Sake Story - Sake As A Food Source
When was the last time that you ate booze? A good solid square meal of alcohol? A big heaping portion of giggle juice? And no your watermelon with a hole filled with vodka does not count. Neither does that jello shot! Nor does your rum cake. Nope those do not constitute a solid booze-filled dinner. Alcohol - more specifically sake is "The" original fueled-up meal that brought field-fermentation to the farmer.
Rice is and was a three-meal-deal in Japan. No other elements of an alcoholic beverage can lay claim to this "necessity" status.
Do you think ancient Germans (sorry history buffs) ate bowls of fermented hops and barley for lunch? How about those ancient French (again apologies history geeks)? Do you think they hunkered down over brimming bowels of fermented grapes for dinner? In all likelihood the answer is nuh-uh! But wait! Hold that image! See a course clay bowl filled with a mush resembling oatmeal. Look further and see a group of farmers sitting around a large wooden bucket filled with the same mash and guess what? They are eating sake in its most ancient and raw form.
Indeed, the genesis of sake (nihonshu or wine of Japan) was not a crystal clear liquid that is best served chilled in fancy bar glasses. No, rather sake in its oldest carnation was a 3%-5% alcohol- based bowl of rice that required looking away and a hefty appetite. Sake was a meal. Sake was food. It was not simply an "alcohol" doing that wonderful magic that booze is associated with. Sake was functional. It was sustenance. It was necessary, and oh yah it got good hard working people buzzed!
Like most all things sake can be traced back to ancient China, as this is where rice has its "ground zero." For the sake of speaking about sake in its modern context Japan has been and continues to be the torch-bearing nation for this starchy libation. Roughly 2,500 years ago wet-rice cultivation began on the island of Japan. And those cultivating rice were the first recipients of this fermented wonder that was said to have been used to liquor up ancient beasts so that they could be felled by mere mortals.
Farming was a communal occupation, and rice was the most communal of bonds. It was a food source - so valued that at one time it was even traded as a currency. But more importantly rice brought people together. It brought folks together to chew and spit! Yes, the earliest recorded history of sake spoke about a form of brew that was created by chewing rice and spitting the gob into a wooden bucket - "kuchikami no sake" or "chewed in the mouth sake." Those glorious farmers somehow realized that if they chewed the rice and spat it out into wooden tubs or buckets that the enzymes in their mouths would break the long-chain starch molecules into a glucose, and then this glucose would sit in the bucket for about a week and allow airborne yeasts to propagate and ferment the glucose into wonderful alcohol.
Bingo! A meal and a party in one! And that is indeed what happened. Villages used religious occasions to get groups together to chew and spit en mass to create a large batch of saliva sake - my words not theirs. Usually the village leader would start the process and the rest of the villagers would join the spit-a-thon. Then and thankfully some smart and perhaps germaphobic farmer said "I am sick of drinking Yoshi's spit," and suggested that he would prefer the ricey spit of a virgin. And so began the next phase of sake in its oldest form - Bijinshu or "beautiful girl sake" that basically was a virginal masterpiece.
Yes, the village virgins would all gather and chew rice as a team descended from the gods. Then they would release their globby glory into the wind to find a warm gooey home in the bottom of very receptive receptacle. Pure heaven. A sustenance so dreamy that people no longer cringed at the thought of Yoshi's spit. A product so marketable that Anheuser Bush is considering making a beer called Bud Virgin. Yes, sake became sexy as well as savory.
But let's not kid ourselves - the sake that we are speaking about still resembled a gruel that was chunky and funky. How did they eat this fermented food source? Originally with hands and disposable Purrell Towelettes.
Then yet another enterprising farmer, who was tired of trying to drink the "good stuff" at the bottom of the bowl through the mush thought about affixing a straw to the bottom-side. In this scenario the heavy mush remained on the top and the "heavenly juice" sat in the bottom, easily extracted with pursed lips and a sucking sound. (For those having a hard time picturing this, think about your last 7-11 slurpee or slushy at the movies - ice on top, good stuff on bottom.)
5th century in Japan saw a very unique vessel shaped like an hour- glass with a larger bowl on top and a small bowl on the bottom with an attached straw - heavy mash on top and fluid running down into lower bowl with straw - (Again for those having difficulty seeing this image think of a ridiculously large green tube of alcohol on Bourbon Street). Ah but 6th century Japan saw the advent of a bowl of sake again. Just a bowl of fermented gruel that required the use of long pincers, almost like modern-day eyebrow tweezers to lift the chunks of sake out to be eaten and the bowl to be tipped and sipped - very civilized, very 6th century.
The concept of fine dining has come a very long way since bowls of fermented gruel shared amongst farmers and village virgins. Or has it?