Pairing Sake with Western Cuisine

On June 12 Japan Society hosted the seventeenth sake tasting led by John Gauntner, but it was the first time the “sake evangelist” discussed sake pairing. It wasn’t about matching the perfect rice wine with Japanese cuisine; Gauntner wants everyone to know that it is acceptable – even encouraged – to drink sake with non-Japanese food.

No, really – it’s fine! No one will dispute that sake is perfectly brewed to complement any Japanese meal from sushi to sukiyaki, but there is no rule saying that we must enjoy sake ONLY with Japanese food. So Gauntner, a longtime resident of Japan who co-founded the Sake Export Association, gave an enlightening lecture on the Dos and Don’ts of pairing sake with something other than sushi.

Eleven sake breweries from across Japan were on hand after Gauntner’s lecture to serve more than 30 different types of sake to guests. Although there was no food to pair with the tasting, guests could imagine what foods would work well with each sake based on Gauntner’s suggestions and ask brewery representatives for recommendations.

“It’s not rocket science,” says Gauntner. “It’s not that difficult. If you know how to pair wine with food, or the principles of pairing other alcoholic beverages with food, then you know how to pair sake with food. It certainly doesn’t need to be intimidating.”

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Tetsuyasu Sato of Takasago Sake

There are many theories about what to have in mind when you want to enjoy sake with a Western meal – based on the umami, acidity, intensity in the food, or based on the seasons – but there is no standard way to pair. The first rule is that there are no rules. Although that may not seem helpful at first, it makes sense once you consider that sake is a food-friendly beverage.

“Sake is extremely versatile,” says Gauntner. “Sake doesn’t pick fights with food; sake doesn’t get in the way of food.”

That’s because sake was developed based on the kinds of foods that were prepared and consumed in three basic regions in Japan: Mountains, plains, and coastline. Centuries ago people in Japan’s mountainous regions ate pickled and preserved foods that had salty flavors, leading to the production of richer, heavier sake. By contrast, the sake in the plains, where rice is grown and infrastructure allows for quick transportation of raw materials, is a lighter style to go along with the fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish in those areas. Fish, of course, is a main staple for those living along the coast and near large fishing ports. Gauntner describes the sake of the shoreline as being “much more supple and delicate.”

The different types of sake may have been born from the food found in various regions, but Gauntner maintains that the concept of sake and food pairing in Japan “traditionally, historically has not been as active a practice as wine and food pairing has been in the West.” One reason is Japanese restaurants, particularly those that specialize in a certain type of cuisine, want customer to focus on the food, which is naturally supported by good sake.

“Just about everything that is considered part of the realm of Japanese food will go very well with sake,” says Gauntner. “However, if we were to limit ourselves to Japanese food, or washoku, we would be limiting sake very much . . . If we only drink sake with Japanese food, we’re limiting the potential of sake, along with its growth as a premium beverage. As much as it goes very well with Japanese food, we need to move beyond that.”

To do that, Gauntner suggests either comparing or contrasting sake with food. Look for the similarities in sake and food, be it flavor, aroma, or umami. Pair heavier sake with heavier food and lighter sake with lighter food. Ginjo have fruity aromas, making them ideal as an aperitif or between courses to cleanse the palate, and they also go well with oysters. For Ginjo with herbal aromas, Gauntner recommends vegetable dishes.

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Rihaku Nigori Sake

Sweet sake also pairs well with salty food, and namazake, or unpasteurized sake, will enhance the flavor of arugula or asparagus. Yuichiro Tanaka, president of Rihaku Sake Brewing Company from Shimane Prefecture, says his fruity, unpasteurized sake at the tasting, Rihaku Nigori Tokubetsu Junmai, is perfect with fresh strawberries, mango, and even foods topped with mango sauce, such as mango chicken or mahi-mahi.

Gauntner suggests we can isolate the differences between sake and food to make certain qualities stand out. Fairly acidic Junmai sake will pair nicely with an oily fish or grilled meat because the acidity will cut through the fat. Kensuke Shichida, president of Tenzan Sake Brewing Company in Saga Prefecture, recommends his Tokubetsu Junmai Genshu “Jizake-Tenzan” for meat dishes and his Shichida Junmai Ginjo for oily fish.

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Chizuko Niikawa

Sake sommelier Chizuko Niikawa, the founder of Sake Discoveries, poured three sake for Nanbu Bijin in Iwate Prefecture. “Nanbu Bijin has such a beautiful aroma, it can go with any kind of food,” says Niikawa, “but I recommend having this with meat, like steak or barbecue because we’re using the local water [from Iwate], which is medium-hard, so the texture is bold.” To drive home this point, Niikawa says that ramen restaurant Ippudo serves Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai with its tonkotsu ramen.

Gauntner points out one potential mismatch: Sake with extremely spicy food, which will overpower the flavor of the sake. One remedy is to pair spicy food with a rich nigori sake.

One of the problems with pairing sake with non-Japanese food is finding a non-Japanese restaurant at which to enjoy sake.

“The distributors would love to [sell to non-Japanese restaurants]; it’s the restaurants themselves that don’t think they can work it in with their food,” says Gauntner. “It’s changing. There are a lot of distributors that are working on Western restaurants, but it’s either the chef or the management that says, ‘Look, I don’t know how to fit this in.’ But if you can show them, they’ll open up to it. We need to have it happen more.”

Chicago restaurant Charlie Trotter paired sake with its dishes, including one that was poured at the tasting, “Moon on the Water” Fukucho Junmai Ginjo by Imada Sake Brewing Company in Hiroshima.

We don’t think twice about having a glass of French wine in an Italian restaurant, so why not have a Japanese beverage at a non-Japanese restaurant? Until more chefs and restaurant managers can be as open-minded as the late Charlie Trotter, we’ll have to enjoy a bottle of Junmai and a cream-based pasta topped with bacon at home.