Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pairing Sake with Food

By Liza B. Zimmerman

Japanese sake has long been a hard-to-understand beverage. It comes in various flavors and styles and is sometimes sparkling, unfiltered and even shows up in unpasteurized versions which are often called Nama--which means raw or fresh--sake. Its alcohol by volume content generally runs lightly more than a full-bodied wine, at 15 to 16 percent abv (or slightly higher). It has the maderized flavor of Sherry but is fermented from rice. The best ones are show better when served cold and its  flavor profiles run from light and fragrant to deep and full-flavored spirits that can even stand up well to fried foods and meat.

The Flavor Lexicon
I had the pleasure of eating at the Grand Hyatt in Tokyo on my first trip to Japan. Sake and its sibling cuisine is incredibly complex and layered. It often has most in common, for me, with the structure and balance of Italian food at its best, as there's always a place and time for each dish and drink and never the twain shall meat. Try asking for sushi and shabu shabu at the same restaurant and you see the kind the kind of look you get. Sake, according to Atsushi Sato the sake sommelier at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo, also has a natural flow during a meal. He says that a meal ideally should progress from a delicate Daiginjo sake with salads to a fresh-flavored Ginjyo with chicken or grilled fish. The last steps would be a rich, acid-driven Jyunmai with fried or grilled food, followed by an aged Koshu sake with lamb, cheese or after a meal. SakeOne's "Momokawa Diamond," Gunmai Ginjo from Oregon is one I have enjoyed with a range of foods. It's slightly off-dry flavor and mineral notes make it incredibly flexible in terms of food pairings.

Tips for Pairing
Sato says that one of the biggest challenges in pairing sake with food is that it's not a very self-assertive beverage. That can also be a benefit as its flavors, and lack of tannins, are unlikely to dominate a dish that isn't driven by animal fat or cream. He adds that sake's fermented, what we might perceive as "maderized nature," makes it also pair well with a wide range of cheese. You don't see the usual cheese cart at too many Japanese restaurants but we do love a healthy serving of it here and sake may well be a less-tannic pairing than red wine with these after-dinner treats.

That same deliciously oxidized flavor profile makes a good sake a delightful aperitif as well. You could even put it on the rocks or with a twist of orange (don't tell Sato San!). I won't do that with the best of them, but there's always room to experiment.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Liza B. 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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