Monday, September 8, 2014

Sake Pairings

By Liza B. Zimmerman

As much as I adore Japanese food, I have continually struggled with how to pair sake with it and think that many of the light beers often served with it don’t do it justice. Sake production involves the washing and steaming of rice and the introduction of yeast for fermentation. The type of rice and water used in its production process are hugely important to the quality of the finished product.

Sake production is said to date to the 3rd Century AD in Japan. Flavor profiles and styles are incredibly broad and include everything from incredibly dry styles to unfiltered versions, generally referred to as “cloudy”—which I enjoy after dinner—which tend to run somewhat sweet. There are even sparkling sakes, which are a great way to start off a meal and pair well with so many foods. The more the rice is milled, or “polished,” prior to being used the better the sake quality is considered to be. The multiple categories of Junmai sakes are made from rice that is milled to 50 to 70 percent of its former size.

I reached out to general manager Nicolas Fanucci—who worked at Thomas Keller’s renowned French Laundry in Napa—of Daruma-Ya in New York City to clarify some of the ways this ancient drink can be paired with food. Fanucci offered suggestions that range from straight-up sake pairings to how to mix it up in food-friendly cocktails.

Cocktail Takes
Daruma-Ya offers a handful of sake-based cocktails and enough regular sakes, served by the glass and the bottle, to overwhelm most diners. “Our sake cocktails can pair well with certain foods like uni and tempura. But the general rule is to pair sake with lighter, refreshing dishes,” notes Fanucci.

Choosing a sake component for cocktails can be a balancing act. “It really depends on the cocktail,” he notes. “For example, a Saketini will require a lighter, brighter sake but a Cosmo with sake will need something warmer and richer because of the fruit component in the drink.” When I dined at Daruma-Ya about a month ago I appreciated that the sake cocktails I tried weren’t too fruity, multi-colored or over the top in terms of sugar levels.

Having lived in San Francisco for close to a decade, I am all too familiar with the use of sake—and other lower-proof spirits—in faux sugar-heavy cocktails. Thankfully restaurants in New York tend to have full spirits lists and don’t have to try to approximate classic tipples without the appropriate ingredients.

Pairing Pointers
The classic rule of pairing wine with food that its equal—in terms of structure, weight and body—or its opposite in terms of style also works for sake. According to Fanucci, “You can choose a sake that has the same fruitiness or similar flavor profile of the food. Or, for a contrasting pairing, you can choose the opposite such as dry sake for sweet dish.”

Thankfully the whole concept of off-dry wines interfacing with sweet flavors works beautifully with sake as well. Austere dishes deserve serious, and dry, sake pairings. Fanucci also encourages guests to change up their pairings during a meal, but he recommends, “Starting with a lighter and easy-to-drink one and progressing to a stronger, richer, even cloudier sake with a more pronounced flavor. And some sake should be drunk with food rather than on their own.”

Cloudy sake is richer, Fanucci admits, but he said he can also pair well with many savory foods. His suggestions included “meat, heavier seafood, and some soba like the duck soba.”

The Japanese aren’t famous for their dessert repertoire and often I prefer to end a great Japanese meal with soba, buckwheat noodles that are often served cold. However he notes that, “We do have flavored sake that are designed to be served with sweets. So yes, you can certainly pair a dessert with sake.” Flavors like raspberry would pair well with some typical Japanese gelatin desserts or some flavors of mocha ice cream. Kampai—or cheers—enjoy those sakes!

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Liza Zimmerman has been writing and consulting about wine and food for two decades. She is principal of the San Francisco-based Liza the Wine Chick wine writing, education and consulting firm. She has worked on staff and freelance at national magazines such as Wine Enthusiast, The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana, Wine Spectator, Where SF and the Examiner. She currently contributes to Cheers, Wine Business Monthly and the Examiner, among others.

Zimmerman focuses on demystifying wine and transforming it into a tool for business and networking for companies all over the country. Past clients include Genentech, Roche and IBM.

She has visited all the world’s major wine regions and is one of select few in the U.S. to hold the Diploma of Wine & Spirits (D.W.S.), the three-year precursor to the Master of Wine.

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