What’s the deal with... Amazake

Made of rice, amazake is Japan's OG energy drink. Here's a primer on this Japanese summer staple, plus where you can drink it

Amanoya - amazake
By Jessica Thompson |
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If you’ve tried amazake, chances are it was from a paper cup at a winter festival; a warming, comforting and nutritious beverage to keep you going in chilly weather. But this sweet white non-alcoholic drink made from fermented rice is traditionally a summer beverage. Nicknamed ‘drinkable IV’ (as in ‘intravenous drip’), amazake is heralded as a remedy for natsubare (summer heat fatigue), and it’s believed to offer a myriad of health benefits – some even claim it helps with hangovers. Unsurprisingly, given its superfood billing, amazake is now widely available all year round.

If amazake means ‘sweet sake’, how can it be non-alcoholic?

It’s made by fermenting a mixture of steamed rice, rice koji (the Aspergillus oryzae fungus that’s also used in the making of miso and soy sauce) and water – just like sake. This process turns the starch into glucose and it stops there. Sake, on the other hand, has an additional ingredient: yeast, which further converts the sugar into alcohol.

Sometimes, amazake is made by mixing sake lees with hot water. This shortcut results in trace levels of booze. Best look for the non-alcoholic version as it’s higher in nutrients.

Why does it look more like rice porridge than sake?

Sake is (mostly) filtered after fermentation but amazake isn’t. The texture of amazake can vary from thin and smooth to thick and chunky, depending on whether the brewer sieves the final product.

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Why would I want to drink something that smells and tastes kind of funky?

Fermenting food – whether it’s sauerkraut, kimchi, miso or kombucha – can produce a bit of a funky smell and taste. However, it can also turn food into a nutritional powerhouse. Amazake is lauded for its gut health-boosting probiotics and metabolism-boosting digestive enzymes, as well as being rich in vitamin B and nine essential amino acids. It’s full of ingredients to promote glowing skin and lustrous hair, and the high glucose level is essentially an energy shot.

Why have I only heard about amazake recently?

Amazake is a traditional Japanese drink, believed to date back to the Kofun period (300 to 538 AD). It fell out of favour for several decades as food and drink imports become more fashionable. But a trend towards healthier foods, a rekindled interest in traditional Japanese cuisine and culture, and a newfound interest in fermented food across the world have seen the drink grow in popularity again.

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Can I make it at home? 

You certainly can: you’ll just need access to rice, rice koji, water and a way of stabilising the temperature of the mixture at 60C for six to eight hours during fermentation, such as a rice cooker or thermos. A consistent temperature is necessary to create the right environment for the delicate microorganisms to work their magic.

Where can I buy amazake?

While it used to be a bit tricky to find amazake – mostly available at shrines, traditional festivals and speciality stores – you can now find it at many depachika (department store food halls), supermarkets, health food stores and even konbini.

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So I’ve bought a bottle, what can I do with it?

Drink amazake warm or chilled, straight or with a little ginger powder. It can also be added to smoothies as a natural sweetener, in baking as a sugar substitute, and with fruit in place of cream.

Where to drink and buy amazake

Restaurants

Amanoya

Suehirocho

Dating back 400 years, amazake speciality café Amanoya has an interior as colourful as its history. The quaint and cosy space is filled with low-set wooden tables, walls are adorned with antique clocks and Showa-era posters, and display cabinets are filled with model trains, lucky cats and miscellaneous ornaments. Choose to drink your amazake hot or cold – or, in summer, you can even get an amazake kakigori, where the chilled beverage comes served in a dessert glass covered by a tower of shaved ice.

Attractions, Parks and gardens

Fukiage Chaya

Komagome

In the midst of the lush, manicured foliage at Rikugien Garden, one of Tokyo’s most impressive traditional landscape gardens, lies the casual teahouse Fukiage Chaya. With its idyllic vantage point overlooking the tranquil central pond, the quaint teahouse is the perfect spot to take a breather before continuing your stroll around the 21-acre garden. Order a cup of amazake (¥300) or matcha (¥600 with wagashi), take a seat on one of the outdoor benches, and relish in the serenity.

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Restaurants

Engawa Cafe

Setagaya

This cute hole-in-the-wall shop near Shoin Jinja in Setagaya ward sells Engawa’s popular house-made brown-rice amazake, as well as some other amazake-related products like amazake spice (it tastes remarkably like chai, in case you’re wondering). For those after something to drink on the go, you can buy a cup of unadulterated amazake, or try tasty amazake and coffee blends such as an amazake cappuccino or amazake iced milk coffee. 

Shopping

Futaba Tofu

Ningyocho

This quaint little tofu speciality store is located in the historical street near Ningyocho station known as Amazake Alley, named after an amazake store that operated at the alley's entrance during the Meiji-era. Futaba Tofu sells cups of amazake either cold or warm for ¥200. If you're an ice cream fan, try the creamy and slightly funky amazake soft-serve for ¥350.

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Shopping, Off licences

Fukumitsuya Marunouchi

Marunouchi

At the elegant flagship store of Fukimitsuya sake brewery in Marunouchi, you can not only taste and shop for excellent junmai sake, but discover the myriad of other uses and products derived from sake's rice fermentation process, which, of course, includes amazake. Buy a bottle to take home, or get a cup to go for ¥400 from the on-site sake bar.

Shopping, Specialist food and drink

Hakkaisan Sennen Kojiya

Nihonbashi

Besides being a leading producer of pungent but tasty fermented foodstuff in Japan, Niigata prefecture is home to some of the country’s finest rice. This naturally lends itself to the making of top-shelf sake, and in this case, amazake as well. You’ll find all these local specialities, including a vast range of amazake, at Hakkaisan’s elegant Nihonbashi store. There’s even an excellent bar on-site, where you can sip on a glass of amazake – or if you prefer sake, there’s plenty of that, too.

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