PAIRING SAKE & FOOD
by Raymond Lim Joseph September 1, 2020
Let's begin with this in mind, food when consumed with sake will have an effect on the way the sake tastes, in the same way that sake when consumed with food will have an effect on the taste of the food. The purpose of food and sake pairing is to take advantage of these effects, so that ideally both food and sake will provide more pleasure than when consumed separately. Knowing this will also help avoid negative or unpleasant pairings.
If there is one thing I am discovering about sake, its that sake can go well with a so many different dishes. Sake, unlike wine has low levels of acidity and bitterness that can cause problems when enjoyed alongside food. This makes it uniquely versatile and means that as long as a person enjoys drinking sake, it is doubtful that any dish will make a good sake taste unpleasant. Sake is meant to complement food and not compete with it and vice-versa. That makes for an enjoyable pairing.
In addition to understanding the basic taste interactions between food and sake, it is important to remember that people have different sensitivities to various aroma and flavor components, an example of this means that the same level of bitterness can affect one person much more strongly than another. Pairings should therefore take into account the preferences and sensitivities of the individual, as well as the basic interactions between food and sake.
In 1991, the Sake Service Institute and the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association developed 4 categories based on a sakes fragrance and taste characteristics in order to make sake more understandable to global consumers. These four types were classified as Fragrant sake, Light sake, Rich sake and Aged sake. This categorization eliminates the work of having to have to interpret the complicated sake labels. With these four types as a basis, one can easily picture the ideal temperature, vessel, and scene for a particular type of sake. This sake classification system can be used by sake lovers, enthusiasts and sommeliers.
In addition, let me share with you a few guiding principles when pairing food and sake.
This is based on the philosophy that similar fragrances, flavors, aftertastes, and textures in sake and food mean that they complement each other. For example, Sauvignon Blanc has an herbal fragrance and goes well with fish that is seasoned with herbs; sweet-scented Cognac goes well with chocolate, and smokey black beer goes well with smoked cheese. Other examples include light sake for light dishes, heavy sake for heavy dishes, acidic sake for acidic dishes, and sweet sake for sweet dishes. Matching sake and the dish creates a balance and enhances both flavors.
This is about the finest pairing for sake and food lovers. Different fragrances and tastes are combined to create a completely original third flavor. That is what makes it a marriage. Examples are foie gras terrine with extra sweet, noble rot wine or strong blue cheese with matured port wine. A familiar example of a marriage of food is ripe cantaloupes with salty dried uncured ham.
This pairing is meant to enhance the dish. Light sakes do not overpower the sophisticated flavors of dishes and accompany the dishes quite well. It cleanses the palate for a smooth transition to the next dish. Food pairings in Japanese cuisine and sushi follow this rule as well.
This pairing is meant to enhance the sake. In the past, sake experts would drink sake as they licked salt or miso so that they could enjoy the sake itself. Even now, people eat salty dishes loaded with umami to accompany sake like pickled squid innards, botargo, and shiouni. This is the best way to enjoy the pure taste of sake. However, sake became so diverse, and just like wine began to be enjoyed along with an array food. It is important to include rules on harmony and marriage to further diversify sake.
By the way, always remember that sake is not limited to pair with only Japanese cuisine, but can be enjoyed alongside many international dishes as well. Understanding the principles behind a successful and unsuccessful pairing will help you identify pairings with dishes from the widest range of cuisines. It is meant to give you maximum enjoyment and an experience worth sharing with others.