September 2009

Sake Story - Back To My Humble Sake Beginnings

Posted by Beau Timken in 2009, Newsletter, Sake Story, September
South Africa As I wrote in the introduction of my book - "Sake a Modern Guide" - sake called to me in the strangest of places - in a dark and seedy sushi bar in Cape Town, South Africa. Yes, that was when the seed was planted - the hook was set - the snare took hold, but I had no idea at the time. I went from a happy "hottie" - chugger of hot sake only - to an explorer of rice and water in its most refined form. It was an eye opening experience - one that would change my life, and yet I did not see the long-term effect! What I did see was a beverage that mystified me, and I needed answers.

In retrospect the story has an even funnier side that is not in the book. For you see the kind Japanese fishermen who introduced me to premium sake came back to Cape Town on numerous occasions. On the initial evening of sake discovery when they shared their tasty Ginjo from Niigata they let it be known that I could do something for them. Those boozing fishermen wanted to play golf! So in my best wheeling and dealing voice I said that I would trade them a round of golf for another bottle of that wonderful sake. Cups clinked in cheers, hands shook, and high fives sealed the deal. I arranged for them to play at a local course, picked them up at their cheap hotel, and took them for their round. The deal was one bottle of sake for them to play 18. They gave me two at the end of the day. Why? One of the captains hit a hole in one. Lucky me. I was pretty pumped about my two bottles when the question came out of the blue "Can we do this again?" What? "We will be back in three months - can we call you to trade again?" Sure, but this time I'm thinking a case! "No problem." And like that our deal was done and set in stone - they would contact me via my home phone number when their fishing ships were back in town. Truthfully I didn't think that I would ever see them again.

Four months to the day I received a ship to shore phone call at 3AM at my house - "Hello - Golfey" Huh? "Hello - golf play" What? "We play golf?" Ohhhh my god it's you. "Yes - nihonshu for you!" Huh? (I didn't know the name nihonshu then.) So they came back. I arranged for another golf outing and they gave me a "case" of sake, which was 6 bottles. Is this a case? "Yes - case!" Oh okay! (The sake this time was not the same - the last two bottles were brown and the new ones were green and they were smaller. I wrote in my notes what they told me the name was - KoshyKambi. Yes - you guessed it they had given me Koshi no Kanbai from Niigata - the "ultimate" in sake for those who want to name brand impress.

To make a long story short these fine gentlemen decided to tell all of their shipping/fishing/seafaring friends about a white guy who would trade rounds of golf for sake. My personal home line would ring at all hours of the night - sometimes I would answer and hear in broken English - "Golf?" "Please golf for nihonshu." In a word I was un-amused and even though the prospects of great sake were so enticing I changed my phone number. But those men did change my life!

So last month I was back in Cape Town and the restaurant was gone! The sushi counter where it all happened is now a memory. As I trolled the market I realized that the "sushi" scene had actually taken a step backwards! Despite a Nobu, which is now sort of like the Benihana of raw fish, there are not that many sushi restaurants. Fusion seems to rule the day, and within those fusion restaurants not a lot of premium sake has taken hold. In fact, there is not a lot of Jizake sake to be found anywhere. This is somewhat disturbing as I thought for sure the sake scene would have improved since I last was on African soil. That is not the case - just the same large Kobe macro-brewery sakes are available.

In the grand scheme I always liken South Africa to be roughly 2-3 years behind fads - witnessed this for cigar bars etc - and perhaps sake will start to flourish later this year - their summer. But - if Europe is an example then I think Cape Town and all of South Africa will lag behind the growing sake trend in the west. Too bad, because a lot of African foods lend themselves to sake - don't believe me? Check out next month's Sake Challenge where we took sake head to head with cuisine from Senegal!

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