For the Love of Sake

The year was 1991. The setting, after-hours at a seafood restaurant at the end of a pier in Newport Beach, California, where I worked as a waitress. The main players included me, and a bartender named Lee Ray (pronounced with the same emphasis you would put on John Boy).

Here's the history: Lee Ray had apparently made a bet with the bar back -- the guy named Rod or Tod or Rik who replenished ice, carted away dirty bloody mary glasses, and shucked oysters to order -- that he couldn't get me, the one chick in the nest who was about to be married, in the sack. And there I was, drinking at Lee Ray's bar after my shift ended, sipping (okay, doing shots) at Lee Ray's professional discretion. I didn't know what kind of alcohol I was imbibing, only that it tasted lip-smacking good, lots of orange in the nose and vanilla on the palate and fire --yes, actual flames -- in the finish. Truly savory stuff, and hell, it was free. Not to mention strangely invigorating: After four or five shooters of it, I started to feel a little (okay, a lot) like going home, rolling over my unsuspecting fiancé, and proving why he had made the right decision to move to California with me prior to our marriage, med school be damned.

I found out the next day I had been drinking Tuaca, an Italian liqueur long suspected of being an aphrodisiac. It backfired for Lee Ray, who had ulterior motives, but it worked wonders for me: Having tested it blind, I knew it really worked. At which point I recommended it to every single female I could remember befriending since nursery school, plus a few more open-minded males as well. These were the days before mass e-mails, so imagine the effort that calling the unenlightened entailed. But then picture the orgiastic joy.

I was reminded how it felt to be the beneficiary of an aphrodisiacal alcohol recently. Only this time, it wasn't courtesy of Lee Ray, but of Rocky Aoki. You know, the founder of Benihana, who introduced the concept of teppanyaki to heathen Americans, followed by sushi, and whose company headquarters have been located in Miami for the past two decades. The father of seven children, the second oldest of whom, Kevin, runs the boutique division of the company that launched Doraku on Lincoln Road (and a sibling in Chicago, with more outlets on the way). And the author of the March-released volume Saké: Water from Heaven, which has a complete chapter called "The Joy of Saké," devoted entirely to explaining just how the traditional rice wine can boost your sex life.

In other words, if what Rocky Aoki says is true, then to get a little tail I may just have to switch my cocktail allegiance. Especially coming from a restaurateur who has also been, among other things, an Olympic wrestler, adventure sportsman, and world record-setting hot-air balloonist, all fueled by steady, as well as celebratory, infusions of sake. Not convinced of his qualifications as gastronomic sex therapist? Well, he describes himself as "someone who has been married a few times and had a few girlfriends.... At one time I even published my own version of Playboy called Genesis. " Let's hear it for physical prowess: Sayonara, Italy. Bongiorno, Japan.

"Ever since sake became popular in Japan, some people have credited it as an aphrodisiac, and there is one type of sake that is thought to be especially powerful in this respect. To make this sake, you take a certain poisonous snake, broil it, and then put it into a bottle of sake," Aoki writes. "After a week or so has gone by, the sake will become infused with the essence of the snake. Supposedly, by drinking this brew you'll be endowed with some marvelous powers."

Undoubtedly, for me, that would be the power of projectile vomiting. I feel the same way about soaking tiger, bear, or deer penises in rice wine, any combination of which is the Asian answer to Spanish fly. And the supposed original recipe of the wine, which has been brewed for over 2000 years, doesn't necessarily spark any of my appetites either: previously chewed rice, fermented by the saliva of nubile virgins. Just how the spit of the sexually untried stimulates the desires of people who know so much about sex they need help getting it to go beyond boring is beyond me.

Besides a mention, though, Aoki doesn't lay claim to these concoctions as marital (or other relationship) aids. Instead he notes that unlike beer, sake "is made to be sipped, not 'downed.' It is served in small cups that have to be refilled many times ... the methodology of drinking sake is a major component of its enjoyment." The same goes for sex, he says. "The concept of the 'quickie' is certainly not Japanese. Sex in Japan is something to savor for its every nuance, just like sake."

Aoki also cites the Japanese relationship with nature as a reason for sake's sensuality. "Sake, with its four ingredients [rice, water, an enzyme called koji, and yeast], is a very natural product. And to the Japanese, the human body is the ultimate natural product. Up until the early part of the twentieth century, if it was hot outside, people took off their clothes.... Certainly there were no laws that stopped anyone from going naked."

Even without the advent of plastic surgery that could put an anomaly into such an equation, Aoki's logic here seems to be a bit syllogistic. But there's no denying that he's on target with the eroticism of collectible drinkware. Naked geisha girls are often etched into the wells of the sake cups, so you can get turned on even as you drink up.

Today, a nude in a sake cup is mostly a peekaboo gimmick, accomplished with heat-sensitive porcelain that reacts when the wine -- traditionally served at human body temperature so that it, as Aoki said during a recent book signing at Doraku, can "enter the body 1-2-3 and get you high" -- hits the surface. But back in the 1900s, particularly during the Occupied period of Japan, these portraits were lithopanes, visible only when the uptilted cup bottom was exposed to light. The Japanese manufacturers found that female nude forms sold exceptionally well to American G.I.s when set in elaborately moriaged cups decorated with dragons (a category of china known collectively as "dragonware"). And leave it to Americans to inspire the Japanese with the "more is better" syndrome. I actually own a piece of dragonware that has two naked women -- "twin geishas" -- posing together.

Aoki's also right on with sake's ability to ease inhibition. "Most Japanese homes are literally paper thin, offering lovers very little in terms of privacy. It is almost impossible to make love to your partner without everyone else in the family (and possibly some neighbors) knowing what you are doing," he writes. "But after a few cups of sake, couples start to forget the reality of their surroundings and enjoy their union without embarrassment." At least until the next morning, that is. Darn those sake goggles.

Just don't expect Saké: Water from Heaven to be a learner's manual that transports you to that mythical place. Aside from the single description of the Japanese kissing technique called suppun -- "The man and the woman place their open mouths together and alternately insert and retract their tongues for a long period of time, so that each partner can experience the taste and oral sensation of the other" -- and a passing mention of sake-drenched bodies that can take a licking and keep on ticking, Aoki leaves technique to the reader. Which means that if you want to think of the book as a kind of Kamasutra with refreshments, after the sake producers have done their job, it's all on you, baby.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick