Coachella Valley’s certified sake sommelier surprises -—- not only because at only 26 years of age and Turkish he is the head sushi chef at Renaissance Esmeralda Resort in Indian Wells, but also because he’ll tell you the worst thing you can do to quality sake is serve it hot. “The ideal temperature is a little chillier than room temperature,” Engin Onural says. After earning a bachelor-of-science degree in business at the Bilkent University in Ankara, Onural came to the United States to attend the Sushi Chef Institute in Los Angeles. “I always enjoyed Asian culture and their food,” he says. “I decided to become a sushi chef because it’s not very common.”
How many types of sake are there?
There are 10 different sake styles. The major difference is the milling process of the rice. Ginjo has a more fruity aroma. Junmai has more earthy flavors. I do a lot of pairings with my customers. Some sakes go better with spicy food. The rice used in the process is very important. … The rice is like the grape [is to wine].
What’s your favorite sake?
Tokubetsu Junmai. It goes with everything.
How does your Turkish background influence your role as a sushi chef?
I use a lot of fruit with sushi, which is not very common.
Do you have a signature sushi roll?
The Esmeralda Roll [featuring spicy tuna, topped with salmon and ponzu sauce].
I named for the resort. I sear it with a torch. This is a live show.
Back to sake: Can you make a cocktail with it?
Anything is possible. We make saketinis. [Note: Alcohol in sake ranges from 4 to 17 percent, 25 percent soju is used in martinis.]
So, what’s new in the world of sake?
And what’s next for you personally?
My teacher [a master sake sommelier] wants to take me to Japan next year to introduce me to his boutique brewers.