Thursday, 13 February 2014

Big O Gastronomy: Masumi Sake and Jason Oh's Six-Course Dinner at Akira Back

A shorter version of this article appeared this morning in Fortune Cookie, my fortnightly column for Mail Today. Click on and go to Page 17 to read the original.

By Sourish Bhattacharyya
Masumi's Keith Norum (third from left) with
Ankur Chawla, author and beverage director of
JW Marriott, New Delhi Aerocity, and the
Akira Back chefs, Kurt Nyren and Jason Oh
KEITH NORUM has the looks of a liberal arts professor and a CV that says he read English Literature at UCLA and then relocated to an Alpine village named Suwa in the Nagano prefecture of Japan. That was 20 years ago, when he was hired as a cross-cultural management trainer by the world's largest maker of computer printers, Seiko Epson Corporation. Why, then, was the Californian at Akira Back, the New Delhi Aerocity JW Marriott's trending Japanese restaurant, holding forth on the virtues of Masumi?
Masumi is one of Japan's top sake brands -- two gold medals separate it from the No. 1, Urakasumi, in the annals of Japan's century-old annual sake awards -- and it has been brewed at the same kura by Suwa's Miyasaka family since 1662. Masumi means 'truth' and there's a story behind the name. The Miyasakas have been traditionally supplying sake to Suwa's historic Shinto shrine, which has the 1,200-year-old bronze 'Mirror of Truth', the source of the brew's name. The Shinto regard sake and salt as the two purifying elements in this imperfect world. Well, as they say with apologies to the Latin masters, 'in sake veritas' ('in sake there is the truth')!
Norum's relationship with Masumi started when the company's president, Naotaka Miyasaka, who represents his family's 23rd generation, returned home after completing his higher studies in America. He needed to keep in touch with English, and Suwa is a small place, so it was easy for him to find Norum. The two became good friends and eventually Miyasaka hired Norum to head his overseas operations.
Life may present unexpected twists, but little has changed in the art of making sake. It is brewed only in the three months between December and February, because the temperature in these months is just right for sake production, and each stage is carefully calibrated. Water and rice, Norum explained, are the two critical elements -- sake is 80 per cent water and 16 per cent alcohol extracted from milled rice.
The water, drawn from mountain springs, must have a low calcium content, because it slows down the metabolism of yeast, giving it longer life and the ability to extend the fermentation period. Extended fermentation (six weeks in the case of Masumi) produces alcohol with a complex structure and superior aroma profile.
Norum was sharing his wealth of knowledge with me over a most spectacular dinner prepared by Jason Oh. Like his boss Akira Back, Jason is a Korean-American, but he grew up in New York, not Denver, and has taken to Delhi like a fish to water. We started with yellowtail jalapeno with yuzu (citrus) soy -- hot and tart in equal measure -- which Norum paired with the fresh and elegant Sanka ('mountain flower'), which, surprisingly, has a seductive floral bouquet and tropical fruit aromas. The JW Marriot's F&B Director, Tarun Bhatia, said it tasted like green ber, which made me crave for some of this elusive fruit. This is ber season, isn't it?
Next on the menu was an Akria Back classic, hot oil-seared salmon with mixed peppers, lotus chips (I could have these forever!) and yuzu sauce, which paired very well with the more austere and dry Karakuchi Kippon. "It is as dry as we go," Norum said about the sake, adding that it is made at Fujimi kura, which was built in the 1980s atop a mountain overlooking Suwa. Fujimi's water source, interestingly, remains a mystery.
Rice used to produce Masumi's sake is sourced only from two places -- Nagano and Hyogo, which is also famous for the marbled beef of Kobe. Sourcing is important because sake rice is expensive and sake rice is special because its high protein content is uniformly concentrated in the outer layers.
It is the extent to which the rice is milled (to remove the proteins) that determines a sake's place in the caste system -- 60-70 per cent is good enough for the standard or futushu sake; 50-60 per cent for the premium or ginjo range; and 40-50 per cent for the super premium or daiginjo variant. Brewing sake is perfect science and the fate of the brew hangs in balance every day it is in production. Once milled, sake rice is soaked exactly for 8:30 to 9:45 minutes -- it can't be a second more or less, which is why the sake master times every operation with a stop watch!
As I understood the intricacies of the production process, Jason produced a delectable melange of sous vide tenderloin with wasabi soy sauce, mushrooms, potato puree and blanched asparagus, dressed in the Korean sweet and spicy cho jang sauce. To go with it, Norum produced the much-acclaimed Tokusen, which he said was a honjozo, that is, a sake with a little bit of neutral alcohol added before the rice mash is filtered. Well, that's another sub-category of sake. Whether it's ginjo or futushu, your sake has to be either a honjozo or a junmai (no alcohol added during production). Tokusen can also be served warm, which made me ask about the protocol to be followed with warm sake. Norum said drinking warm sake was like washing a plate with an oil stain with hot water. Reserve the pleasure for oily preparations such as tempura.
I digested all this information with the sake-steamed flounder (thank God for another fish being added to Delhi's limited repertoire!) served with baby bok choy, nori seaweed and black bean yuzu sauce. The Kippuku Kinju ('Golden Happiness'), a junmai ginjo, served with it was deliciously fruity and full-bodied with a clean finish that made me sit back for a moment and savour the sensation. I had more of it as we went through the chef's selection of sushi and rolls, and the dessert selection -- the chef's take on the Snickers bar and coconut sorbet .
Masumi produces two million bottles of sake in a year, down from 2.5 million six or seven years ago, because the consumption of table sake has been dropping steadily as people trade up to the premium and super-premium categories. But it is table sake that gets brewed first because sake rice is expensive and only best is kept for the upper-end brews. Unsurprisingly, Masumi consumes substantial quantities of rice. A kilo of the finest, after all, goes into the making of each bottle of its sake.

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