Fermented foods are an integral part of Japanese cuisine and culture. One such example is amazake, a sweet and thick fermented rice drink.
The history of amazake can be traced back over a thousand years to the Heian period (794-1185). Originally enjoyed by aristocrats and monks, it later became more widely consumed by the general populace. Amazake is made by fermenting rice with kōji, a type of mold. This process breaks down the rice starch into sugars, resulting in a sweet and velvety beverage.
There are many regional varieties of amazake throughout Japan. In the Kansai area, it is thick and rich, almost like porridge. Hiroshima is known for its thin, drinkable version called namasu amazake. Sendai amazake has a yeasty, cloudy appearance. Despite the variations, all amazake shares a sweet, mildly alcoholic taste.
Amazake contains a small amount of alcohol due to the fermentation process. The alcohol content can range from 0.5% to 2%, depending on factors like fermentation time and yeast strain. Commercial amazake producers carefully control the fermentation to keep alcohol levels low. Homemade amazake may have slightly higher alcohol content. However, because amazake has a thick, porridge-like consistency, the alcohol taste is minimal. The primary flavors come from the sweet rice and umami of the koji mold.
Amazake has nutritional benefits as well. Since the fermentation process preserves many of the nutrients in rice, it is a good source of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. The sugars in amazake are absorbed slowly by the body, making it a better choice than sugar-sweetened drinks. Amazake is also naturally lactose-free and gluten-free.
In modern times, amazake can be enjoyed hot or cold, often flavored with matcha or other ingredients. It makes a great sweet pairing with traditional Japanese desserts like ohagi and daifuku. Amazake is also used as a base for cocktails and savory dishes like amazake-flavored fried chicken.
As an ancient, wholesome food with deep cultural roots, amazake exemplifies the appeal of Japanese fermented foods. Its unique sweetness and smooth texture make it a beloved drink that continues to evolve along with Japanese cuisine.