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Posted February 7, 2013 by samuek in The Sake Bomb

Sake Stories – Chef Hiro of Hiro Sushi


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We are happy to share this conversation Ken had about sake with Chef Hiro of Hiro Sushi.  Chef Hiro is one of the top Japanese Chefs in Toronto offering seasonal delights all year round.  They chatted about food, Japanese sake and family. He brought his daughter along as she aspires to be a Japanese chef (wonder where she got that idea?) and she and Chef Hiro talked about many things.  Some of it was more interesting than what he had planned so we included it. This was going to be a question and answer type of post, but his daughter Miya and Ken talked extensively about the interview so here are their thoughts.
Though sake is enjoyed during everything from marriage nuptials to after work revelry, this post will focus on the significance of sake.  What Chef Hiro reminded me about sake is that this drink is thousands of years old.  Specifically, due to the history, sake has been the libation of royalty, shared by generals during war and the focus of deeply religious rituals.  Why is that important?  Well, Japanese sake is special and for most, is a drink that sparks wonderful memories.
Chef Hiro shares that when he first came to Toronto, the sake selection was limited.  He wanted to share sake with his customers and help to educate them on his culture, but couldn’t fully.  Chef Hiro smiles wistfully as he recalls it being his customers who traveled abroad that brought him sake from their travels. He gets up immediately and grabs a Ziploc bag from the back filled with sake labels.  He opens up the bag and using his finger, exposes a different label from the pile.  With each new label he exposes, he excitedly says the name of the customer who shared their sake with him, almost as if we were not there.  For certain labels, he would speak softly saying “I remember the taste on my palate.” It reminded me of going through a year book and the memories something like that can stir.
He immediately goes into the fact that he was one of the first restaurants to serve sake cold.  The warm sake that is found in most sushi places in the city is akin to table wine and does not reflect the diversity and quality that is found in premium sake.  He gets up again and speeds into the back to get a familiar sight if you have dined here.  It is a bamboo serving vessel he keeps in the fridge to serve his sake.  This was the original vessel he would serve sake from.
Then he starts to bring out many different serving vessels to share his collection.  There seems to be a connection with sake drinkers and their drinking vessels.  There is no standard glass wear to drink sake out of yet each sake drinker I’ve met has a special ochoko or drinking glass.   Like this vessel and cup made out of a squids body.  Sake served in this squid vessel has the squid imparting flavour on the sake and when the sake is done, the squid is grilled and served for snacking.
Here are mine.  From right to left, a small generic glass I use the majority of the time for premium sake and my preferred red wine glass.  The next are wooden masu, that I keep for sentimental reasons but prefer not to drink out of.  The Nobu Waikiki masu reminds me of when I, without a chance in hell, tried to convince my wife to marry me.  She cried for 10 minutes when I asked her, then said yes.  I think she was using the 10 minutes to think.  Kidding.  The larger glass is what I use to drink at parties or when guests are over.  We drink more sake so the glass has to be larger.  Actually, the glass is thick and heavy so it stays cold longer.  Then there is the Izumi cup, which is special to me as it is the name of the first sake brewery in Toronto and meant a lot to me to have local sake without going to Japan.
Here is his collection of sake vessels.  For Chef Hiro, each one is used for a different type of sake, temperature and occasion.  For him,  you change the container, you change the taste.  This is also another wonderful aspect of sake.  For some, if you were to enjoy the same sake warmed, at room temperature and chilled, each would be a unique and wonderful drink.
This is where Chef Hiro directs the conversation to my daughter and they talk about flavours, smells and textures in being a chef.  He ties it back to sake advising that sake knowledge is obtained by sensation.  By going out and experimenting.  By paying attention to your palate, your nose and emotions.
He starts with my daughter again about family, her sisters and us and talks about harmony in food.  He speaks on his Omakase or chefs choice tasting dinner, seasonality and sake’s role in food.  His approach to food is to achieve harmony and balance. This means working with the seasons, with what’s local where possible.  Though most sake is imported, it works well with local food because it does not compete on the palate.  He has very few rules, except that he experiments with sake and food to give his customers the best experience.
I think this is the best way to explain sake.  Experiment, reflect and repeat.  Thank you to Chef Hiro for being a gracious host and for sharing your knowledge with my daughter.  I hope you found this post helpful for your sake journey or if I am lucky, got you started on a sake journey.  Share your questions and comments with me.
Also, don’t forget to support the inaugural year of the KampaiToronto Sake Festival May 31, 2012.  It is a historical event for sake in Canada boasting 100 + different types of sake to sample.  If you are not sure on where you stand with sake, 100+ sake in one night will resolve that.




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