Meet & Eat: Yukari Sakamoto, Shochu Expert

The official title is "shochu advisor." I completed similar training with regards to shochu as one does with wine in becoming a sommelier.


Yukari Sakamoto is a cultural chameleon, both Japanese and American at the same time. She was born in Tokyo and raised in the Midwest. Her culinary training is with some of America's finest institutions, but most of her practical training took place in Japan.

She's a thoroughly modern, highly accomplished woman, and at the same time remarkably traditional. (A newlywed, she frequently mentions her Japanese husband when beginning most sentence—an endearing habit.) And she's an expert on what both nationalities love to eat and drink, making her the perfect author for her first book, Food Sake Tokyo, which debuted last week.


[Flickr: toyohara]

So Yukari, what are you up to this week? I am just returning from a trip to Tokyo so I am unpacking my bags. When I am in Japan I go to bookstores to stock up on the latest cookbooks and cooking magazines, as well as the local supermarket for food products I can't get in New York City. Also, I make Japanese bento box lunches for my husband and while I was gone he was eating instant ramen at work so I have been busy filling the fridge with side dishes for the bento. These include savory Japanese omelets (dashi maki tamagoyaki), simmered hijiki with carrots and deep-fried tofu, green beans with a sweet and soy sesame dressing, and sautéed carrots and burdock root (kinpira gobo).

Also, I will be teaching a shochu class and tasting at the Japanese Culinary Center in June so I'm preparing for that.

What led you to become an expert in shochu? I worked as a sommelier at Takashimaya department store in Tokyo selling wines in the retail depachika (epicurean basement food floors). While at Takashimaya the department offered to pay for the staff to cross-train in sake or shochu. I could select either sake or shochu. I prefer shochu over sake and was curious to learn more about it. Shochu in Japan is more popular than sake and I thought the future of shochu outside of Japan was promising—it was the prime time to learn more about it.

At first management didn't think I could manage the coursework and test (it was all in Japanese) but I did pass. To the best of my knowledge, I am the first non-Japanese to pass the shochu advisor exam, and that was five years ago.

I understand you're also a "shochu sommelier." What exactly does that mean? The official title is "shochu advisor." I completed similar training with regards to shochu as one does with wine in becoming a sommelier. I am now qualified in Japan to work in a restaurant or retail shop and advise customers with selecting shochu, what foods to pair, and how to drink them. And, like studying for wine, the best part of studying is drinking a variety of shochu to train your palate. I teach classes on shochu in New York City to restaurants and to the general public.

Tell us about your new book, Food Sake Tokyo. While working at Takashimaya's depachika I saw many non-Japanese walking around the food floors in amazement. There is a lot of Japanese foods that never makes it out of Japan. I too am fascinated and in awe of the variety of food, the variety that comes throughout the seasons, and the attention to detail in presentation.

My book, Food Sake Tokyo, introduces readers to the food and beverages of Japan in the first half of the book. And the second half introduces specific shops and restaurants throughout Tokyo. Even if you never make it to Japan, the first half of the book will be interesting to anyone curious or passionate about Japanese food culture.

What are you drinking these days? My husband, a Japanese fishmonger, is allergic to alcohol so I am not drinking as much as I used to. When he comes home from work I make him a non-alcoholic "Wisconsin lunchbox" (minus the Amaretto) of orange juice and St. Pauli N.A.

I do keep several bottles of shochu. I love funky imojochu (sweet potato shochu) that are aromatic and rich. I'm also a fan of the shochu from Okinawa, in southern Japan, called awamori. It is made from Thai rice and is made with a black koji mold that packs a punch. And I have a soft spot for shochu made from brown sugar (kokuto jochu), which is slightly sweet and light. When I am in Japan I love exploring shochu that are hard to find in the States, like shochu based on chestnuts (kuri) and shiso.

As a sommelier I naturally love wine. In the summertime I lean towards Alsatian wines, New Zealand sauvignon blancs, and roses.

If you could drink anything in the world, what would that be? I would love a wine cellar stocked with Alsatian wines, in particular rieslings. I lived in Brussels for a year and Alsace was a short drive away. The region is romantic and charming, almost to a fault. At the time I was thinking about becoming a chef (I am an alumni of the French Culinary Institute) and wine was one way for me to access the cuisine of France. Some great French dishes of the region include choucroute and tarte flambee, which are outstanding with the local wines. Besides, with this wine cellar these wines would also go with Japanese food that we mostly cook at home.

About the interviewer: Kara Newman has written about wine and spirits for such publications as Wine Enthusiast and Sommelier Journal magazines, and is the author of Spice & Ice, which explores 60 tongue-tingling cocktails.