Japanify: Amazake (Sweet Sake)
Amazake literally translates to "sweet sake" which is deceiving considering it's non-alcoholic. It's sweet, milky and easy to digest, making it perfect for kids or adults with an upset stomach.
Amazake is made by combining koji with cooked rice, which allows the rice to break down into simple sugars. This is the first step to sake-making. After this step, making sake involves fermentation, pasteurization and filteration and achieves an ABV of around 15%. Because amazake never goes through the fermentation process of 3-4 weeks it doesn't contain any alcohol. Amazake is said to be good for digestion because it helps break down proteins and complex carbohydrates. It's also believed to be a good hangover cure. And because it doesn't contain any alcohol, it is served to kids as a celebratory drink for special occasions like Girl's Day (March 3) and New Year's.
Making amazake is simple as long as you have an appliance that can maintain a low, steady temperature of 120-140˚F for up to 24 hours and can buy koji (aspergillus oryzae) and rice. That said, it took me three tries to make an amazake I would feel proud to serve at our "Umami Mart Hinamatsuri". (Shameless plug: Please come to Umami Mart this Friday 6-8pm to try my amazake!).
For my first attempt, I used my crock-pot on the "Low" setting, but it ended up burnt to a crisp. FAIL.
Then I remembered I had a yogurt-maker that my friends Laura and Will gave to me over a year ago. Jack pot! I think people also use a cooler with some hot water bottles in it or a dehydrator to maintain that 120-140˚F temperature. Finding the right place to incubate your amazake is probably the hardest part of making this drink. But with the yogurt-maker, I was ready to go. I used brown rice and koji and although it turned out okay, I didn't like how it was a little too rustic-tasting. The rice kernels were too firm and the brown rice over-powered the faint sweetness. That said, amazake made with brown rice has more vitamins than white rice. Sacrifices...
So for my third attempt, I decided to go with white rice. I used the "porridge" setting on my rice cooker then combined it with koji into the yogurt maker. SUCCESS! The result was milkier, sweeter and cleaner tasting than the brown rice trial.
Other applications for amazake include using it as a sweetener (instead of honey) or adding it as a topping to desserts.
So here is my final successful recipe for making amazake.
1 cup short grain white rice
2.5 cups water
2 cups dry koji (I used Cold Mountain brand which they sell at Japanese markets and health food markets -- including Whole Foods, where it will cost you an arm and a leg)
1. Steam white rice to porridge consistency.
2. Set up your low temperature appliance (120-140˚F) by plugging it in or preparing a cooler with hot water bottles.
3. Mix the koji into the rice.
4. Put the mixture into a wide mouth glass jar and place into the low temperature appliance for 14-24 hours.
5. The amazake is ready when the rice grains are very soft and the koji is broken down. The amazake should be sweet and mildly syrupy.
6. To enjoy as a hot amazake drink, add equal parts water and bring to a soft boil. Add some ginger as a topping.
This is a very cozy drink, perfect for when you want to curl up in front of the TV after a heavy meal. It's also gluten-free, vegan and dairy-free!