Interviews are the most interesting genre in podcasting. Instead of listening to a monotonous voice of the host, you have a lively conversation between two or more people. So it was my plan from the start of Sugidama Podcast to do more interviews. And my first one was with Satomi Dosseur, a sake specialist and educator, founder of Enshu Limited, which runs the Kikisake-shi sake specialist course in London. I did the course in 2018 and you can read about it here and here.
When I asked Satomi, how I should introduce her, she said: Just mention how much I can talk about sake and that I am good at making people drink sake. And it’s true. If you want to know more about sake, she’s the person to go to. You can listen to the interview on Sugidama Podcast Episode 07. But in case you prefer reading, I have put slightly edited transcripts below.
Satomi’s Sake Story
Alex: Hello, Satomi how are you? In this episode. I would like to give my listeners tips about sake. Let’s say someone comes to the restaurant, a Japanese restaurant in this case because unfortunately, sake is still more prevalent in Japanese restaurants. And they might be not sure about the food but they know what sushi is, what grilled salmon is. But then they look at the drink menu and see these strange names and say “Okay, I’ll have a beer.” Instead of having sake. So I was just want to talk about that. But first, why sake? How did you get into sake? What is your story?
Satomi: Well, it’s gonna be a long story. Basically, I got a job at a Japanese restaurant in a hotel called Park Royal Tokyo in Shinjuku. The hotel was the location for the shooting of the Lost in Translation movie. Some people might know about that movie, and then they might cry “Oh, that hotel!”. So basically, I got the job there and my department was a Japanese restaurant. So obviously, they were serving a lot of sake. And my supervisor told me “You have to understand and you have to be able to drink sake, to be able to recommend to the guests.”
It was just virtually a spark in my head. “What is this? This is amazing.”
And that time I could drink any kind of alcohol but sake. And I said, “Please, please, no. I cannot drink sake.” And she’s waiting for me to have a taste. So I didn’t have a choice, you know. I couldn’t refuse it. So I had a sip. And that was just a completely different taste of sake that I have tasted before. It was just virtually a spark in my head. “What is this? This is amazing.” And she said “This is this kind of sake”, and so on. And I thought: “That is crazy. What I’ve been drinking in the past?”. You know, it tasted virtually like pure alcohol. And I really, really didn’t like anything about sake. But that moment, I thought I want to learn more.
And I want to taste more different sake. And luckily the restaurant where I used to work in that hotel had a monthly sake menu. So every month, we were changing the menu, but the sake we were serving was all selective, all quite difficult to get products. So I was really lucky to taste those very rare styles of sake. And then I studied for and got a certificate and went to lots of bars and restaurants to taste sake. It’s kind of how I started.
Alex: It’s quite interesting, because it’s very similar to a lot of stories of people, not from Japan who had a very bad experience with sake before. And I remember I was talking to a friend of mine. He’s Canadian, and I said that I’m writing a blog about sake. And he said: “Oh, sake, it’s awful. I don’t like sake. I tried it once in Canada and it was awful.” And I said: “You should try proper sake, you definitely tried something not very good, or probably not even sake.” Because in some restaurants, they give you some sort of stuff, which not really sake. Some kind of alcohol. And they heat it up and say: “Oh, yeah, it’s sake”.
A life of a sake professional
Alex: Okay, so now you’ve got your education company running a Kikisake-shi course, which I did, and which was very exciting. I really enjoyed the experience. And you also do a lot of stuff around sake as well.
Satomi: Yeah. So I do quite a few events and organise corporate sake events as well. And some seminars, and I am a consultant for the restaurants just for the sake, not any other stuff. And then training and all those sorts of things which I really enjoy.
Alex: But how things are at the moment because obviously at the moment, it’s a completely different story. So do you still got some kind of events?
Satomi: Unfortunately all the corporate events have been cancelled. All sake talks at a few galleries or museums that I was supposed to be doing, that all is cancelled as well. But there’s a cooking school called Sozai Cooking School. They do quite a lot of online cooking classes and they invited me for doing some online sake lessons. So that, and I’m still working in the restaurant two days a week recommending sake to the guests. So those two things are happening at the moment. But all the rest is gone.
Trying sake for the first time
Alex: Well, hopefully, the things will get better, at least probably after Christmas. We don’t know but… Moving to the restaurant, and it’s the topic of this interview. So when people come to the restaurant, and they’ve never tried sake before, and they look at the menu, so what is your advice? What should they look at? And what should they make a note of, to make a choice?
Satomi: It’s always a bit tricky isn’t it? So many words, and terms, that doesn’t really make sense for the people who don’t know anything about sake. And I would suggest if there is any sommelier, or if the staff who knows about sake, they should ask for advice. Something like: “I want to try sake. Could you recommend something not too strong?” It could be cold or hot, whatever they feel safe and comfortable to try. Otherwise, many people in the past said to me that sake newbies should try daiginjo style, which is the top grade, top classification of sake. It is really fruity and aromatic but quite pricey.
For the people who are trying sake for the first time to go for that is, you know, they might be a bit hesitant. And they might feel that they don’t want to waste money if they don’t like it. So it’s really difficult. But I would probably suggest something mid-range, mid-price. I know it’s not always a price. But that might be a good indicator for something to try for the first time.
Alex: For example, if you work at a restaurant as a sommelier, and people ask you some recommendations do you ask them any questions about their other preferences just trying to match the sake with what they like in other drinks?
Satomi: Absolutely. So I usually get a question like, “Oh, what is daiginjo? What is junmai, honjozo, which is a classification?” So many people confuse it with a region where the sake comes from. But I just tell them that it’s a classification, and usually don’t really talk much about it. Most people want to have a choice of like a temperature or the choice of the taste, some prefer more savoury and others like more fruity. And it depends on what kind of food they are having with. So I guide them and give a few options, like a different price range or different styles or things like that.
Alex: What are the best questions they should ask a sommelier if they just want to get what they really like?
Satomi: Maybe they can mention the food they have ordered. And say that they would like to have cold sake or warm sake. That’s, I think, the most simple question and if that somebody or staff knows about sake and food, they can just guide through everything and then recommend a few options.
Sake and food pairing
Alex: Okay. So what is your general guide of food pairing with sake? Do you have like Oh, if you’ve got this kind of food you should have this style of sake? Do you have this kind of recommendations that you usually tell your customers?
Satomi: Well, it’s really difficult. Sometimes I have sake and instantly I come up with some food. It’s a bit like a psychic power. I don’t know if it’s my thing but doesn’t always work. So I usually rather try when the restaurant is not opened. And I try this sake with tempura that sake with some different food.
However, most of the time I would go for some savoury style sake if the person who wants to have sushi. It often works really really well with that and a combination of soy sauce and vinegared rice. And then for lighter, fresher sake, I would go for a light flavoured dish. So it’s usually quite a balance between lighter sake and a lighter flavour dish or richer, savoury sake with richer style food. Like a steak, you know, yakitori with lots of sticky sweet soy sauce.
Sometimes I have sake and instantly I come up with some food. It’s a bit like a psychic power.
Alex: I know that in the States, for example, sushi is very popular with nigori. And I think that’s because people like this contrast of a sweeter sake (because nigori is sweeter generally) and salty sushi. It’s quite a popular combination in sake bars. I’m not sure if it’s true for London. And I wonder what kind of combinations are popular in London.
Satomi: I know that’s what this means, but I don’t think it’s that popular compared to the US. And nigori is still probably a bit more a new thing for the people who ever tried sake. But on the other hand, so many people who never tried sake, or they don’t like regular sake, they try nigori and go like ‘Oh my god, this is amazing.’ So, absolutely, it depends on personal preferences. But I don’t think that it’s there yet.
Alex: I think the good thing about nigori is that the name is very easy to remember compared to, say, junmai daiginjo.
Alex: Or like honjozo, which is very, very Japanese. But nigori sounds very international.
How to drink sake
Alex: I heard that there is a saying in Japanese, something like ‘When rice is brought to the table sake is taking off the table’. Is it true? Or it’s just a myth?
Satomi: Yeah, it’s kind of unspoken gesture meaning ‘Okay, you know, that night is over.’ And it’s any carbs like noodles or rice. Not sushi, always rice or noodles. When we started to think ‘Oh I’m getting full. But before we go, let’s have a bowl of rice with something or a bowl of noodles.’ And that means it’s getting to the end. Because if you have those carbs at the beginning, while really carry on drinking and eating it fills you up. I’m sure you visit a small izakaya in Japan. They usually give you small dishes, like tapas or some fried dishes. That’s how you carry on a long night drinking.
Alex: So do you always drink sake with food? Or are there some kind of styles of sake you can drink on its own?
Satomi: I’m sure many people drink on its own something like the especially fresh light style. And then If you have a savoury or rich, more flavourful, full-body style of sake it makes you feel like you want to eat something like that. I love Guinness. And when I drink IPA or other beers they make me feel like ‘Oh I am refreshed. Nice”. So I can drink it on its own. But when I have a Guinness, I feel like I need something to eat.
It’s the same feeling that I think sake gives you as well. So it can be just small things like little seeds or nibbles. I quite like to lick the salt while I’m drinking sake. It’s a sign of a drinker (laughing). Oh, you know, you can have freshly grated wasabi. Probably in Japan though, where it’s much easier to get. I really like having a little scoop of fresh wasabi with sake. It’s really nice but it’s quite difficult here.
I quite like to lick the salt while I’m drinking sake. It’s a sign of a drinker (laughing). Oh, you know, you can have freshly grated wasabi.
Alex: Oh yeah.
Satomi: Unless you if you buy fresh wasabi from Japan,
Alex: There is a farm now. I saw somebody mentioned it on Instagram.
Alex: Do you have any suggestion for ending of the meal with sake, which is more like a digestive?
Satomi: Yeah. So there are a few options in this case. You can have like a desert sake, which is usually sweet. It’s a sake where the fruit was steeped in the sake with the sugar. So it can be plum sake, yuzu, a citrus sake, a bit like a limoncello, but much lighter, less alcohol and less sugar. So it’s nice and refreshing. Or there are so many others like pear sake, loads and loads of different styles. As well as aged sake or kijoshu, which is usually quite sweet.
Alex: Kijoshu is it the sake when you add sake during the brewing?
Satomi: Yes. Instead of adding water they add sake. Kijoshu is really beautiful and sweet. So if you feel like having something as digestive or with a dessert or cheese, it’s really, really nice to have.
Satomi’s sake tip
Alex: Okay. Thanks a lot. Do we have any sake tips for the listeners who have either never tried sake before or tried it a couple of times and want to explore it further? What would be your tip for them?
Satomi: Well, I think that to start is to have some sake. Or, you know, nowadays, you can’t really go out and enjoy sake as much as you used to. So there are quite a lot of platforms where you can learn about sake online. You can order online. There are so many companies who have online sake stores. It is really, really good value, I think.
And so if you have a bottle of sake organised, a meal doesn’t matter. It can be Indian or pasta, pizza, Japanese sushi, whatever. Then have a little bit at a cold temperature but try to keep some of the sake. And then just warm it up and see the difference. Sometimes sake changes so much. I’m sure you know. That will be quite interesting.
And so if you have a bottle of sake organised, a meal doesn’t matter. It can be Indian or pasta, pizza, Japanese sushi, whatever.
So if people say ‘How do you warm up sake?’ you can just bain-marie in hot water. You don’t need to boil the water. Just warm it up. And then put the bottle or container with the sake into that hot water just bathing it. It’s quite interesting things to start trying because you know, food pairings, you can do it. And so it just is a different temperature a little bit opens up a different door.
Alex: Yeah, it’s the amazing thing about sake that you can experiment with different temperatures, which you can’t do with other drinks. Well, a lot of other drinks you just drink it at a certain temperature and that’s it. With sake you can go from, I don’t know, from very cool to very hot. I remember Philip Harper, he suggested that his sake should be drunk at 70 degrees Celsius. Pretty hot. It’s just like tea.
Alex: But apparently it was very good. I tried his tokubetsu junmai sake at 65 degrees. And it was amazing.
Satomi: Oh, yes.
Alex: Do you have like, any rules about what glasses to use to drink sake?
Satomi: Um, not rules. But there’s, you know, on my course, I usually talk about glassware and how to choose glasses depending on a different style of sake. So it’s a little bit like wine if you think more about it. Richer savoury style, full-body style sake can be enjoyed in quite chunky, earthenware sort of sake cups. Like traditional sake cups, you might have seen on the internet or in movies.
And light style, fresh, elegant style, or sometimes sparkling sake, these can be enjoyed in a champagne glass. And the other styles can be a wine glass or small sake cups. So it’s really interesting to try with difference glassware then you might taste it differently.
Alex: Really? Hmm, it’s quite interesting that you think about Japan as a country of very strict rules. People address each other in a very formal way dependent on seniority and other things. And when you talk about a lot of stuff, it’s very liberal. “Oh, yeah, you can drink it from that. Or you can drink from that. You can use this temperature. Yeah, you can have it with it.” It’s very liberating in a way.
Satomi: It’s true. Never thought about that. Hmm.
Alex: It’s an interesting contrast between certain traditions and other stuff. I was reading a book about Kyoto by Alex Kerr. And he mentioned that all Buddhist temples in Japan, they were built based on a certain template. A concept of a holy mountain in the middle and four other mountains in the corners.
And he writes that sometimes they had four mountains in the corners, sometimes they had three. But sometimes they didn’t have the main mountain in the middle at all. So it’s like a concept but taking this very loosely. It’s the same with sake. Daiginjo should be drunk cold but If you don’t like a cold, you can try to warm it up.
Satomi: True (laughing).
Alex: It’s quite interesting.
Satomi: They had a lot of sake when they were planing these temples.
Satomi’s sake recommendation: Nishinoseki Cube
Alex: Okay, do you have any sake what you would like to recommend to our listeners?
Satomi: Yeah. It’s really difficult to pick.
Alex: I know.
Satomi: Well, this is quite a lot of sake I like but recently I really really liked the sake called Nishinoseki. And it comes from a brewery located in Kyushu Island. So it’s a really southern part of Japan. And their junmai sake is great. But they have another sake called Cube. It comes in a small 300ml bottle. So this sake is designed to be drunk on the rocks…
Alex: Oh, really?
Satomi: It’s genshu, which means undiluted. Usually, sake is diluted with water, to adjust taste and alcohol percentage and so on. But this sake hasn’t been diluted. So the alcohol content might be a little bit high, I think 17%. So, it has got quite a good body and structure. And then when you add ice, it doesn’t really break any balance and the sake remains quite tasty. So it’s really nice for a hot day, of course, before you start the meal. It’s quite nice to have this sake on the rocks. And then move to something else.
Alex: To be honest, I’ve never tried sake on the rocks.
Satomi: Yeah, it’s really good?
Alex: I keep hearing about it.
Satomi: This summer was so hot. So I added a splash of soda water in my sake. And that makes it much lighter because sometimes when you drink alcohol in the hot weather it makes you feel even hotter.
Alex: Yeah. Like Schorler, this German drink when they take the white wine and put soda in it, making a fizzy drink. And it’s light and refreshing and not very alcoholic. And you don’t want to drink something strong in hot weather. So yeah, it’s pretty cool. I knew about sake on the rocks but didn’t know which one to try. So now I know.
Satomi: Is is great. Yeah, cool.
It was a very nice and relaxing conversation, which was great for the first-ever interview I’ve done. I hope you have enjoyed reading it! Satomi had very good tips about sake and her recommendation of sake was very intriguing. As I mentioned in the conversation, I have never tried sake on the rocks. Now I definitely will.
As I publish my conversation with Satomi, it’s still UK Lockdown 3. But as Satomi said, there are a lot of places where you can order sake online, including London Sake, who is sponsoring Sugidama Podcast. And I support them not only because of that but because I like their online shop. In any case, try some sake on the rocks (preferably genshu) and let me know how you liked it.