August 28, 2017
Delicious, sweet and nutritious - if you have been to a traditional Japanese festival (matsuri), you may be familiar with amazake, the centuries-old beverage. Hot cups of the thick, creamy concoction are often served during matsuri celebrating the New Year, keeping hands and stomachs warm. However, this is only one of the many ways to enjoy amazake, which also happens to be packed with nutrients. So, what exactly is amazake?
All about the sweet sake
The word amazake literally means “sweet sake”. In Japanese, sake refers not only to the rice wine, but to alcoholic beverages in general. Amazake may or may not contain a low level of alcohol - both versions are available. Although amazake is very popular these days because of its healthy properties, it is not a new type of food. It has been produced in Japan for over a thousand years, and is even mentioned in the “Nihon Shoki” (“Chronicles of Japan”), an early history of Japan compiled in 720.
These days, amazake is regarded as a cold weather drink, and is most often served piping hot at traditional festivals surrounding the New Year festivities. The non-alcoholic type is also served during Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) festivities held on March 3 every year, to replace the alcoholic beverage that was traditionally served on this day.
Back in the Edo Period (1603-1868), it was consumed in summer to combat heat-induced fatigue. Back in those days, amazake vendors were an essential part of the summer season, and the drink was considered to be an essential energy source for the population by the government. Today, amazake street sellers are few and far between, especially in summer, but the drink is readily available at most supermarkets and convenience stores. It is even sold in canned versions in vending machines!
If you wish to step back into time for a little while, there is a small street in Tokyo that is entirely dedicated to amazake. The street is approximately 400 meters long and is lined with many shops selling amazake (both liquor stores and some entirely dedicated to amazake), as well as traditional Japanese confectionery shops and Japanese restaurants. By walking down this charming street, you can experience the atmosphere of the “shitamachi” (old downtown). You can even try amazake ice cream there!
Pick your amazake
The low-alcohol type of amazake is made by mixing sake kasu (the lees that are left over after sake production) with steamed rice and water. As for the non-alcoholic variety, it is created by combining steamed rice and water with kome koji, rice that has been infused with Aspergillus oryzae, a fungus that is used to make various kinds of fermented foods such as miso, sake and soy sauce. Amazake can be high in B vitamins, amino acid, magnesium, phosphorus, fibers, bacteria and enzymes. Just like yogurt, it’s easy to digest and very kind to the digestive system. In fact, the non-alcoholic version can even be fed to weaning babies.
In recent years, amazake has gained the attention of health food enthusiasts all around the world thanks to its nutritious properties. It is categorized as a “Japanese superfood”, meaning that it is a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being, or a food that may even help some medical conditions due to the particularly high levels of certain nutrients it may contain. Amazake is therefore recommended by the Japan Superfoods Association, alongside natto, miso, and green tea. Amazake is so full of nutrients that it has been compared to a drinkable intravenous drip - keep that in mind next time you need a little energy boost!
Sipping on amazake
Curious about the taste and health benefits of this Japanese beverage, I went on an adventure to sample a few different kinds. I was able to drink cups of amazake from street vendors, from liquor store samples, from a pack purchased at the supermarket and from a traditional Japanese cafe. I tried both cold and hot amazake. Some types of amazake I tasted were thicker and filled with soft grains of rice, while other kinds were lighter, or even a lot sweeter. In the end, all of them were delicious and very smooth and creamy. Drinking amazake also provides a soothing feeling for the throat, and is very filling, almost like a meal.
I must admit that even though all the versions of amazake I sampled were delectable, the one I drank served in a tiny, old Japanese-style cafe was my favorite. Perhaps it was the atmosphere too, making me feel like I was transported back to the Edo Period. I ordered a cup of hot amazake, even though it was a hot, muggy August day. The amazake was served in a small ceramic cup, with a tiny plate of pickles on the side. I loved how the bitter taste of the pickles perfectly balanced out the sweetness of the amazake, and even though it was served hot, it did not make me feel hotter. In fact, I felt reenergized after drinking it, and the whole experience was unforgettable.
I am now an amazake enthusiast, and I bought various packs of amazake to drink at home. Some packs can be consumed just as is (warmed up or cold), while others require you to add a bit of water, so it’s important to read the instructions.
Make your own amazake
If, just like me, you can’t get enough of amazake, you’ll be glad to find out it’s surprisingly easy to make at home. Why don’t you give it a try? All you need is rice, kome koji (which is available at many supermarkets or online), and plain water. The most challenging part is the waiting time, as you will need to keep this mixture warm for at least 8 hours, at a temperature maintained between 55 and 60 degrees Celsius. If you have a rice cooker, you can simply pour the mixture into it and use the “keep warm” setting, leaving the lid open but covered with a clean kitchen towel. A yogurt maker is also a useful tool to make amazake. It is a good idea to make a large batch of amazake, and freeze the portions you don’t use immediately as the freshly made stuff cannot be kept for very long.
Text: Vivian Morelli