Despite my general preference for namasake, I love to try new types of sake in the hope of discovering something new I’ll like. Whenever I see something more unique than the more ubiquitous sparkling and nigori sake, I generally buy it. From a Western perspective, I also love trying more exotic Japanese food, like grilled pufferfish (called fugu in Japanese). Therefore, when I stumbled upon fugu fins for sale in Kyoto Tanabeya within Kyoto’s famed Nishiki Market, I tried my best to inquire on the purpose of the fins with the Japanese shopkeeper.
To my surprise, once she figured out what I was asking, the shopkeeper pointed over to a bottle of sake on the shelf and made a gesture indicating the fins were meant to actually go in the sake. I had seen sharks fin and fish head soup in Asia, but this was something new – especially to a regular sake drinker!
Apparently, in fugu specialty restaurants, the only one of which in Singapore, Fuku, closed down more than a year ago (due to poor business – not any fugu-related deaths!), fugu fins are often added to warm sake to complement the meal. This specialty sake drink is called “hike-sake.” Similar to the grilled puffer fish I enjoy in many Japanese restaurants in Singapore, the fugu fins are first dried before they are ready to be added to the sake. The best ones out of Japan are dried under the sun for a week.
Next the dried fugu fins need to be toasted. You can buy the fins toasted already or just dried so you can toast them right before dropping them in the sake. If you toast them over a flame, the slightly burnt fins can add the ideal slightly smoky taste to the sake.
While I haven’t read what originally led Japanese drinkers to try hike-sake, it was believed that the degree of alcohol gradually lowered with the fins making it milder and easier to drink. I was later advised that, even cheap bottles of dry sake taste great with fugu fin, making it particularly popular in izakayas.
After buying the dried, untoasted fins, I went to the most convenient Hasegawa Saketen store to get advice on the best hot sake (“atsu-kan”) to go with it. The shop’s sake sommelier recommended a Shiga Prefecture Shichi Hon Yari Junmai from their extensive selection. While I’m sure I could have gone with a less expensive sake in a box or jar, I wanted to make sure I got the most out of my first experience with hire-sake.
Thankfully, I’d bought a specialized earthenware hot sake vessel at one of the first breweries I visited in Nada, so I now had everything I needed to prepare the hire-sake. However, I wasn’t sure how long to steep the fins in the sake and, at the time, I didn’t know you were supposed to toast the fins before putting them in the sake. I mistakenly steeped the non-toasted fins in the sake too long and the fishy smell and taste was too overpowering, even with the strong flavor of the Shichi Hon Yari.
Having learned my lesson, I tried it again after toasting the fins and only steeped the fins in the sake for three minutes with the sake cup “lid” on. This produced a much better result I would suggest all sake lovers try at least once. The rich earthy/mushroom and gamey taste of the Shichi Hon Yari complemented the infused aroma and umami flavor of the fugu fins. It tasted rather savory, somewhat like clear sake fish soup. While it’s not something I’d recommend trying with a fine sake, with a less expensive higher amino acid content dry sake, you should experience a similarly unique umami sake taste. I can see it going well with bar food on a cold night and, of course, with a dish of fugu.
1. Buy the dried pufferfish fins (RedMart has the closest I could find online in Singapore, but I think “ehire” dried stingray fins (Meiji Ya) would likely serve as a close substitute. For the original, especially if you’re looking for other fugu – called “fuku” in Southern Japan – parts, Fukutarou has online order capabilities in English.)
2. Grill two dried pufferfish fins until they turn brown and just start to char
3. Prepare the dry sake to “atsu-kan” standards – heated to at least 50℃/122℉
4. Put the two grilled fins into the hot sake, making sure they are fully submerged
5. Cover the sake with a lid for three minutes so the fins can steep
6. Enjoy one of Japan’s most unusual sake drinks!
* Note: the dried pufferfish fin packet should ideally be stored in an airtight container after opening, as Singapore’s humidity can cause them to spoil.