I love winter in Japan. Not just for the quiet atmosphere, but also for the seasonal food: hot pots like nabe, oden and sukiyaki, roasted sweet potatoes, a hearty stew like nikujaga … the list goes on. These dishes are simple to prepare and their warmth is the perfect way to stay cozy in winter.
In addition to these winter foods, Japan offers plenty of drinks to keep you warm. And aside from Japan's infamous teas, there is another unique beverage to try: amazake. Meaning "sweet sake", many Shinto shrines in Japan offer amazake as part of the New Year celebrations, but it can also be enjoyed any time of year.
AMAZAKE: LOW/NO ALCOHOL SAKE
Amazake is a traditional, sweet drink made from fermented rice or sake lees. Using a process similar to making sake, koji (aspergillus oryzae mold) is combined with cooled whole grain rice to break down the carbohydrates, resulting in a naturally sweet drink.
There are two main types of amazake: one with “low alcohol” that is prepared by mixing boiled rice, water and sake kasu (also known as sake lees, this is the by-product from which sake has been extracted).
The “alcohol-free” version on the other hand is made using boiled rice, water, and kome (rice) koji.
THE BEVERAGE OF YOUTH
Amazake is said to be rich in beneficial properties due to the fermenting effects of koji. Drinking it regularly (even every day) can help keep your skin looking young and your body feeling healthy. It's also supports our intestinal flora. It is rich in B vitamins, oligosaccharides and is also gluten-free. Some even drink it as a remedy against hangovers while the no alcohol version is safe enough for children to enjoy given it's easy to digest and naturally sweet.
Mixed with hot water, amazake is also great to help soften your skin.
HOW TO PREPARE AMAZAKE AT HOME
During the winter you can find amazake in supermarkets in Japan, or occasionally served at street market. However, if you can get your hands on rice koji, it's quite simple to make at home.
- 100g rice koji
- 150g steamed rice
- 300ml of water
The philosophy behind this recipe is similar to preparing yogurt. Once you've mixed all the ingredients, you need to keep the amazake at a warm temperature for at least 8 hours in order for the fermentation process to begin. You can use a yogurt maker or a rice cooker, otherwise a thermos close to a radiator will do.
Attention: Once amazake is ready to drink it is difficult to keep for a long time since the fermentation, once started, will continue even if frozen. This will result in an overly sour drink. To interrupt the fermentation, you will need to heat the amazake at least once a day.
Personally I love the flavor and consistency of amazake as is, but you may want to try these variations:
Hot Chocolate with Amazake
Granola with Amazake
You can also try our refreshing Sparkling Salt Lemon Amazake recipe.
About the author: Ele is a University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo alumna who returned to UNISG, after working in America and Asia, to work as part of a team on the Academic Tables project. Faith and love brought her back to Japan, where she's now living and studying about its incredible culture. Her biggest passions are people, food, and travel. She enjoys sharing her experiences with others who share her curiosity.