Pairing Sake with Food

Sake is one versatile beverage that has my attention as of late. Stylistically, it ranges from robust and savory to delicate and fruity, and depending on the style, it can be served chilled, piping hot, or anywhere in between. It is also a relative bargain, with prices of top-grade Junmai Daiginjo starting at $12.99 for a 300ml bottle (Dassai 50 ).

When pairing sake with food, it is easy to fall back on the beverage maxim “what grows together goes together.” Undoubtedly sake pairs beautifully with Japanese cuisine which can be rich in umami flavor. However, umami can cause problems with wine pairings: too much will render a wine bitter and acidic. Sake, being fermented from rice, contains amino acids contributing to its own savory flavor, which will match certain foods well. Additionally, sake is low in acidity, contains no tannin, and usually has a faint sweetness to it—the kind of qualities that measure up to a forgiving food-pairing partner. So forgiving that, I imagine there is a bottle of sake to pair with almost any cuisine!

And what better way to test this theory then with empirical evidence! I recently threw a sake and food pairing dinner party with an assortment of dishes including:

·         Fried Calamari with both spicy-sweet chili and soy-citrus-sesame aioli dipping sauces

·         Pineapple Bolgogi Glazed, Pan-Seared Atlantic Salmon

·         Classic Meat Lasagna

·         Miso-Ginger Baked Chicken

·         Romaine salad with artichoke hearts, beets and carrots in a vinaigrette

·         Orzo pasta salad with spinach, feta and onion in a vinaigrette


For the sake selections I served three different styles to highlight sake’s diversity:

·         Tamagawa “Red Label” Genshu Yamahai Junmai served room temperature

·         Shirataki Noujun Uonuma Junmai 80% served warm

·         Tensei “Song of the Sea” Junmai Ginjo served chilled

Of the pairings, the standouts were:

·         Tamagawa with the Fried Calamari dipped in Aioli: This potent, hefty brew is not your typical sake. Brewed by Japan’s only non-Japanese master brewer, Philip Harper, “Red Label” is fermented spontaneously with his brewery’s proprietary yeast strain. It clocks in at a booming 20-21% ABV with over three times the amino acid and acidity of most other sakes. Its flavor is an offbeat yet impressive amalgamation of candied green fruits, oily fried rice, and marcona almond nuttiness.

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Surprisingly though, the best food partner with it for the night was the fried calamari dipped in its soy-citrus-sesame aioli sauce. The heartiness of “Red Label” brew matched the heavy creamy texture of the aioli and oiliness of the fried breading perfectly. Not only is this a superb structural pairing, but the flavors of the food and beverage match as well: The mushroom fried-rice flavor of the sake blends with the breading and sesame in the dish like nothing else.

Unfortunately things fell apart when dipping the calamari in the spicy-sweet chili sauce; the heat emphasized the high alcohol content of this sake rather than its flavor. With Genshu (meaning “undiluted”) sake such as this, be especially wary of pairings with spicy food.

·         Shirataki with meat lasagna: A full-bodied and full-flavored Junmai, this is sake for red wine drinkers! Bold flavors of candied nuts, earthy mushroom and spicy cracked pepper with plenty of acidity and umami on the palate. A more conventional Junmai than “Red Label,” but still beefier than your usual sake. So, it only makes sense that it’s best pairing for the night was the meat lasagna!

The pairing of warm cheesy lasagna and warm robust sake was sublime. Savoriness of the cheese and tomato matches the high amino acid content of the sake. Also, the mild sweetness of the sake dovetails with the touch of sugar in the tomato sauce. The rice and spicy pepper aromas of the sake pair with the pasta exceptionally well.

Switching to lasagna’s usual pairing partner, a glass of 2016 Felsina Chianti Classico, the acidity of the wine did a great job of cutting the sauce and the tannin blended well with the ground beef, but the wine didn’t couple with the lasagna like the sake did. With the sake, the flavors of the food and beverage harmonize and their structures are so well matched you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. This hearty Junmai enjoyed with hearty lasagna was superb.

·         Tensei with Pineapple Bolgogi Glazed, Pan-Seared Atlantic Salmon: Tensei’s Song of the Sea Junmai Ginjo has the lowest acidity of the bunch, giving it a mellow, soft texture. Ginjo fermentation techniques lend the sake fruity flavors of honeydew melon, tart citrus, and green apple with a touch of herbal lemongrass.

Ginjo style sakes are high-risk when pairing with food because its light structure is easily overwhelmed. But this is not the case when paired with the Pineapple Bolgogi Glazed Salmon—the sake’s mild sweetness matches that of the glaze and the fruit flavor of the sake at once highlight the pineapple and provide counterpoint (fresh, green fruit contrasting sweet, tropical fruit). While the sake is light enough to also pair well with the salads on the table, the salmon was an especially delicious match.

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The tasters agreed: sake paired with food is exceptional. A takeaway of the evening was how the acidity of wine “cuts” food, cleansing the palate and readying it for another bite. While this is pleasurable, sake paired in a different and compelling way. Because of the lack of acidity in sake, it married with the dishes rather than cutting through them, making for experiences that wine cannot offer.

One complaint I heard from the group was the intimidation factor with sake. Unless you’re familiar with the label terms you won’t know what you’re buying! When choosing the right sake to pair with your recipes follow these guidelines:

·         “Junmai” translates to “pure rice.” Think of these as the red wine of sake. Sake labeled simply “Junmai” will be on the heavier bodied side with rice, earth and spicy flavors. Banana, honey and nut flavors are common as well. These are best served either room temperature or warmed. “Yamahai Junmai” or “Kimoto Junmai” is typically more savory and acidic with more complex, gamey, or earthy flavors. “Honjozo” will be similar to Junmai yet milder in flavor, lighter in weight and end in a quick, crisp finish. Junmai sakes pair great with heartier foods like, as discovered, lasagna!

·         “Ginjo” translates to “scrutinized fermentation.” Any sake in the “Ginjo” family, such as Junmai Ginjo, Daiginjo, or Junmai Daiginjo is a wholly different animal than the previously described sakes. These are like the white wines of sake: they are soft, mellow, and delicate in structure with fruity flavors like honeydew melon, green apple, lychee. They are usually served chilled, although a gushingly aromatic one, such as Wakatake “Demon Slayer,” is great at room temperature. Serve Ginjo sake with equally light foods like vegetables and fish.

—Stephen Allison

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