Edo-era amazake is back to beat the summer heat

August 2nd, 2012 by Rebecca Milner

Bottles of amazake for sale at Matsuya department store in Ginza, Tokyo. (Photo by Rebecca Milner)

The annual competition for the summer’s hit drink is as fierce as usual, and all the major manufacturers have their contenders. Will it be Asahi’s new Red Eye in a can? Or Pepsi’s latest oddity, the shocking-pink Salty Watermelon soda?

According to the morning TV show “Non Stop!,” the winner may just be a dark horse: amazake.

Though it literally means “sweet sake,” this fermented rice drink is actually alcohol free and has been around for centuries. In the Edo Period, it was commonly drunk to ward off the dreaded natsu-bate (summer heat fatigue). Apparently the combination of vitamin B and glucose provides an immediate jolt of energy. The rich ate eel; the rest drank amazake.

At some point  in history, that tradition fell out of favor. These days, amazake generally only shows up at traditional festivals, namely during New Years, or at cafes attached to Buddhist temples. Now, however, a savvy Niigata producer is looking to give amazake a little more everyday cachet.

In February, Furumachi Kōji Seijōjo opened a specialty shop in the fashionable Tokyo suburb of Jiyugaoka. Here you can get hot and cold amazake drinks spiked with matcha and shiso (perilla leaf) or health tonics that mix amazake with fruit-flavored vinegar. Boosted by plenty of media attention, they’ve since opened a second branch in the basement food court of Ginza’s Matsuya department store.

“Non Stop!” also introduced a few other Tokyo establishments that are betting on amazake as the next big thing. Setagaya Engawa Cafe in Wakabayashi has an amazake cappuccino. A beauty clinic in Ikebukuro, Sakura Clinic, is highlighting the drink’s traditional summer heat-fighting ingredients with an amazake-themed intravenous drip at their “tenteki bar” of injectable remedies.

Like the kōji trend we reported on earlier this summer, this is a good example of traditional rural foodstuffs influencing tastes and trends in the capital. Kōji also happens to be the fermenting agent in amazake.

Amazake isn’t that difficult to make. NHK morning lifestyle show “You-Doki” did a segment on making amazake in an electric rice cooker (ingredients: cooked rice, kōji and water) and introduced recipes that use amazake as a base for dressings and marinades.

A new cooking trend? There are currently over 1,000 recipes that use amazake on Cookpad, Japan’s largest user-generated recipe site, and dozens have been posted in the last month. At local  bookstores, a handful of amazake-related titles — such as “Amazake Sweets & Drink” — are prominently displayed alongside kōji-themed cookbooks.

Should you prefer to get your hands on the real, unadulterated Edo-era thing, we suggest you head out to Amasake-chaya in Hakone. This thatched-roof teahouse along the old Tokkaido Highway (now a hiking trail) has been making and serving amazake in much the same way it was done nearly 400 years. And at the end of the day, getting out of the city and under a canopy of trees is probably the best way to beat the summer heat.

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