The Nikkei Style site reports on something that I keep hearing about but never understood – should you have salt with your sake?
The article, written by Aoyama Shiho of the Japan Salt Coordinator Association, talks about sakana, which is a homonym for the word for “fish”, but in this case it’s a side dish or snack to go with sake. (Also used for something that becomes the topic of conversation over drinks.)
While many people look forward to food and a drink to reward themselves for a hard day’s work, winter is a great time to turn to heated sake instead of the usual cool beer, highball or sour. The article speculates that everyone has their own “must have” snack for while they’re drinking sake – sashimi is a given, then there are pickled dishes like shutō (salted and fermented bonito guts), squid pickled in a sake-vinegar-salt mixture, salmon roe, octopus with wasabi, plus others like anglerfish liver, potato salad, nikujaga (stewed beef with potatoes and carrots), sliced kamaboko (fish cake) with grated wasabi, and nabe one-pot dishes in the winter… an almost infinite variety once you take regional and seasonal dishes into account. But they have one more to suggest.
Going back to the roots of what makes a sake snack, the article suggests drinking sake with salt. (You, over there, stop backing away!) After all, there’s nothing special about pairing sake and salt. There are “snow style” cocktail where the rim of the glass is coated in salt, such as salty dog (vodka and grapefruit juice) or margarita (tequila, white Curaçao and lime juice). The salt isn’t there just for show – salt can counter acidity and bitterness in alcohol and fruit juice, drawing out sweetness.
Drinking sake with salt dates back to at least the Warring States period, and was allegedly practised by Uesugi Kenshin (a powerful daimyō of the period) who also drank sake with miso and umeboshi (salted plums). Although salt is taken for granted these days, it was actually hard to come by back then which made salt and products like miso and umeboshi that use a lot of salt, rare and highly sought after.
It continued in the Edo Period, when salt was sprinkled on the corner of the wooden masu drinking box. Salt wasn’t such a rarity any more, so it’s not clear why it was still used, but there are a few possibilities: using salt both makes the sake taste sweeter and brings out its umami; because the drinker couldn’t taste the sake when full after a meal; to make the drinker thirsty so they would drink more; to add saltiness to the existing sweetness, bitterness, acidity and umami in sake to cover all five tastes; or because salt was still a rarity among the lower classes and therefore served with sake.
The practise also seems to have survived into the Heiwa Era, when bottled sake became the norm and salt was served with sake at kak-uuchi. The article helpfully describes the term, which I came across before when looking at an article about the best sake events for beginners, and traces its history: it refers to the corner of an old-style sake shop where the owner would let customers at the counter taste sake that was sold by measure. Its modern meaning is a stand-up sake bar.
The drop in sake consumption has taken its toll on the number of kaku-uchi bars, which may have contributed to the loss of drinking sake with salt. However, in the last few years it has come back into the spotlight as drinking the way a connoisseur would, chic, and bringing out the taste of sake.
Changing the subject from history back to the topic of what to have tonight after the hard day at work, and seeing as it’s winter and you want something warm, the article suggests trying heated full-bodied junmai sake, one that has plenty of umami and acidity, with salt. You can also try different types of salt, such as flaked, large-crystal, smoked or regional salts.