As the Japanese culinary trend evolves and consumers become familiar with sake, sommeliers are increasingly observing the rise of the importance of “sake and food pairing”. As a wine sommelier, I would like to introduce comprehensive sake pairing ideas for wine lovers and sake beginners, with reference to widely-recognized wine theories.
What is pairing?
In the modern world, “pairing” refers to a way to match food and beverage to elevate your dining experience.
But what exactly does that mean? The French call a great wine and food pairing as mariage (“marriage” in English). When the couple is meant to be, it will create an amazing synergy. In contrast, if the couple is mismatched, they will fight and bring negative effects to each other; this sums up the core concept of “pairing”.
Difference between pairing wine and sake
When you discuss wine pairings, “acidity” and “tannin” are the most prominent components in deciding what food to pair with wine. There are strict do’s and dont’s (I am not going too deep into this). For example, oysters with freshly-squeezed lemon will pair very well with a high acid Chardonnay with mineral nuance. However, it will be problematic to pair with a big, bold Cabernet Sauvignon as the heavy tannins in the wines will amplify the unwanted fish flavor, making the taste unpleasant.
Sake does share similar characteristics as wine, but it will be mellow, meaning sake will never be too acidic nor tannic. This provides sake with amazing advantage and flexibility in pairing with a wide variety of cuisines. Going back to the oyster, there are some preferred sakes to pair, however, it will be hard to find a sake that can absolutely ruin the dish.
First step to sake pairing—Identify the key components
What you should first look for in sake are “freshness”, “umami” and “body”.
Sake in the junmai (pure rice) category tends to have a fresh aftertaste, and it can be easily paired with simple ingredients like sashimi.
“Umami” (or “savoriness” in Japanese) on the other hand can be used to describe the complexity of the sake. Dashi-driven flavors will pair very well with umami-packed sake.
The “body” of the sake is determined by the mineral content of the water used to produce it. When the soft (low mineral content) water is used, the end product will have a round and elegant finish (often referred to as feminine sake). In contrast, when the hard (high mineral content) water is used, the sake tends to have an edgy taste (often referred to as masculine sake). Masculine sake tends to pair with a dish with high protein, like steaks, as the bite from the minerals accommodates amino acids well.
The Golden Rules for Pairing
The very first theory you need to know is the “Compliment” and “Contract” methods.
A pairing that creates a harmonious balance by using ingredients with shared flavors. In other words, your wine or sake will act like an additional sauce that blends into the already-existing flavor.
- Wine: Tomato sauce pasta with Chianti (Italian light red wine)—The acidity from the tomato matches with that of the wine.
- Sake: Nitsuke (dashi-simmered fish) with umami-packed daiginjo—Dashi means umami, so the complexity levels match.
A pairing using opposite taste profiles to create a uniquely balanced flavor.
- Wine: Sautéed fish with cream sauce with acidic Pinot Grigio—The cream and acid are the two opposite flavors, however, the wine will serve as a splash of lemon.
- Sake: Fatty wagyu steak with refreshing crisp junmai daiginjo—Usually, meat is paired with full-body or masculine sakes but in this case, the crisp sake will cut through the fat of the meat and will help cleanse your palate pleasantly.
Pair local with local
Another important way to determine what dishes pair well with what beverage is to find out where they are from. When they share the same soil, weather and water, the crops generally share some common traits. In fact, each region around the world has its own “specialty”, and usually the beverages that are developed in the region naturally go well together (I will cover this in more detail in my upcoming series on pairing).
Announcement from Tippsy!
I hope you found some inspiration for your next sake pairing from this article! We invite you to share your sake and food pairing photos on social media with #tippsysake. Every month, we will pick a winner from all the pairing posts to award with a $50 Tippsy coupon. Please share your pairing adventure and take the advantage of this fun opportunity!