In the previous article on sake, we have covered serving principles such as the right sakeware, drinking and storing temperatures for different types of sake. This continuation invites you to explore the art of sake pairing with the cuisines outside of Japan.
Sake’s distinctions from wine
To get a handle on what kind of dishes are best matched to sake, it’s worth reminding ourselves of some of the basic features of sake. First of all, and it’s obvious but still worth stating, sake is not wine; sake is made from rice and not grapes and despite its apparent similarities its make-up is therefore quite different. Sake’s lightness and purity comes with a richness of texture enhanced by its savoury character and comparatively lowish acidity that makes it a natural partner for food. As the Japanese proverb has it ‘nihonshu wa ryori wo erabanai’: normally translated as ‘sake doesn’t fight with food’, but, more accurately, ‘sake isn’t fussy about food’. Rather than trying to impress, sake behaves well at the table by enhancing and not overwhelming the flavours and textures of the food it accompanies.
At the same time, sake comes in a multiplicity of grades and styles and so the quality grade and the different style of sake will inevitably have a bearing on what food to match with the type of sake you’re drinking. We should not overthink this though because, as in the case of wine, there are people who’ll tell you that you can only drink wine A with food B or match food Y with wine Z, but I’m not one of them. Let’s not forget, sake’s natural affinity with food means that it doesn’t suffer from the Western affliction of food and wine matching dogma. There are no hard and fast rules, so if you can make up your own ‘rules’ as you go along, you never need to worry that you might somehow be getting it wrong.
Having said that, I think it’s worth taking on board five important differences between sake and wine:
- Sake has around one-fifth of the acidity of wine and so its compatibility with food depends as much on its smooth-textured richness as its acidity.
- Sake weighs in on average at 15 – 16% alcohol, giving it a fuller body than a dry white wine averaging 12 – 13%.
- Sake contains umami (most wine doesn’t or if it does it’s in tiny quantities), a savoury quality derived from glutamic acid and found in a variety of foods such as tomatoes, parmesan, mushrooms, truffles, anchovies, Parma ham, chorizo, meat and fish stock, Marmite, cheese and green tea.
- You can use a wine glass when you drink sake but more traditional vessels such as the ochoko are sometimes the better option. (read more here)
- Sake can be drunk at different temperatures and so the temperature, varying from chilled through room temperature to hot, also has a bearing on the kind of food that might best accompany it. (read more here)
Sake and wine are different. Despite some of the apparent similarities, sake’s main ingredient is rice while wine is made from grapes.
Sake pairings beyond the Japanese cuisine
Taking account of the many distinctions between sake and wine, it also needs to be said at the outset that the idea that sake only goes with Japanese sushi and sashimi is a cliché so well-worn that if it were a car tyre, it would be declared illegal. Yes, of course sake chimes with sushi and sashimi, but the idea that it’s limited to these two dishes paints sake into a tight Japanese corner while doing a disservice to its potential for matching many different kinds of food, whether Western or Japanese. After all, from tempura, yakitori, sukiyaki, tonkatsu, okonomiyaki and shabushabu to teppanyaki, soba and udon, Japanese food itself is far more diverse than we often give it credit for.
As for sake’s suitability with Western food, I remember when Kensuke Shichida, president of the Saga Prefecture brewery, Tenzan, came to London before the pandemic on a mission to show that sake doesn’t just go with Japanese food. Sacrificing his delicate Japanese liver, and a few lamb and chicken livers into the bargain, yes he declared that the umami content of sake made it a brilliant match for the briney, iodiney taste of oysters but, at the same time, to illustrate the point that sake is much more versatile than people often realise, he spent a riotous gastronomic time washing down burgers, steaks, kidneys and sweetbreads with his Tenzan sakes.
Having pointed out some of the practical – and cultural - differences between matching sake with food and pairing wine with food, it’s also fair to suggest that there are parallel lines in the sense of looking to enhance the experience by bringing together complementary elements. So, like a pungent New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, an aromatic daiginjō or ginjō may work better as an aperitif or with shellfish than chicken or meat. A delicate sake can bring out the briney salinity in shellfish of all types. I’ve also found that such sake, especially of the drier kind, can erase fishiness and oiliness in a way that a dry white wine cannot.
Featuring Kuheiji 2018 Eau du Desir, a junmai daiginjō brewed from premium Yamadanishiki rice. Such aromatic daiginjō may work well as an aperitif or with shellfish.
Unlocking the flavours
A less aromatic but more textured, drier junmai, yamahai or kimoto, with their higher umami content, is more likely to be a perfect match for foods containing umami such as pasta with tomato sauce and grated parmesan and cured meats like Serrano or Parma ham, whose sweet saltiness contrasts so well with junmai. A vegetable or meat hotpot paired with junmai and kimoto sakes, especially warm or hot, is an incomparable experience, and often more satisfying than many an attempted match with wine. An earthier, higher acid yamahai or kimoto sake can work with green vegetables and mushrooms and a range of pickles including the likes of kimchi.
Yamamoto “Montrachet” French Oak Barrel–Aged junmai ginjō served with Duck leg confit with a sautée of pumpkin, sweet potato, turnips, and Brussels sprouts. (Photo from www.nippon.com)
Where food flavours are strong and so could knock out a delicate sake of the daiginjō or ginjō type, especially where chillies are involved, a good honjōzō sake, still premium but at the lower end, will wash down a curry for instance that might have overwhelmed a wine. It’s also, whisper it quietly, the cheaper option. As for desserts, a refreshingly zesty yuzu sake or a rich plum-scented umeshu sake, even with ice creams and chocolate, can be a marriage of more than just convenience.
When Philip Harper, Japan’s only British sake toji, or master brewer, came to London to conduct a tasting of his Tamagawa sakes with English cheeses, it was the first time I experienced the way in which junmai sake’s umami content made it such a good match for goat’s and hard cheeses, while his koshu, aged sake, complemented blue cheese perfectly. A textured tokubetsu junmai can be excellent with a meltingly soft Camembert style or a junmai ginjō with a tangy blue cheese. The umami in a hard cheese such as parmesan, comté or pecorino complements a junmai beautifully and the more aged the cheese, whether a cheddar or truffled Gouda, the more it’s likely to respond well to a mature koshu sake.
Sake and cheese pairings (Photo from Resobox.com)
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I have tried to show that there should be no inflexible rules when it comes to sake and food, but, rather, practical guidelines. Sake’s subtle complexities make it difficult – and unnecessary - to pontificate. The good news is that sake is now increasingly showing its face on the lists of independent wine merchants and mainstream restaurants around the world. As we gradually learn to adapt the multiplicity of regional sake styles and quality grades to a broad range of culinary traditions, I am confident that sake will take its place alongside wine and other more familiar beverages as a mouthwatering, versatile match in its own right.
Ootoneshouzou Sadaijon Koshihikari Junmai
An aromatic hint of pear and nuttiness, this sake from Gunma Prefecture shows savoury umami flavours against a background of delicate supple-textured ricey richness, becoming salty on the tip of the tongue and finishing dry. Drink with tuna tartare or asparagus risotto.
Keigetsu Aikawa-Homare 58 Junmai Yamahai
Made by Tosa from Gin-no-Yume rice in Kochi Prefecture, seductive aromas show the pungency of umami with savoury flavours whose superfine texture is juicy and balanced by a refreshingly dry finish. Try with a hot pot, at room temperature, or hard cheese.
Akitabare Shunsetsu Spring Snow Nama
A delicate, unpasteurised sake from the northerly prefecture of Akita, there’s a touch of fruity sweetness behind the strong umami characters which impart character and an appetising dryness. Try with edamame beans or seafood.
For more insights, see Sake and the Wines of Japan by Anthony Rose - https://www.amazon.com/wines-Japan-Infinite-Classic-Library-ebook/dp/B07JHV966V