New Year, New Year's Sake

It's a new year and we're happily following the Japanese New Year's tradition of drinking o-toso (屠蘇), an herb-infused sake enjoyed on New Year's Day. This spiced sake is created by steeping different herbs and spices such as sansho pepper, dried ginger, and rhubarb, in sake for several hours. The result is a strong, medicinal tasting concoction that is said to ward off evil spirits and any bad luck from the previous year.The origin of o-toso comes from China and it was originally made using a mixture of eight herbs. This tradition stemmed from the Tang Dynasty and was later adopted by Japanese aristocrats with the tradition traveling to Japan around the Meiji Era.O-toso is traditionally served from a kyusu instead of a tokkuri, which is similar to a tea pot. It is poured into three cups that are stacked on top of one another and then shared among family members. In the early days, the head of the household would take the first drink on New Year's Day but the custom has since changed and today, the youngest drinks first so that the joy of youth spreads to the older members of the family.

Kasu: Sake's Multipurpose Byproduct

The byproduct of the sake-making process may not be internationally known, but it's an important ingredient in Japan. This byproduct is sake kasu, also known as the lees left behind after the liquid is expressed from fermented rice. These solids are separated during the pressing stage of sake production, but just because sake kasu is technically a leftover, it should never go to waste!There are many culinary uses for sake kasu. Many breweries vacuum-pack it and sell it frozen to supermarkets throughout Japan, allowing people to buy it year-round. However, fresh sake kasu that comes straight from sake makers is the best, and full of complex flavors. Sake Kasu is packed with umami enhancing compounds, making it ideal for cooking, but its characteristics will vary depending on the type of sake it comes from. In Japan, this unique ingredient is used to add flavor to many different dishes, including soups and marinades.Aside from adding flavor and complexity to food, sake kasu is very nutritious and full of fiber, amino acids, and vitamins. And on the beverage side, it can be used to make amazake (a traditional, sweet, low- or non-alcoholic drink) or distilled to make shochu.

Sip Your Sake With an Ochoko

Now that you're versed on how to order sake, it's time to get familiar with the other components of a true sake experience. Sake can either be served straight from the bottle or from a tokkuri - a vessel made from lacquered wood, glass, or porcelain. The sake is then poured into a choko or ochoko, a small pottery cup.UH_Takeover-15 copyThe Japanese characters for ochoko are  猪口, which literally translates to "wild boar's mouth". It is said that an ochoko resembles the animal when viewed from the side. Traditional sake drinking etiquette dictates that the host must pour for his/her guests and should accept reciprocal offers of sake. Today, it is more acceptable to pour for oneself when gatherings are less formal.ochokoMost sake producers have their own special large ochoko, called  janome choko, to help examine the quality of their sake. On the bottom of the inside of these cups, there are blue and white designs, which help facilitate tests of the sake's color, clarity, and fragrance. Janome choko image courtesy Sake Talk