Although it might seem that Japanese restaurants are everywhere, this wasn’t the case 50 years ago. Until the 1960s, Japanese food was still perceived as foreign, but over the years, the forces of modern globalization have helped to make sushi a household name. In today’s digital age, food trends instantly make their way through Instagram images, but back then, it was the chronicles of travelers that sparked curiosity and shaped global taste. The late Craig Claiborne, food editor and restaurant critic for the New York Times, was one of the key messengers who reported on foreign food, and his affinity for Japanese cuisine was evident in his articles which read like love letters written from places like Tokyo, Chiba and Osaka. Japanese restaurants in the U.S. have since expanded to more authentic dining experiences like kaiseki and omakase, and with that expansion, is the growing sophistication of sake culture. A true global beverage, sake is even celebrated around the world every first of October on World Sake Day.
As Sommelier Alice Hama explains in a comprehensive pairing guide, because sake has significantly less acidity and tannin than wine, it has an “amazing advantage and flexibility in pairing with a wide variety of cuisines.” One type of cuisine that many people are unfamiliar with but is quickly gaining attention is Philippine cuisine. The Philippines is Japan’s neighbor to the south and as October is Filipino American History Month, we thought it would be an opportune time to experiment with Filipino food and sake pairings!
Just as sake is unique to each region of Japan (learn more about regional differences in sake), the over 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines comprise the regions that play a significant role in its culinary landscape. There are some similarities to Filipino and Japanese cuisine: one part is deeply-rooted in tradition and the other with an eye to the future. In Memories of Philippine Kitchens, Filipino dishes are divided into “food that was always ours” and “food that we borrowed and made our own.” The country’s proximity to other nations in Southeast Asia and long periods of colonization reveal heavy influences from Spanish, Japanese, American, and Chinese cultures. Most recipes are passed down generations through traditional methods, similar to the way decades-old sake brewing methods are inherited from one toji to another. And just as Filipinos are starting to experiment with other ingredients, many sake breweries are experimenting with new styles and flavors. In the U.S., bartenders are creating more sake-based cocktails, and brewers like Brooklyn Kura have adopted the art of sake making.
In selecting sake, the key is to be open to trying new things! When I began my sake tasting journey, I leaned toward bottles with rich and sweet profiles. After trying more sake, however, I’ve discovered favorites in each category, and tutorials like the one from the Hakkaisan Virtual Tasting Set are very helpful in learning specifics, such as SMV (Sake Meter Value), RPR (Rice Polishing Ratio) and other characteristics, which makes the discovery process even more enjoyable. This time, I looked into two sake with a “dry” taste profile: Rihaku “Wandering Poet” (rich and dry ginjo) and Okunomatsu “Tokubetsu Junmai” (light and dry junmai).
The usual introductions to Filipino food are chicken adobo and lumpia, but I also want to share some favorites among the Filipino community: grilled chicken barbecue on a stick (sweet and charred), beef caldereta (braised beef in tomato sauce with olives, potato and carrots), and lastly, pinakbet (vegetables sauteed in shrimp paste). As I was preparing these dishes, I thought about all the things I love about the Philippines: my Grandmother’s garden that lined the path I walked every morning, the hypnotizing smells of street barbecue in the afternoon, the amazing sunsets, and of course, the best part of it all, making memories with my family back home.
Perhaps, this nostalgia is what drew me to “Wandering Poet.” This ginjo paired with lumpia was my favorite combination of the evening; the banana notes really complimented the fried wrapper, and the crisp acidity cut nicely through the savory meat. What a party! I recommend serving it suzuhie (cold, around 59 degrees) with lumpia as an appetizer. An easy way to do this is to chill it in the refrigerator and let it sit in your wine glass for just a few minutes before drinking.
I also really liked Okunomatsu “Tokubetsu Junmai” with chicken barbecue. The citrus aroma was strong but pleasant, and the umami-rich flavors of soy sauce and tomato rose from the marinade to meet the spice in this junmai. With an SMV of +3.0, this one has a bit more sugar and adds to the sweetness to the already-sweet Filipino barbecue, but is nicely managed by the dryness of the sake. The versatility of Okunomatsu “Tokubetsu Junmai” makes it one of the best sake as it can be enjoyed warm, too. And while I thought I could get away from talking about chicken adobo, I couldn’t resist making it for dinner the next day—just so I could try it with sake! As the unofficial national dish, ask any Filipino and you’ll see that there are very strong feelings around it. Remember: Everyone makes it slightly different, don’t ever speak badly about it, and the most important thing—Mom’s version is the best!
From all the dishes, I’d have to say, pinakbet was the most challenging due to the shrimp paste and combined flavors of the “native” vegetables like okra, bittermelon and long bean. I’m still on the search, but I know the right sake is out there!
Have you ever tried Filipino food with premium sake? Let us know what you’ve discovered and tag us #tippsysake!
Louie Anne Batac-Nguyen
Louie Anne lived and worked in beautiful Okinawa, Japan for 10 years, and brings with her a deep appreciation for Japanese culture. As a cultural writer and editor, she seeks to share her experiences and bridge connections with fellow travelers and dining enthusiasts.