How to Become a Sake Samurai
A year ago, my husband, Michael, and I went to a 7-Eleven in Kyoto, bribed a clerk to help us work the sumo-wrestling ticket machine and were on a southbound train to Fukuoka the next morning. That day, we became enthralled with sumo: the giants, the fandom, the rituals. Back in New York City, Michael convinced his friend Harry to host Sumo Stew parties at his Brooklyn Kitchen cooking school. Now, every few months, I find myself eating chankonabe (the chicken stew wrestlers eat pre-match), drinking sake and shouting at a big screen streaming the day’s tournament from Japan.
At one Stew, I was handed a cup of sake—light, fruity and completely happy-making—that had me reaching for the bottle to look at the label. “It’s Amabuki Junmai Ginjo Nama, produced with yeast from strawberry blossoms,” explained Chizuko Niikawa-Helton. Chizuko is a sake sommelier who runs tours of Japan several times a year with her company, Sake Discoveries. She’s a Sake Samurai, which means she is one of only 60 members of an elite, global professional sake society. By the time the last match was over, we’d made a date to go drink more sake.
We met up at Yopparai, a Lower East Side sake bar where Chizuko hosts secret pop-ups on Saturday nights. We were the only two there, save for the chef and the host, Pony, himself a former sumo wrestler. Chizuko ordered, and we each were given two small silver cups. “Using the little cups rather than big glasses allows you to pour more for each other,” Chizuko told me. “If we had glasses, we wouldn’t need to refill.” Pony poured from two enormous sake bottles. The first was a lighter-bodied, fragrant Gasanryu Kisaragi Daiginjo called Mountain River; the second was the Daishichi Big Seven Kimoto honjozo-style sake.
“Kanpai!” said Chizuko, and we sipped the daiginjo. It was clean and fresh, typical of the style, Chizuko told me. To make daiginjos, sake brewers polish away more than half the exterior of each grain of rice, resulting in sake that is very pure. Its lightness reminded me of sparkling wine but without the acidity, which means it can accompany all sorts of food—not just the mackerel pike sashimi we had at Yopparai.
The honjozo, made in the old-fashioned kimoto style of brewing, was much bolder, with a true, toasty rice flavor. “This is big enough to work with steak or even cheese,” Chizuko told me. We sampled a second cup of the honjozo, but warm this time. It was softer, more slinky and outstanding with our vegetable stew.
The next night Michael and I sat down at Bar Goto, the new spot from mixologist Kenta Goto. I’d heard Kenta was making cocktails with sake, as well as dishes like grilled cheese okonomiyaki (a sort of heftily stuffed omelet), a take on a classic we’d loved in Japan. I ordered the Sakura martini, made with sake, Plymouth gin and maraschino liqueur; floating in it was a perfect cherry blossom, shipped in from Japan. For cocktails, Kenta uses Ozeki Komatsu Tatewaki Junmai, a unique sake aged in cedar barrels. “It has enough flavor to stand up to most spirits,” he explained. Michael’s cocktail, the Far East Side, also had sake in it, matched with blanco tequila and garnished with a shiso leaf. The flavors were grassy and bright. “The shiso is like cilantro for the tequila,” Kenta said.