Sake is no longer the hot, pitiable plonk everyone used to think it to be
Premium sake has easily proven itself to be worthy of appreciation on the same level as fine wine. The fragrances, flavors, complexity and nuances can draw you in and fascinate. And the range of these flavors and fragrances, while admittedly within a more narrow bandwidth than the wine world can hold, are incredibly diverse.
A natural extension of all this is the concept and practice of matching food and sake. With the advent of fine sake in the west, not only does the door open for this bold new world of match-making, but at the same time the sake industry duly inherits a veritable responsibility to educate the interested public on how to go about this.
The matching of sake and food developed much like the matching of wine and food: the local beverage was a natural counterpart to the local cuisine; so much so that no one ever thought much about it.
If you study the flavor profiles of sake from around Japan, you can easily see how well the local sake jibes with the original cuisine of the region. Sake from mountainous regions of Japan, like the Tohoku region in the north, is sturdier and more rice-laden in flavor, complementing well the salt-preserved and fermented flavors common in that region’s food. Sake from Shizuoka, Toyama and Miyagi are lighter and more supple, which works perfectly with the abundance of fresh fish found in these areas.
But now, like wine from Europe, sake is being taken out of its original zone of familiarity, and transported to a world bound neither by geographical nor culinary limitations. A bit of imagination and ingenuity – not to mention vision – are called for.
In developing a sense for matching food and sake, a little bit of theory goes a long way. With this, and a healthy dose of confidence and creativity, pairing sake and food becomes a wonderfully fun, if subjective and imprecise, process.
Matching Food and Sake
You can no more ask “what food goes well with sake in general” then you can ask “what goes well with wine.” Which sake? Although sake may not have the presence of wine, nor the fullness or impact, there are still many styles and countless individual flavor profiles. Each will work well with some food, less well with others.
There are several parameters that you can focus on when working with sake and food; these are listed below. Even if some of these seem different to wine, or of different scale, the principle and philosophy of matching is the same. It should be fun, precisely because it is imprecise and calls for imagination. The object of the game is to enhance the food, the sake, or hopefully both. When it works well, the result is an alchemical manifestation of a golden food and sake experience.
Within a range and within reason, it is hard to have a total miss. At the same time, there is no such thing as the absolute perfect match. Naturally, there are some things that will not likely go well with sake and its subtleness; strong red meats, massively spicy food, and richly flavored sauces are a few such examples. But most of these incompatibilities reside within the realm of common sense, and there is so much more out there to work with.
Perhaps most importantly, realize that sake is not limited to Japanese or even Asian food. Countless examples of heretofore standard western food offer so many potential ties to good sake, not to mention the offshoots and fusion outgrowths so commonly seen of late.
Sake is deceivingly complex. Its flavors and fragrances are more subtle than overt. Still, there are several parameters you can work with, definable qualities of a sake, that can either complement a dish, or constructively and favorably contrast it.
Here are a few examples of easily identifiable sake qualities, and how these attributes might be juxtaposed with food. Note that these are but a few examples, and are by no means a standard. They are but a few examples that might be helpful in matching and contrasting food and sake.
A sake with a prominent fruity fragrance, like some daiginjo sake, will work well as an aperitif, with enough assertive presence to stand on its own and enhance the appetite. Yet, too much of a fruity fragrance (especially the lighter fruit essences commonly found in much premium sake) will not lend to blending with solid, settled dishes like meat and foul, and may clash with a herbal baked dish. Milder, gently tart or rice-laced fragrances tie in nicely with moderately flavored fish and vegetables. Not all sake has a pronounced fragrance, which is fine, and quiet sake like this can allow the smell of other fresh ingredients to shine through.
Sweet vs. Dry
Sweetness in a sake, within reason, can support a more full flavored dish, accenting richness and saltiness in the dish. Keep in mind that the sweet-dry range of most good sake is not all that wide; what is sweet for sake is hardly overpoweringly so on an objective scale. Dryer sake can create a nice stage for the freshness and light flavors of fresh seafood.
One of the easiest of sake flavor parameters with which to work. The acidity of sake is but a fraction of the overall acidity of wine, but the acidity presence of a given sake compared to other sake is comparable to the acidity of a given wine compared to other wines. In other words, acidity in sake is a proportionally scaled-down counterpart of acidity in wine. Sake with a piercing acidity works wonderfully with slightly oily foods, like tempura or some baked fish. A slightly milder acidity will serve to spread the flavor of a sake out nicely, allowing the sake to suffuse and more broadly support a medium-bodied dish. Low-acidity sake, with its soft touch, blends well with food with a soft tactile facet to it, like sashimi.
Keep in mind that straight acidity (as expressed by the number on the bottle, when given) is not always the same as the acid presence, and that the temperature of the sake greatly affects the sense of acidity.
Sake has a plethora of textures that can be a true joy to play with when dealing with food. One such tactile polarity is softness versus crispness. Note, this has more to do with the quality of the water used in brewing (its pH and mineral content) than it does with acidity, although this parameter is not divorced entirely from acidity. A soft sake that absorbs into the palate can serve to refresh it and cleanse it for the next taste, absolving it of any lingering flavors. This is excellent for dishes with complex, busy flavors. A more crisp, lively sake can function instead as an uppity contrast to equally assertive food flavors, like pronounced green spices and pepper (to a degree). Matches like this can be stimulating and refreshing indeed.
Freshness-lightness vs. Settled-earthiness
Although this axis is a bit harder to tangibly define, it is extremely valid nonetheless. Fresh-feeling, refined, light sake rings solidly true with fresh seafood and light vegetarian fare, in particular sashimi and vinegar-laced dishes. Contrast this with sake with a settled, earthy touch, manifested in traces of bitterness and tartness, acidity and extremely well-rounded tones. Sake fitting this description comes as close as sake can to being a great accompaniment to meat and poultry.
This quality of settled-earthiness is called “koku” in Japanese. A sake with “koku” is a sake with a mature, settled touch, balanced and with a solid foundation of flavor. Although a direct translation into English is difficult, one you understand “koku,” that word itself becomes irreplaceable. (“earthiness” is one word I like to use, but this has its definite limitations.)
Umami is a word that is fast working its way into wine vocabulary. Originally a Japanese word, umami is by no means limited to sake, but is actually considered by some to be a bona fide flavor (along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter)of its own.
Umami does not have a simple English translation. It is best described as that aspect of a yummy food or drink that makes you say, “Um, that’s good. I think I’ll have a bit more of that!” Some examples from the plethora of words that close in on the meaning of umami include: deliciousness, richness, fullness of flavor, meatiness, savory, and well-rounded . Parmesan cheese, some meat, simply prepared fish, soy sauce, scallops: all of these somehow satisfy the palate.
Sake is often described as having umami, or not having umami. This is often linked to amino acid content (which is sometimes listed on the bottle). Sake with a decent umami will tie in well with foods exhibiting similar attributes. What is wonderful about a match like this is its sublety: umami in food and sake generally hovers in the background, as opposed to being an in-your-face flavor. This allows the bonds that tie the food and sake to be more subtle, supporting rather than leading the experience.
Umami in a sake is not indisputably desirable. Too much umami is generally related to off-flavors and roughness. Dry, light sake often has little umami at all, and is indeed prized for just that quality.
Sake with a solid umami bonds with raw or lightly seared fish, although when baked or grilled with too much salt or sauces, the umami of fish can be obscured. Some sauces, when not too sweet or strong, proffer a nice umami for such sake. (Miso-based and mild cream-based sauces come to mind.)
Lighter sake, with less umami, would be better with salads and fresh or raw vegetable dishes, and crisply baked or grilled fish.
Complexity & Refined-ness vs. Solidity & Simplicity
Unwieldy though the wording might seem, these qualities are as much something you match with the occasion as the food itself. It is just a matter of how hard you want to work during the meal.
If the flavors of the food and meal are less individually discernible and refined, and more even-keeled or even rougher, you may not want to focus so much on the sake, and something simple and straightforward – but still good – might be best. Often, simple but clean junmai-shu sake is best for something like this. Examples of such a situation might include a picnic or a more boisterous gathering. Too much seriousness can be detrimental to the mood in some situations. The importance of this parameter and its applicability should not be underestimated!
Other times, focusing on the food and sake may be more fun than talking and laughing. Naturally, more complex and refined sake will give you more to work with when this is your objective.
The above parameters notwithstanding, perhaps the most important thing here is to trust your own intuitions and preferences. Looking at the words used in matching or contrasting, it is obvious that they cannot be taken literally. Most of them are intangible, and few of them have a root meaning that is even remotely related to sake. They are nothing but a vehicle for people to express their attitudes and feelings and hunches about what makes sake and food more enjoyable together. As such, they are by default open to massive interpretation. This means that the imagination should be heavily brought into play.