The ultimate sake event of the year is approaching, and that's not just big talk. You won't have to travel thousands of miles to the land of the rising sun, but you are asked to attend with an open mind and a sense of adventure.
Indulge your love of sake -- or
your curiosity -- amid 130 versions
of the brew at a first-ever festival
By Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga
Special to the Star-Bulletin
The first Honolulu Sake Festival, an international event celebrating the venerated drink of Japan, will be held Sept. 28 at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. Co-sponsored by the Honolulu-based International Sake Association (Kokusai Sake Kai), the festival is the first of its kind in the islands and will showcase 130 sake from Japan, the United States and even as far away as Australia.
"For sake aficionados, this is a real treat," says Susan Kodani, president of the Japanese Cultural Center. "For sake beginners, this is a fantastic opportunity to sip with the experts."
Bottom line, sake lover: You'll have a chance to sample more than 100 examples of the brew.
For many, this will be forging through uncharted territory. Chris Pearce, a founder of the International Sake Association and author of "The Joy of Sake," says that's the whole point of an event like this. "We hope people will take the time to experience the many different varieties of sake and the various brewing philosophies that are out there."
The festival kicks off with a non-commercial sake competition conducted by officials of Japan's National Research Institute of Brewing, a government-affiliated institute set up to elevate the quality of sake in Japan. The organization has conducted sake competitions since 1911.
The Honolulu competition will be the first of its kind outside of Japan and the first to judge West Coast as well as Japanese labels.
Six bottles from each brewery will be submitted for competition the day before the festival. Four Japanese and six U.S. judges will participate in the blind tasting. Little is known about how the sake will be judged, Pearce says. "The judging itself is new territory for us."
The public will have an opportunity to sample the medal-winners, plus more than 100 others at the kikisake, or sake-tasting, at the cultural center.
A small glass will be provided, and a regulated pump will dispense small samples. In this manner, Pearce says, it is not unusual to sample about 100 sake. (Warning: Pearce is a sake-tasting professional. Beginners may want to take his advice with a grain of rice.)
Additionally, 10 local restaurants will provide appetizers to go with the sake, food considered essential to the enjoyment of sake.
Each chef is devising dishes to marry well with sake or, more importantly, heightens the sake-tasting experience.
Expect more than your typical sushi and sake fare.
At Furusato Japanese Restaurant in the Hyatt Regency, chef Shuji Abe -- himself a sake enthusiast -- says he approaches the task by figuring out how to bring out the flavors and nuances of the drink.
"People normally will drink only one or two kinds of sakes throughout a meal and the trick is to change the flavors of the food so that the sake can be enjoyed throughout the meal," Abe says.
Appetizers at his restaurant include yakitori quail, fermented Okinawan tofu served with a sprig of celery and roast duck with a balsamic vinegar, raisin and honey reduction. Abe also serves a sampling dish of salty miso (a complex infusion of many flavors), katsuo (bonito cooked for eight hours in a soy-based sauce) and sea snail. The salty/spicy sampling is an important first course that stimulates the palate and gets the taste buds going.
"Sake generally goes well with most things that are fermented," Abe says. Thus, miso and shoyu-based dishes have been traditional pairings. However, Abe recently discovered how well sake and certain blue cheeses meld, prompting him to add a sampling of Gorgonzola, Roquefort and German blue cheeses to his menu. The pairing may seem far-fetched, but Abe says it's the way premium sake is being enjoyed these days.
Appetizers at the festival will no doubt be as varied as the sake, with restaurants such as Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar, Kacho, Roy's and Shogun joining Furusato as participants.
>> The sipping begins: 5:30 p.m. Sept. 28
Honolulu Sake Festival
>> Place: Japanese Cultural Center, 2454 S. Beretania St.
>> Cost: $50 presale; $60 at the door. Proceeds benefit the cultural center.
>> Call: 945-7633
>> Featuring: Hands-on activities such as make-your-own musubi and mochi, storytelling, music, folk dancing, viewing a video on historic Haraguchi Rice Mill on Kauai. Rice-related foods will be sold.
Family Rice Festival
>> When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 30
>> Place: Japanese Cultural Center
>> Admission: Free
>> The University of Hawaii's Outreach College offers a sake seminar, Sept. 26 and 27. The first day is an introduction to sake; the second day will focus on the judging of sake, in conjunction with the judging taking place for the festival. Call 956-5666.
>> Trade professionals may discuss varieties of sake with brewery representatives, 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sept. 28, Japanese Cultural Center.
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