Get to know this sweet and creamy winter beverage.
Everyone has heard of Japanese sake, the rice wine that sometimes goes down a little too smoothly over plates of shabu-shabu and sushi, leaving you a little worse for wear the next morning. But there is another traditional rice-based beverage enjoyed in Japan called amazake. And since it’s either low-alcohol or entirely non-alcoholic, it might be just the thing you need after a night of sake.
Often served to patrons of traditional Japanese-style hotels and visitors to shrines at the New Year, amazake is believed to have been around since the Kofun period, around the 4th century, the era of Japan’s earliest recorded history. Nowadays, amazake is considered a winter drink to be consumed during the colder months, but during the Edo period, it was consumed in summer as an attempt to beat the heat prior to the invention of air conditioning. In fact, amazake was so important to the citizens of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) for surviving the sweltering summer months that its price was regulated by the government.
Amazake can be made with sake lees, which are leftovers from the production of sake and result in a beverage with a small amount of alcohol. The non-alcoholic version is made with rice koji, a substance that is used in sake to drive the fermenting process, and is also used in other Japanese foods like miso, natto and soy sauce. The process brings out more of the naturally occurring sugars in the rice, giving amazake a sweeter taste than sake. This sweet taste also is what lends amazake its name—which literally means “sweet sake.” Since this version of amazake is non-alcoholic, it can be enjoyed by everyone in the family, and it’s extremely versatile as a natural sweetener in desserts, smoothies and even baby food!
Amazake also has a number of health benefits. It’s believed that consuming amazake can help boost your immune system, which makes it really helpful now that cold and flu season is in full swing. It’s rich in B vitamins as well as folic acid and dietary fibre, making it a healthy option as a natural sweetener in a variety of dishes. Because the non-alcoholic version is also fermented, it is believed to be good for promoting healthy gut flora. Some even believe that amazake cures hangovers, making it very handy to have in the house after an evening of enjoying its alcoholic, rice-based cousin!
You can also make amazake at home, but temperature control is key and sometimes a bit challenging. Some methods suggest using a rice cooker for the fermenting process which can make it much easier, but you still need to pay close attention to the temperature throughout, and the process can take up to 10 hours. So if you’re crunched for time, it might be better to check your local Asian supermarket for ready-made amazake. Try it warm with some grated ginger sprinkled on top for a nutritious winter treat.