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Tips for Pairing Sake with Food

Oct. 02. 2020
by Yuuki Nozaki

Sake and Food

If you’re reading this, my guess is that you’re either very interested in Japanese sake, or you want to get more into it! To help you learn more about this traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage, I’d like to share some tips for pairing it with food.

In Japan, sake has long been thought of as something to be consumed on its own and is often perceived as a beverage you drink just to get drunk. Since the inclusion of Washoku ( traditional Japanese cuisine) on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, however, people nowadays have started to think more and more about pairing sake with food.

In this article, I introduce some pairing tips to help you enjoy the world of pairings, even if only a little.

What is pairing?

To begin with, some of you may not be familiar with the term “pairing," so I’d like to break it down in simple terms. (No, we’re not talking about a “pair of rings” here!!!!!) While the word ‘pairing’ will be familiar to those who enjoy wine or whiskey, it refers to the act of enjoying a meal by combining alcohol with ingredients or dishes that have similar flavor profiles.”

Pairing is often mistaken for ‘marriage,’ a French term that refers to the act of enjoying a meal by combining different ingredients or dishes with alcohol that has different characteristics.

In short, the difference is in the characteristics of both the food and the sake, and since there is no significant difference between the two terms, it is good just to keep in mind that there is such a difference.  In light of this, I’d like to introduce food that goes well with sake = pairing.

Pairing tips and simple elements to describe sake

To make it easier to tell whether a certain type of sake goes well with a certain type of food, it’s important to know how to describe sake. Just as there are certain ways to describe a dish, there are similar expressions that are used when describing sake.

The two main elements are: flavor and aroma. While these also hold true when describing wine, in addition, drinking sake at different temperatures can bring about positive changes in its flavor and aroma. Here I introduce pairing secrets by breaking down the way to describe sake into three categories: flavor, aroma, and temperature.

First, is flavor. Flavor consists of three main elements – amami (sweetness), sanmi (acidity), and nigami (bitterness), as well as karami (dryness) and shibumi (astringency). But, in order to more easily describe flavor, I’ve narrowed it down to sweetness, acidity, and bitterness. While the flavor of sake is often described as sweet and dry, sweet refers to a strong sweetness and a low level of bitterness, while dry refers to a low level of sweetness and a high level of acidity. What about bitterness, then? Bitterness is often used to describe a full-bodied flavor.

Flavor is often described in this way, and when it comes to pairing, sweet foods are usually paired with sweet sake, while bitter foods are commonly paired with bitter sake. In this way, you can enjoy a meal by combining the same flavors profiles in food and sake with each other.

Next is aroma. There are many different aromas that can be found in sake, but the most common profiles are fruity, fermentation, and rice aromas. Other aromas include chocolate and floral, but I won’t go into these here.

As the name implies, fruity describes the aroma of apples, bananas, peaches or other types of fruit. This term is commonly used as the production of sake with a fruity aroma has been increasing in recent years. Fermentation aroma is used to describe the aroma of yogurt and soy sauce, for example. It is often used when talking about aged sake, which tends to have quite a strong and distinct aroma. As it implies, rice aroma describes the aroma of rice. Rice used in the sake brewing process has a unique flavor, so rice aroma is used when describing these profiles. Such an aroma is often detected in sake with a strong sweetness.

In terms of aroma, I recommend pairing sake with food as if it was a seasoning. For example, by combining less savory dishes with a vibrant fruity sake that has a subdued rice aroma or more savory dishes with a sake that has an equally strong fermentation aroma, you can enjoy food and sake pairings by the aroma alone, even before you eat the dish.

Lastly, there is temperature. Differences in temperature, such as whether it is hot or cold, greatly affect a given sake’s flavor and aroma. Here, I’d like to relay an interesting personal anecdote from when I dined out at one of my favorite restaurants. As part of a course meal, we were served three different types of sake, so I asked the proprietress the names of each of them, as I thought that they were all different brands, despite the varying temperatures. I couldn’t help but hide my surprise when she told me that all three sakes that I had consumed were the same brand. Of course, the skill of the restaurant staff was a contributing factor, but it reaffirmed that you can enjoy sake even more by consuming it at different temperatures.

Now, back to temperature. The hotter the sake, the stronger the sweetness and aroma becomes. While sake is best served between -5°C and 55°C, the taste of a given sake may deteriorate by warming it up depending on its specific characteristics. Therefore, if you are thinking about consuming sake warm, it’s best to ask the shop staff their recommended serving temperature at the time of purchase.

While I won’t recommend food and sake pairings based on temperature, as heating sake up is a means of altering the flavor and aroma to achieve a desired state, I do recommend combining my tips on temperature with the suggestions I provide on flavor and aroma above if you’re looking to enjoy junmaishu, as junmaishu is a type of sake that can be enjoyed at a wide range of temperatures.

Now that you know how to describe sake in terms of flavor, aroma and temperature, I hope you will use these expressions and make sake your beverage of choice when looking for something to pair with different dishes.

After sharing a number of flavor and aroma pairings in this section, I’d like to finish by sharing some examples of common food and sake pairings.  

Example pairings

The first pairing I’d like to introduce is ‘whitefish sashimi with a refreshingly acidic ginjoshu.’ Most white fish, such as sea bream and pollock, is known to have a mild taste. To maintain this lightness, refreshing acidity is used to slowly bring out the flavor of the fish. At the same time, you can also enjoy the aroma of ginjoshu, which masks the unique smell of fish and gives it a pleasant aroma. I recommend serving ginjoshu at 15°C, just out of the refrigerator, to enjoy the perfect acidity and aroma.

The second pairing I’d like to share is beef steak with junmaishu, which has a distinctive sweetness and is moderately bitter. Beef steak has a strong umami flavor that goes well with junmaishu, which is also sweet. It also has a savory aroma and can be enjoyed together with a sake that has a strong complementary rice aroma.

Junmaishu can be served at a wide range of temperatures, from room temperature (20°C) to hot (45°C). Sake served at the lower end of this spectrum will enable you to better enjoy the aroma, while sake served at the higher end will let you savor the flavor of the meat since the sake will be sweeter.

These are just a few examples of how to enjoy pairing food and sake. There are as many pairings as there are combinations, so have fun discovering your own original pairings!

So, how did you enjoy these pairing tips? I hope that you learned how to select the right combination of food and sake, and gained the confidence to give pairing a try for yourself! Enjoying sake involves so many different elements – flavor, aroma, and temperature – that it’s too complex to go into pairings in too much detail. That being said, if you refer to this article, which simplifies each of the three elements, you’ll easily be able to enjoy finding the right sake to pair with food.