Rice makes an appearance in traditional Japanese foods even outside of main dishes and the staple of plain rice itself. These foods are loved because they're portable---you can eat them anytime and anywhere. One example is mochi---or treats made out of special mochi rice flour that's pulverized and shaped into little rectangles or little round balls. There are also treats made out of non-glutinous rice, such as senbei and dango. Japanese sake is also made of non-glutinous rice. All of these are made from recipes that have been passed on from artisan to artisan and loved by eaters over the course of generations.
People have kept a fondness for sake over the years because of the taste and skill of the brewers. Let's take a look at how it is made.
Japanese sake is made from rice, kōji---a fermentation agent---yeast and water. Because of the special skills it takes preside over the brewing environment, there are special names for the leader (tōji) and the guild of brewers who make sake (tōji).
- 1.Making the kōji
- First, the outside of the rice is removed, along with the protein and fat, leaving only the carbohydrate part. It's washed in water and soaked until it reaches a stage where the starch is easily converted to sugar when it is steamed. The steamed rice is then chilled, and then mixed with a special mold to make the kōji. The kōji-making operation is the most delicate part of making sake because it has such an effect on the ultimate taste.
- 2.Making the yeast
- The newly-made kōji is added to steamed rice, along with water, to produce a brothy yeast. The kōji turns the starch into sugar while the yeast produces alcohol to make a starter that is the base of sake.
- 3.Making the unrefined sake
- Water is added to the starter and the mix is transferred to a tub or tank to make the unrefined sake. This process usually happens three times in total, making it a three-stage preparation.
- 4.Squeezing the unrefined sake
- The unrefined sake is left to ferment about a month while it turns into bona fide sake. It's filtered to separate out the actual sake from the lees under the keen eye of the tōji brewer. After about ten days, the solids precipitate out of the remaining liquid and it is heated to about 130 degrees to kill the bacteria. In all, it takes about 100 days to concoct a high-quality Japanese sake.
Senbei originated when people found a way to save leftover rice by steaming it and shaping it into round cracker shapes that they would then dry. Their crispy texture and mix of sweetness and depth make for a taste you never get tired of. Here's how they are made, even today.
- 1.Preparing the rice
- After the polished rice is washed, it's briefly soaked in water.
- 2.Making the dough
- The rice is ground into a fine-powdered flour and then steamed. Because the amount of water and starch varies according to the sample of rice, the steaming time is up to the judgment of the artisan senbei-maker. The senbei-maker then kneads the flour, adds enough water to cool it down a bit, and when it is cool enough to handle, stretches it into a thin layer and uses a cookie cutter-like mold to shape the senbei. The senbei are then dried all the way through.
- 3.Baking the senbei
- Once the senbei are completely dried out, they are placed on a tray in a single layer. The senbei -maker adjusts the heat up and down and presses them down with a spatula to make sure they don't puff up, flipping them over to make sure they are evenly baked. The senbei are then painted with soy sauce and seasonings while they are still hot.
These little rice dumplings---often served on skewers---are made from non-glutinous rice that has been even more pulverized by mortar and pestle or its machine equivalent, bringing out even more of the taste. Dango are made using fairly simple techniques, but it's the artisan's skill in sourcing and working with his materials that makes all the difference.
- 1.Choosing the rice
- You can buy the fine powder made from the pulverized rice that is used to make dango. But real artisans who are really paying attention to taste will start one step earlier by choosing their own rice to have pulverized. They're strict about choosing rice that will make the best texture---tender, but springy. After rinsing the bran off, the dango-maker will use his own tools to turn the grains into powder.
- 2.Making the dough
- The dango-maker will steam only the amount of powder necessary for that day's dango until it is smooth but firm. This is because the starch in the powder gets stiff and makes it hard to work with over the course of the day. Then he rolls the dough into a long round tube.
- The most simple kind of dango is made by just adding some sugar to the steamed rice before kneading. Sugar also helps the dough from getting stiff. From there, you can customize a number of tastes, adding sweet syrup or soy sauce or even attaching plump beans to the dango with a bit of sugar.