For Toshiro Mifune and his friends, sake was the full menu: appetizer, entree and dessert. Why have a pair of chopsticks in your hand when you can have a glass of sake instead? Back then all you needed from the kitchen was a dish of pickled daikon or a dab of salted squid innards. Even today, when there may be thirty or forty appetizers on the menu, izakaya dining consists of nibbling at small plates of drinking foods. For the seasoned sake enthusiast, it doesn’t really matter what you eat, as long as there’s something tasty to enjoy while drinking, which is the whole point of being in an izakaya in the first place.
In the last couple years, however, there has been a movement towards understanding how and why certain sakes and foods go together. Part of this is due to the much greater variety of sake available today. Fifty years ago few people had even heard of, much less tasted, premium ginjo and daiginjo sakes, whose delicate aroma and fruity flavor give them a lot of versatility when it comes to food-pairing. In addition, wine-pairing has become such a common practice that it has carried over into the sake world. As a result, more and more people are asking servers at restaurants, “What sake would you recommend to go with this dish?”
Let’s take a few examples. Junmai sakes tend to be rich and full-bodied, with abundant amino acids. The minerals, oils and proteins in the outer layers of the rice from which they’re made give these sakes a certain nuttiness, and there is wide variation in the degree of density, tanginess, smoothness, dryness and richness they possess. Yet taken as a group, it’s safe to say that junmai sakes go best with Japanese comfort foods. Masumi “Okuden Kantsukuri” from Nagano Prefecture goes great with chicken karaage; somehow the mellow Masumi forms a perfect bond with the rich flavor of this crispy-skinned delicacy. Or take the braised belly pork (buta kakuni) on many restaurant menus these days. It’s hard to imagine a better pairing than Kamoizumi “Shusen,” served warm of course. This robust sake, with its earthy aroma of fall leaves and mushrooms, has the backbone to stand up to strongly flavored meat dishes. If you’d tried a light ginjo with the pork, it would have been a disaster, like serving a chablis with the pot roast.
You can have a lot of fun pairing sakes at the sushi counter. With that first order of sashimi, it’s best to choose a ginjo sake; the delicacy and finesse of a fine ginjo label perfectly complement those thin slices of impeccably fresh tai, maguro and ika. But even within the ginjo family there is a lot of variation. I like Dewazakura “Oka” because it has both a sweet, floral aroma and a crisp, dry taste. It goes best with white fish like tai (sea bream) and hirame (sole) as well as ika or shellfish. If you’re a maguro fan, ask for “Dewasansan” from the same brewery. This is more fruity and full-bodied than the Oka, with a green-apple tartness that goes perfectly with Hawaii tuna, which doesn’t have much fat. (If it did, a sake with a higher alcohol content like Dewazakura “Izumi Judan” would be a better choice.) I think it’s fine to switch over to a junmai label with the richer selections from the sushi bar like unagi and uni. But if you’re splurging on lobster sashimi, you might like a sake with a little more sweetness like Hoyo “Kura no Hana.” If your table is into sushi rolls, though, I wouldn’t worry too much about the pairing. Just go for your favorite label by the bottle or glass.
This brings us to the daiginjo labels, which, to be honest, taste so good by themselves that it may not be necessary to pair them at all. What could possibly add to the pleasure of sipping Masumi “Yumedono” or Akitabare “Suirakuten” in your favorite crystal glass? Apparently a number of chefs beg to differ, and have come up with some remarkable pairing combinations you would never find in Japan:
Chef Hiroshi Fukui, Hiroshi’s (Honolulu)
Oyster Chawanmushi “Soup” served with essence of white truffle oil
Koshi no Kanbai “Chotokuksen”
Chef Shayne Kobatake, Sansei Restaurant (Honolulu)
Japanese Mirugai Salad Over Waimanalo Farms Micro Greens, accented with Shiro Shoyu Vinaigrette & Curry Scented Oil
Hoyo “Kura no Hana”
Chef Marco Moriera, Toqueville (New York)
Seared Maine Diver Sea Scallop and Hudson Valley Foie Gras
Chef Takashi Abe, Abe Restaurant (Newport Beach)
Cajun Sweet Shrimp
There are those who think that the wine world may have gone over the top with its overly fastidious attention to correct food and wine pairings. But with sake, there’s still a sense of playfulness, since it’s all such new territory. How can you not crack a smile when you come across a sake (Masumi “Nanago”) paired with “Persimmon Soup and Steamed Black Walnut and Chocolate Cake” at a recent James Beard Foundation dinner, or “Japanese Yuzu & Shiso Mojito Citrus Granita” served with Kamoizumi “KomeKome.” Once French and Asian fusion restaurants began listing sakes on their menus it was inevitable that a lot of experimentation would ensue and there’s no doubt that it’s growing by the day, to the delight and bemusement of all.
If there’s a message here, it’s that in the wide world of sake there’s plenty of room for everyone—the gentleman in the corner nursing a glass of junmai with a slice of boiled radish on the side, the couple on the terrace sharing a bottle of Dewasansan over a plate of fresh oysters from Vancouver and that guy with the weird hair asking the bartender for a kiwi-fruit sake martini…don’t worry, he’ll move on to better things in due time.
This articles was written by Chris Pearce, president of World Sake Imports, and was originally published in the Hawaii Herald.