by John Gauntner from “Sake Confidential”
Food pairing is such an important part of enjoying wine that many labels suggest pairings, and almost anyone handling the bottle between producer and customer will have something intelligent to say about it. That same vibe has come to be a part of sake enjoyment as well, and a very valid vibe it is.
Often I like to let the sake speak for itself, keep the food simple, and not worry about the pairing too much. This can be done with sake quite easily—it asks little of food and goes fairly well with a very wide range of choices. Sake rarely clashes with anything. Still, it holds endless promise for pairing properly and enjoyably, and it’s fun to experiment with sake and cuisine from all over the world.
When sake and food comes up, people often want to know how they do it in Japan. Are there any “red with meat, white with fish” generalities used with sake? How far do they take it? How do they pair sake and food in Japan?
The truth is, very commonly, they don’t. At least not traditionally.
I think even a hundred years ago in Paris a good restaurant would have a whole list of wines, rather than just one or two. But even today, although in recent years the situation is changing, if you go into a fine Japanese restaurant in Tokyo serving traditional food, you will find only one or two sake—one earmarked for hot, one for cold.
This is not the sake’s fault! Sake certainly has the potential for precise, well-thought-out pairings that enhance both the food and the sake. It’s just that this isn’t the way things were done for most of sake’s history. The food—the raw materials, the preparation, and oh, the presentation—were the star of the show, with sake relegated to a supporting role. It needn’t have been this way, but the truth is that it has been.
The thinking is, “We’ve got your back. Enjoy the food; we will take care of the sake for you.” And it seems to have worked well enough. I recall once going into a sushi shop in Tokyo at which I was a regular, or at least enough of one to tease the guy behind the counter. I inquired as to why he only had one sake on hand.
“Listen, smart-ass,” he said in not quite those words, “I was up at four in the morning today to go to Tsukiji to buy twenty-six different kinds of fish. For you. Do you think I want you paying attention to the sake? Pay attention to the fish; I will handle the sake for you!” When put that way, it does sort of make sense!
So, pairing sake and food has not been nearly as active a sport in Japan as pairing wine and food has been in the Western world. Moreover, while it is more and more common to create wonderful food and sake pairings, there is no proper or authentic way of doing it. Nor is there any consensus throughout the industry on how it should be done.
There are, of course, various philosophies and systems that have been developed; many are solid and practical. They can be quite helpful, but as good as they might be, none has been around for very long, and none has been universally agreed upon or adopted by the industry as a whole. It’s kind of hard to call something just invented last year a “traditional” approach. In that sense, there really is no authentic or traditional approach to pairing sake and food in Japan.
What is good about this is that there are no rules to break, no traditions to violate, no generalizations to which we must adhere.
It’s not as if everyone was lazy all these centuries, never bothering to develop practices and approaches to pairing sake and food. If we look at how most sake was enjoyed in Japan for so long, we can see that sake was serving its purpose just fine. People (in particular, men, who drank the biggest share of sake) enjoyed sake with small nibbles, most commonly salty and packed with umami. These varied from region to region, and the sake was more or less made to accompany them. So, small, salty dishes with local brew went quite well.
After the sake part of the evening, the men would move on to finishing up with rice, miso soup, and pickles, at which point the sake was commonly cleared from the table. The entire Japanese way of enjoying sake and food was a bit different from the West’s, and thus, pairing developed differently. There are many other reasons, but this is an important one.
Things in Japan are changing for the better, and quickly. More and more modern Japanese restaurants offer a sizable list of sake with their food and are developing some conventions of active pairing and recommendations. While there is still some catching up to do, matching sake with food can be enjoyable and interesting, done with precision and with great success.
So, how does one go about it? What are at least some rules or principles? What are the goals? It’s not rocket science. You look for flavors, aromas, and other aspects of the sake and the food that are a little bit similar so they dovetail nicely, or that contrast well so as to bring out particular aspects. The goal is simple: make the sake and the food taste better together through similarities or contrasts in flavor, and elevate the overall experience of enjoying them together. That’s it.
One thing that holds people back is the idea that sake needs to be paired with Japanese food. “Well, we’re not having sushi tonight, so why would we have sake?” Even if they do pair sake with something other than sushi, if they go so far as to leave the realm of Japanese food and foray into pairing sake with Western cuisine, people are often overly concerned about doing it right. Folks want to know “how they do it in Japan.” But there is no one right way, so there are no traditions to violate. It’s liberating, really.
On a more practical level, sake truly does go well with a wide range of food. It may be the most versatile beverage on the planet in that regard. Sake has comparatively low acidity and zero tannins, making clashes very avertable. Obviously there will be some things that will not work, some foods that will clash with sake or simply drown it out with overwhelming flavors. Heavy, rich sauces or seasonings are tough with sake, as is really spicy food (although you should try nigori sake with Thai food!). But depending on how it is prepared, sake shows potential affinity with everything from vegetables and fish to chicken and pork, and even beef can work well if done right. It really is hard to have a total mismatch.
A handful of ideas off the cuff include namazake with raw vegetables with a bit of bitterness to them; a rich, dry junmai with bolstering, fat-cutting acidity paired with a cream-based sauce sprinkled with bacon over pasta; and a sweeter sake with salty, grilled salmon. Grilled lamb and yamahai is a match made in heaven, thanks to the slight gaminess they share. Simple, clean, slightly aromatic ginjo with white-flesh sashimi would qualify as a last meal on this planet for me.
Dessert sake are harder to come by, partly because most traditional Japanese desserts are not nearly as intense in their sweetness as their Western counterparts, and they were often created with green tea in mind. It is said in Japan that those who like sake do not generally like sweet things; perhaps this thinking is part of it. But kijoshu (sake made using already completed sake in place of some water) is a style that has the sweetness for that task.
Cheese can be quite fun to experiment with, and often aged sake offers great potential, as does earthy sake or sake with prominent acidity. Although not very common, sake made with white or black strains of koji (rather than the usual yellow koji) present types of acid that are more dark and intense, and these often go well with aged cheese.
The possibilities are truly endless. It is just a matter of experimentation.
There are, however, some noticeable differences in how you might select a sake for pairing from how you might select a wine—some methods that might work occasionally with wine are best avoided when choosing sake. It is hard to pair a sake just from the information on the label.
Let’s look at region, for example. While sake does have some regionality, it is not nearly as clearly delineated as it is in the wine world. Choosing sake by region leaves too much potential error for comfort. The same is true when selecting a sake by the rice variety. While different rice types do have particular characteristics that can be associated with them, two toji can take the same rice milled down to the same degree and make two totally different sake. Rice variety alone is not enough information to safely make a pairing.
Nor is grade. While pairing by grade is probably the safest of these three, there is so much overlap between the various grades of sake in terms of style and typical aromas and flavors that this system has its major shortcomings too.
In the end, the most reliable way to know how to pair a sake is to taste it. Forget the label; smell it and taste it, look at aromas, flavors, acidity, intensity, texture, breadth, weight, and more. Then consider which aspects will dovetail or contrast in mutually complementary ways with your food.
Most important, do not be afraid to violate perceived authenticity. Do not limit yourself by saying, “I want to do it the way they do it in Japan.” Violate away! And enjoy sake’s incredible pairing potential with food.
Mizbasho “Early Bloom” Ginjo –nagai shuzo kk, gunma
Peach, apple, and banana in the alluring aromas and flavors, with a soft overall profile that leans slightly on the sweet side but with lots and lots of depth.
Mizbasho (aka Mizubasho) is incredibly versatile with a wide range of both Western and Japanese food. Grilled white fish or scallops bring out umami in the sake, slightly sweet sauces encourage a similar sweetness to develop, and the light softness helps it pair with a melon-like dessert or amuse-bouche. Carpaccio to yakitori, lemon-drizzled grilled pork to baked salmon, and even lime sherbet all invite this ginjo to companionship.
Excerpted from Sake Confidential: A Beyond-the-Basics Guide to Understanding, Tasting, Selection & Enjoyment with permission from Stone Bridge Press. Sake Confidential was published by Stone Bridge Press, of Berkeley, California, specializing in works about Japan and Japanese culture. Sake Confidential can be purchased as part of a special Japan Holiday Book Bundle, and is available at your local bookseller, Indiebound or Amazon.com.
“Demystifying Sake” lecture John Gauntner at Japan Society. John dispels some of the myths surrounding sake, guiding attendees through the finer distinctions between varieties.
John Gauntner is recognized as the world’s leading non-Japanese sake expert and educator. He has lived in Japan since 1988, and has worked in the sake industry promoting and educating since 1994. He has written seven books, including two ebooks, across two languages and hundreds of articles on the topic, and is known for his uniquely concise and passionate way of conveying all aspects of sake, sake enjoyment, sake culture, sake history, and brewing technology. John also conducts several Sake Professional Courses each year for sake professionals and aficionados.
Known as “The Sake Guy,” John is the only non-Japanese certified Master of Sake Tasting in the world, and has also achieved the very difficult Sake Expert Assessor certification from Japan’s National Research Institute of Brewing. No other non-Japanese in the world has both of these certifications. He also received the Sake Samurai award in 2006, the first year it was awarded.
John has been quoted and/or mentioned in sake-related articles in countless publications including The New York Times, Newsweek, Forbes, Business Week, and Rolling Stone. He has spoken at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Universities, Wharton School of Business, and countless other venues across the US and Japan.
Much of each winter he is traveling around Japan, visiting breweries regularly and constantly learning. Other efforts at educating and edifying about sake include a free monthly sake newsletter (www.sake-world.com) and various digital products and e-books. “The Truth About Warm Sake, and Kamoizumi ‘Shusen’ Junmai Ginjo” by John Gauntner appeared in EatDrinkFilms previously.
“To say that sake is a poorly understood beverage in the U.S. is an understatement. Never mind understanding the various grades and styles of sake, how to drink it (hot or cold?), and what kind of food to drink it with, there’s the not-so-little matter that most imported sakes don’t have anything written in English on the label.
John Gauntner’s Sake Confidential can’t teach you Japanese, but it can give you everything you really need to know about sake in one slim tome. Just 175 spare pages in length, the book breaks sake down by topic; each chapter is a myth about sake that Gantner is prepared to debunk. Is cheap sake supposed to be drank warm and good sake cold? (Not necessarily.) Is non-junmai sake garbage? (Not necessarily.) Should you only drink sake out of one of those little ceramic cups? (Not necessarily.)
Gauntner’s world of sake is a complex and decidedly confusing place, and even in the end the writer confesses that there are no clear answers to anything in this industry. At the same time, the book works well as a primer for both novices and intermediate sake drinkers who want to know more about this unique rice product. While the book’s design — slim and tall like a pocket travel guide — makes little sense for a topic like this (and, in fact, makes it unfortunately difficult to comfortably read), Gauntner nonetheless does us all a much-needed service by digesting all of this material into one place — and inexpensively, too.” Christopher Null, Drinkhacker
There have been two recent feature-length movies about Sake. John Gauntner appears in
Kampai! For the Love of Sake– website
Also check out The Birth of Sake – website
The Story of Japanese Rice: The Amazing Grain used in Sake