kotekimai" will have much of these and less of the others. The three most important qualities of "Sake Kotekimai" are:
  1. Have a large grain (1,000 grains should weight 25-30g, against ordinary rice only 20g (the famous Koshihikari and Sasanishiki types weigh 22-23g). As individual grains are so small, rice is weighed in units of 1,000 grains, called "Senryuju.")
  2. Have a soft opaque white center called "shinpaku," a sort of "white heart." This is pure starch.
  3. Have only little proteins and fats.

The large grain is of course necessary for super premium sakes (such as Ginjo), where the grain is polished to 60%, 50% or even less of its original volume.

Types of "Shuzo Kotekimai" are:
  • Omachi from Okayama Prefecture, the oldest variety, developed in the Edo period.
  • Yamada Nishiki, the most famous variety, very suitable for Ginjo sake, developed in Hyogo Prefecture in the 1930s. 30% of all "Shuzo Kotekimai." Has been called the King or Yokozuna of Shuzo Kotekimai.
  • Gohyakumangoku from Hokuriku and Tohoku. 50% of all "Shuzo Kotekimai."
  • Miyama Nishiki from Nagano Prefecture.
  • Hattan Nishiki from Hiroshima Prefecture

Unfortunately, demand for "Shuzo Kotekimai" far exceeds supply. This rice is very difficult to grow, because it stretches to 120 cm (against normal rice 90 cm), making it prone to devastation by typhoons. It must be placed wide apart (double from ordinary rice) and is a late harvesting type. Not for nothing that it costs double the price of ordinary rice (600 yen per kilo)!

So generally speaking, the special rice is used for the premium sakes (also about 30% of all sake brewed in Japan), while "ordinary sake rice" is used for the Futsushu or "ordinary sake" with added alcohol.