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2013 Sake and the City II, with a side of Wagyu Beef

2013 Sake and the City II, with a side of Wagyu Beef

Tim Sullivan (aka Sake Samurai) brought a second tour of premium sake to New York on October 28, at 404 Event Space on 10th Avenue. Like last year, JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) sponsored a very informative primer and tasting seminar on sake to go along with the walk around tasting of perhaps over a hundred different sakes, from over a dozen makers. But, I think the biggest draw this year for the very large, standing room only crowd was the chance to learn about and taste genuine Wagyu, at the hands of representatives from the Japan Livestock Industry Association and chef Abe Hiroki of En Japanese Brasserie in NYC.

First, a few words about sake, which is brewed from rice, using only water, koji (a mold) and yeast, which can be either fortified  (neutral cane spirits) or not. Within these parameters lie the variations found in sake. The quality and style is determined by how much the outside of the rice grains are milled down to the starch rich center (more milling means more expensive), the quality of the spring water used, brewing time and temperature, as well as the strains of yeast used.

Since rice is rich in starch, but not sugar, the koji mold is used as a starter on about 25% of the steamed rice to get sugars released, which in turn allows the yeast to ferment the batch and generate the alcohol. To learn more about the process I recommend taking a look at Tim’s site:  You can also learn about the classifications of unfortified sake (junmai) which is determined by the percentage of rice remaining after milling (between 100% and 70% for junmai as an example; up to 50% or less for junmai daiginjo), and the designations for fortified versus non fortified sake within the same milling parameters.

I had not previously been a fan of the beverage because I hadn’t tasted any higher quality ones. To borrow from what Tim said when asked a question about choosing either warm or cold sake when eating at a Japanese restaurant, he answered “If that is my only choice, I’d order a beer.”  He explained that if there was only one type offered, either warmed or not, it would probably be a poor quality to begin with. That probably explains my prior experiences.  If the quality offered is good, however, the recommendation was “warm sake with warm foods, and cold with cold foods.”  One of the pourers at the walk around had both warm and cool samples of the same brew, and where the warm was almost explosive on the palate, the cool was restrained. I could see where a warm sake would overpower sushi, but would compliment a cooked dish. Point well taken.

Japan is the home of the Wagyu breed of cattle in development since 1830, sometimes referred to as Kobe, a place where it is raised. This variety of beef has a genetic propensity to high marbling with fat, as well as the production of fats high in oleic acid, with lower density than other breeds. This results in meat that is juicy, tender, but without a greasy feel in your mouth. Even raw, there is a fruity perfume from the meat that lingers in your mouth, like the lengthy finish of a good wine. It would be a crime to overcook this (or for that matter any) fine quality beef. We saw and smelled samples of the raw cuts, learned how some simple preparations were made and got to sample them, some along with selected sake.

Quality control in the production of this beef includes not only genetic testing and a database where virtually every consumer package can be traced back to the animal, its parents and its processing. The producers are rightly proud of this product. There is also a very strict grading system. Each carcass is judged for marbling, color, shine, firmness and texture. The end result is a number, 1 -5, where 5 is the highest grade. Only “5” graded meat was displayed and used at this event.

The first sample was grilled sirloin seasoned with salt and pepper, caramelized on the outside and rare within, simply garnished, accompanied by a daikon/mirin sauce on the side. Tender, rich in flavor, lingering on the palate for several minutes.  I battled myself to chew slowly and savor it. This was at the opening seminar hosted by Yousuke Yamaguchi, a representative of  ZEN-OH, which presides over agricultural cooperatives and products in Japan.

At the second seminar, hosted by Sullivan and Hiroki we were served a rump tartare, enhanced with tobiko, soy and other ingredients. This was paired with a plum flavored sake, which had no sugar added. The little “pops” of the tobiko gave textural interest to the dish, and the sake stood up to it nicely.  Next was a very simple  un-adorned shabu-shabu,  made from rib eye, and warmed in broth at the very specific temperature of 169 F. Paired nicely with a standard junmai, which was clean and soft, so as not to compete with the richness of the beef. Last was a piece of nigiri sushi, made with rice, a dab of wasabi and a slice of wagyu loin, that had been blocked out like tuna, or another large fish. It was, however finished with a pass of a torch to warm the meat, but barely cooking it. Served with a junmai ginjo (70% remaining after milling), the flavor again lingered in the mouth for several minutes.  Rich and succulent, but not greasy, it was quite a treat.

I’m not embarrassed to say that after the seminar, samples of some of the dishes were made available to the general attendees, and I got on line as well.  After all, I knew what to expect. Be sure to take a look at the attached pictures.

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