Lots of Fun with Atsukan! 04/25/13

As you may or may not be aware, depending on how closely you’ve been keeping tabs on my activity, I recently returned from a two week jaunt to the exotic and disorienting land of Japan.

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Perhaps “bender” might be the more appropriate term…


To say that I traveled to the other side of the planet strictly for the sake of sake would be hyperbolic, but not too hyperbolic – I drank a lot of sake there, most of it wonderful (though not all). I drank cheap sake and expensive sake; I drank hot sake and cold sake; I drank sake from wine glasses, porcelain ochoko, wooden masu, and juice boxes.

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Seriously, juice boxes.


Now, I don’t speak enough Japanese to say much more than “I’m sorry, I cannot speak Japanese,” or “I would like to eat this, please”; and my reading knowledge is even more pitiful than that, but I never had trouble finding sake in Japan, which while perhaps unsurprising is a lot more than I can say for Pennsylvania. And thanks to Richard Auffrey’s helpful guide, I was even able to decipher some of the kanji on the many menus and labels I encountered on my trip, which made me feel much more prepared than I actually was. Today, I can proudly boast the ability to read a whole word unassisted: Nihonshu.

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It means sake.


But I’m not here to brag about my meager knowledge of the Japanese tongue, nor to discuss any particular sakes at length. No, my friends, I come before you to talk about a phenomenon I was fortunate enough at last to have experienced on my journey, and whose praises I must now sing at every opportunity: the sultry kiss of atsukan.

Better known here as “hot sake,” atsukan is something I had little interest in prior to my trip. The prevailing wisdom holds that quality sake is best served cold, with cheap sake meant for heating, and why would I want to drink an inferior product? Indeed, I had been in Japan for over a week before I met up with an old friend of mine, Phil, who finally opened my eyes to this libation’s scalding glory in the midst of an impromptu Akihabar-crawl.

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The sake was nearly as hot as my burning desire to drink it.


Over the next several days, I ordered atsukan virtually everywhere I went, even pairing it with fugu (probably best known as the fish that almost killed Homer Simpson that one time. In case you’re wondering, no: I have, to my knowledge, not yet died. But I’ll be sure to keep you posted!) Thankfully, they just so happened to be serving atsukan virtually everywhere I went. Japan is cool like that.

The beauty of atsukan is somewhat difficult to describe, but I’ll give it a shot. A cheaper sake – i.e., the sort used for atsukan – will generally be rougher around the edges than a pricey junmai daiginjo: excess alcohol may, for instance, lead to a burning sensation on the palate, which while by no means a bad thing is nevertheless a sign of less than perfect balance. By heating the sake, however, this alcoholic burn is overwhelmed by a second sort of fire, masking any imperfections, and ultimately inducing a joyous inferno of inebriation.

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We were, in fact, smiling here, I think.


Unfortunately, a far smaller portion of restaurants in the US serve atsukan than I would prefer, creating the need to cook up my own at home. Traditionally (or at least, at a few places I visited in March of 2013), the sake is heated inside of a kettle, but Phil assured me that microwave atsukan is also acceptable.

So the next time you see a cheap bottle of sake, buy it! Then nuke it. I’m sure you’ll find that –

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Okay, yeah, sorry…poor choice of words.


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