Matching Sake with Food – Part 1

Matching Sake with Food – Part 1
Hiroshi Kawabata  10/2005

Unlike in the case of wine, there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about how to match sake with food. While it’s given that we want to eat and drink well, the important thing to keep in mind is that the way sake and food go together depends on the way we choose to enjoy our lifestyles as well. In this issue, we introduce the characteristics of sake such as sweetness, dryness, richness and aroma, as well as the characteristics that influence the flavor of food, such as sweetness and richness.

When you order wine at a restaurant, you always consider what food you’ll be eating with it, that is, you consider how the two will work with each other. In this same way, we should take care to choose a sake that complements our meal. There are three basic concepts to keep in mind—balance, harmony and “wash.

Balance: Balance refers to the equilibrium of the strongest flavors in both the food and the sake. Richly seasoned food deserves a rich-bodied sake, subtly seasoned foods merit a lighter, more refined sake. If the intrinsic qualities of the two are matched, then the combination will be in balance. For example, if you eat a rich cuisine with a light-bodied sake, chances are the taste of both will be affected adversely.

Harmony: Because sake and food work together, it achieves a harmony that they cannot achieve alone. This also refers to sake that you drink after a meal.

Wash: Wash refers to the cleansing of the palate with sake. In order to make food taste better, we may try to reset our taste buds with water, but water tends to wash away all flavors, including those we want to enjoy. With sake, those flavorful qualities are left behind so that the next dish tastes even better. For example, when eating oily foods such as tempura or kara-age (fried chicken), a simpler sake will cleanse the palate, paving the way for the next dish to be enjoyed.

Next month we will be giving yakitori (teriyaki chicken skewers) its own feature, but we’ll go ahead and use it here as an example.  Yakitori has the happy distinction of going well with just about any type of sake, but taking in mind the three concepts outlined above, we can enjoy it even more.

The fact that yakitori is chicken gives us the basis for the analysis. If you want to emphasize balance, you would want to pick an acidic, rich type of sake. If wash is important to you, it is said that it is better to pick a lighter, more refined wine. Yakitori is eaten salted or with a sauce. With sauce, it is better to drink a neutral to sweet sake, and when salted, it is better to choose a drier type of sake. However, rather than focusing too hard on following the principles, it is fun to explore different combinations of yakitori and sake.

Other important things to consider are the specific characteristics of sake—its sweetness, dryness, bitterness, acidity, richness, aroma and let’s not forget temperature. All these factors exert an influence on how sake and food will match together.

Sweetness/dryness: It is not only the amount of sugars inherent in sake that determine its sweetness. Acidity, alcohol content and temperature also play roles.  A sake with little sugar content and a lot acidity is not dry as expected, it can be quite sweet.

Acidity: Acids bring out the bitterness in sake; the presence of much amino acid create a rich quality of sake.

Richness: A large amount of acids in sake result in a rich type of sake, a small amount results in a lighter, smoother taste.

Aroma: Depending on the type of sake, the strength and richness of the aroma varies. Ginjo sake has a light, fruity, floral scent. Junmai has the heavier scent characteristic of sherry or aged alcohol. Unpasteurized, raw (nama) sake has a refreshing aroma. General sakes have an aroma of their own.

Temperature: At high temperatures, sake becomes more stimulating, stronger and drier tasting. So if you want to enjoy a taste to your liking, try warming up a sweeter sake. A light aroma sake like Ginjo is best enjoyed at lower temperatures.

Next time,  we’ll further explore this topic. Whatever principles you use to choose your sake, we will show you how to enjoy it even more. See you next time!