The mold kōji (Aspergillus oryzae) contributes to the sweetness of sake and plays a vital role in alcoholic fermentation and in the creation of Japanese foodstuffs like miso and soy sauce. While scientists are uncovering kōji’s genetic past, the mold’s history is also told in the records of early modern (1600–1868) sake brewers, who may not have understood they were using microorganisms but managed to develop sophisticated means of cultivating the filamentous fungus and comprehended well its impact on the taste of their beverages. A section from The Idiot’s Guide to Sake Brewing (Dōmō shuzōki), completed in 1688 and translated here, offers the oldest discussion of how brewers worked with kōji in Japan. When viewed in the context of earlier references, it shows that kōji’s role as a sweetener was historically secondary to its primary function to facilitate alcoholic fermentation.
It Gives the Rice a Kick: Sweetness and Kōji in Early Modern Sake Brewing
Eric C. Rath is a professor of history at the University of Kansas where he teaches courses on food history and premodern Japan. His books include Oishii: The History of Sushi (University of Chicago Press, 2021). He is a member of the editorial collective of Gastronomica and is currently completing a history of sake.
Eric C. Rath; It Gives the Rice a Kick: Sweetness and Kōji in Early Modern Sake Brewing. Gastronomica 1 November 2023; 23 (4): 30–41. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2023.23.4.30
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