Sake Pairing, the ultimate guide
by Pablo Alomar Salvioni
Beyond the limits of sushi, sake is the perfect drink to bring out the full flavour of any dish. While sake is definitely not wine… it can be most certainly paired with food in a similar way. Check out this in depth look at the nectar of Nippon and the best foods to create a perfect match.
For SAKE’s sake!
Let’s start with a definition and explanation: Sake, dubbed Nihonshu in Japan, is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from rice, with an average alcohol content between 14% and 16%. It can be consumed both cold (normally, between 5 and 12 °C) and warm (normally no more than 55°C). Sake is produced from the starch found in rice grains, which is then transformed into fermentable sugar through a mold (Koji Kin). A process that closely resembles beer making, except that sake requires a transformation from cereal starch to glucose that is carried out through a unique process of multiple parallel fermentations. The result? A drink with the potential of extreme elegance, complexity and exceptional fragrance. Liquid silk. To drink as an aperitif or on its own, yet this marvelous drink also works exceedingly well with food.
Main Ingredients: rice, water, Koji, yeast.
To achieve this complex creation process, there are various elements that come into play, all of which are extremely important.
RICE: There are different types of rice used in the elaboration of sake, notably the special rice varieties cultivated specifically sake making. Although it might seem strange, rice is often purchased in locations far from the place where sake is produced. What distinguishes rice used in sake production is a superior concentration of starch at the core of each grain compared to other types of rice. Rice grains used for sake production are polished in a way in which the external layer (which contains amino acids, fat and protein) is eliminated, leaving a higher concentration of pure starch. There is a classification of sake, which depends on the degree of rice polish.
WATER: In Japan, water reaches an extraordinary level of quality. This is one of the reasons why Japanese drinks that require very pure water, such as Whisky, can reach the height of perfection. Almost all sake breweries (kura) have mountain water springs at their facilities, which is, in part, what gives sake it’s specific taste.
KOJI: As mentioned earlier, sake is not created directly from the fermentation of sugar into alcohol, but rather requires a prior stage of transforming rice starch into a fermentable sugar. This is achieved through a mold called Koji-kin (aspergillus oryzae). This mold is inoculated in the steamed grains of rice and produces an element called rice Koji, which is the basis for the rice starch to convert into sugar.
YEAST: And finally, to achieve an alcoholic drink there is a final step, similar to wine, which is to transform sugar into alcohol through yeast. In the old days, each brewery would have its own indigenous yeast but over the last few years a collection of yeasts have been consolidated and are being used by most breweries.
CLASSIFICATION OF SAKE
To simplify the complex world of sake, I will try to explain the main distinctions between different types of sakes and how they are classified. This vocabulary will always be present when one talks about sake.
PREMIUM sakes (TOKUTEI MEISHO SHU) are the sakes that can only be made with the ingredients that we have mentioned earlier (with the possibility of only adding alcohol and lactic acid to help a healthy fermentation). Those sakes that do not comply with these norms are considered ordinary sakes and may contain sugars, preservatives, colorings, acidulants etc. These are called FUTSUSHU.
Among Premium sakes, a first distinction would be made according to whether there is added alcohol. So, we have JUNMAI (no alcohol added) and NOT JUNMAI (with alcohol added).
The second distinction would be based on the degree of the polishing of the rice grains.
So, we have the following possibilities:
- JUNMAI: No minimum polishing ratio (if greater than 70% it must be clearly indicated on the label).
- JUNMAI GINJO: between 60% y 50% polishing ratio.
- JUNMAI DAIGINJO: 50% or less polishing ratio (more than half is lost and may get as low as 1%).
NON JUNMAI SAKES:
- HONJOSO: Minimum polishing ratio: 70%.
- GINJO: between 60 % and 50%.
- DAIGINJO: 50% or less (more than half is lost and may get as low as 1%).
In addition to the classification described above there is additional terminology commonly used. Some examples include:
- NAMAZAKE Unpasteurized, difficult to find outside Japan because of its delicate nature.
- NIGORI: Cloudy, whitish appearance, also difficult to find outside Japan.
- KOSHU: Aged.
- TARUZAKE: Made or aged in wood tanks.
- SPARKLING: As the name implies, a sparkling sake.
- GENSHU: Undiluted sake.
- BODAIMOTO, KIMOTO, YAMAHAI: Old making process styles, sakes with original profile of flavours.
SAKE AND FOOD
Back to food pairing, sake has always been related to food, Japanese inhabitants would drink sake with their meals, so they complement each other. Nowadays, we try to compare sake pairing with food, as if it was wine. Contrary to wine, sake does not try to stand and “fight” on equal conditions to food, instead sake, enhances the flavours and textures of food, bringing back a solid sensation of communion between solid and liquid. This is one of the reasons, that lead to former Japanese restaurants (changing nowadays) to serve you the same sake during the whole meal, regardless of the menu.
For wine lovers, sake might be difficult at first, as they would expect a drink with far more acidity (and or bitter tannins), however, once they appreciate the other characteristics, and they way it interacts with food it can become hard to take a complete gastronomy journey without sake.
In recent years, even wine lovers are getting into sake, bringing new possibilities and making sake even more wine oriented (blending sakes as if they were wines; Regis Camus, Richard Geoffroy, François Chartier).
THE GRADES OF SAKE AND ITS MAIN CHARACTERISTICS
Sake varies from light, delicate and fruity to complex and full bodied or even matured types.
To make a general and quite simple distinction there are two distinct sake profiles: the more floral and smooth sakes, Ginjo-ka (everything that contains the word Ginjo) and the less perfumed but more umami driven ones, that would be the Junmai- Honjoso types, that would be more on the cereal/ nutty side and would be suitable for warm serving.
Generally Ginjo-Ka sakes ( Dai Ginjo or Gijo, Junmai and not) are more light and floral, so drink them with light food.
Non Junmai sakes but within the Ginjo world: would be very similar to its counterpart, however, might be slightly richier in aromas.
- Junmai (without Ginjo or Dai Ginjo) tend to be much richer than ginjo-ka, less floral but more umami driven flavours, with pronounced acidity.
- Honjoso: very similar to Junmaishu, but slightly more aromatic with lighter texture and acidity.
- Futsushu (or table sake) Has a large range of taste possibilities, as remember that they can add other ingredients to the main ones for quality sake.
Sake pairing should be a perfect balance between the aroma, the texture and the flavours. Sake cleans the palate and also works as umami expander or a softener of strong flavours. Most importantly, it complements the food.
In food we can find certain interactions that would make the drink taste harder or softer. If we have very sweet food, the drink will taste totally different, and we would have a perception of bitterness in it. If the food is very salty, we will tend to feel that the drink is sweeter…
With sake, all of this is happening, but again, it is somehow much more versatile than wine, there are better chances to succeed in a food pairing menu.
FOOD AND SAKE INTERACTIONS
As we mentioned previously, Sake has a couple of functions that provide a very pleasant experience while eating: It refreshes you, it cleans the palate, and it brings out the flavours of food.
We also know that some food profiles interact with the sake creating the following effects:
Deactivates bitterness and acidity, and increases sweetness and fruitiness perception.
The bitter and sourness
Modifies the perception of the drink, as sake has very little or no bitterness, works much better that wine.
Saltiness and sourness
Enhances the flavour.
Vinegars based dishes
Needs to be paired with a sake with higher acidity in order to compensate the aggressivity of vinegar.
Tend to make the drink drier and flat, try with a sweeter sake to balance.
Somehow complicated to pair with any alcoholic drink, with a light alcohol and somehow sweeter sake can pair well as will help to decrease the burning sensation.
Work well with light and delicate ones like the ginjo style.
Increases acidity feeling, enhances sweetness and saltiness and with sake works along as flavour expander, with wine might be hard.
When we found that a dish is very savoury or delicious, we have to think it is the umami that enhances that sensation. Umami is basically glutamatic acid, found in many products (soy sauce, kombu, tomatoes, cheese…). Somehow it is hard to pair a very “umaminous” dish with wine, However with sake it works perfectly well.
Food and wine pairing has a number of theories, methods or even science (Aromatic Science by François Chartier) that can be applied, and it’s not very different for sake. We can approach sake and food pairing using these principles:
Two main options:
The food profile is somehow similar to the drink. This is probably the most successful approach…but might not be the most spectacular… For example: koshu sake with chocolate ( both on similar levels of sweetness and maybe bitterness).
In this case, what we search for is to balance the final taste on a dish that is opposite to the drink, and when it works is memorable. A very salty dish with a rather floral and on the sweet side sake. Caviar or bottarga and Ginjo-ka, are good examples.
Then, either way, we can play with Affinity or Contrast on multiple ways by adding these other variables:
Texture in sake is much more noticeable than in wines, in fact, my friend and world class sommelier and recently writer, Ferran Centelles (ex El Bulli, now el Bulli foundation and Jancis Robinson contributor) explains in a very visual way, sake interactions in the mouth as “little men working on all corners in your mouth at the same time”, stating that if it was wine, ”we would feel this little men only working on certain areas”.
Some sakes have a texture that makes the food pairing game more interesting. Imagine a Nigori sake (with sake lees) with a creamy dish. The sensation on the mouth would make it match perfectly well.
A noticeable factor is the serving temperature, and for sake this plays a more important role than with wine, as the temperature can range from -5C° to over 50C°, and same sake at various temperatures, can give you a totally different perception. Normally we would serve the Ginjo-ka sakes colder than the Junmai or Honjoso, that could even be served at warm (KAN SAKE) enhancing the umami and sweetens that might be unappreciable when it is cold. With food, we can use this warm sake to accompany, for instance, a Japanese hot pot, or even simmered fish.
Choosing the right vessel can determine the whole experience, so for sake is extremely important. Known for the beautiful ceramic Ochoko cups used traditionally to drink sake, poured from a Tokkuri (jar) as an etiquette form of politeness in Japan, we entered a new level with the use of fine wine glasses; a more subtle appreciation of aromas and textures, especially for the more aromatic sakes. (famous wine glass maker, Riedel produces Dai Ginjo and Junmaishu glasses). For the less aromatic or even rustic Junmai or honjozo, the ochoko works fine, and I must confess it is delightful to enjoy warm sake in those cups.
SAKE IN THE WORLD AND MY TOP PAIRING
SAKE IN JAPAN
Of course sake pairs well with Japanese food. Sushi and sake is a classic, and it works well as sake cleanses the palate and makes strong flavours softer, but sushi is just a tiny part of Japanese gastronomy. There are plenty more Japanese delicacies, as the diversity of local cuisines varies enormously from one prefecture to another. In all prefectures there are sakaguras, therefore regionality plays a key factor in pairing. A good example is some sakes produced near the sea, that means fresh fish caught every day, and locals eat sushi or sashimi on almost a daily basis. The local sakes usually pair extremely well (normally a dry, clean sake that washes away the oily fishy juices). On the other hand, we find that sakes produced in mountain regions, tend to match local cuisine, notably, vegetables or meat. (Sakes are generally stronger and more rustic, perfectly enjoyable with those dishes). Japan already represents a huge palate of different foods, in harmony with local sakes.
- Tempura Prawn with Junmai Dai Ginjo / Harakasumi junmai Dai Ginjo.
- Squid sashimi with salt and lime with Ginjo / Fuckucho Junmai Ginjo.
- Beef Shabu shabu a Yamahai sake and heated to 40 C° / Masumi Kippuku Kinju.
- Otoro nigiri with a Junmaishu / Tensei Ginbou.
- Unagi kabayaki sauce with an aged sake / Tedorigawa Umaika 94.
- Ika no Shiokara (Squid salt preserved) with a junmaishu / Dewazakura Dewano sato.
SAKE AROUND THE WORLD
I think, one of the biggest surprises in sake, is how well it pairs with any food on the planet. In fact, the main issue here is that most people that face sake with non-Japanese food have a natural aversion to it. Why? Probably because the sushi sake dogma is very present, or maybe because many people will have a feeling of betrayal towards wine. The gastronomic restaurants, finally have incorporated sake to their pairings and I think that has changed many people’s mind, opening their minds to sake and bringing a new dimension to their experiences.
- Jamón ibérico and Junmaishu / Urakasumi junmaishu
- Caviar with a Dai Ginjo / Heaven sake Dai Ginjo
- Boeuf Bourguignon with a matured Koshu sake / Daruma Masamune 10 YO
- Txuleta with a Kimoto or aged sake: Sohomare Kimoto Junmai Ginjo
- Fresh Goat Cheese with a Junami Ginjo / Zaku Junmai Ginjo
- Matured cheese with a Yamahai sake / Tedorigawa Yasu Special yamahai Genshu
- Hard and aged cheese with a Koshu / Endo Keiryu Koshu 99
Thai Green curry with a Junmai nama with some bubbles / Kaze No Mori Alpha 1
- Ajoblanco with Nigori sake / Rihaku Dreamy Clouds
- Pizza and a Junmaishu or Honjoso / MUGEN / ENTER BLACK
- Tortillitas de camarones, Sparkling sake / Masumi Sparkling
- Pear & Eel ( Tasquita de enfrente) with a Dai Ginjo / Dassai 23
BOOKS ON SAKE: anything from John Gauntner or Philip Harper; Sake and the wines of Japan, by Anthony Rose; Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries by Elliot Faber; Nihonshu by Gautier Roussille; La Seda Líquida ( in Spanish) by Antonio Campins.
BY PABLO ALOMAR SALVIONI @pabloalomarsalvioni