How to pair Japanese sake with food
by John Gauntner
I’ll just come right out and say it: sake holds as much potential for pairing with food as wine. It’s true. And the rules and principles are the same.
Sure, it has its limitations. Sake is subtle; it has a much smaller presence or “footprint” than wine. It’s generally more demure, more delicate. And it has a lower overall acidity and no tannins. All this limits it in some ways, but helps its pairing potential in others.
But know this: sake is NOT limited to Japanese food, nor even to Asian food. Perish the thought! Sure, sake has limitations. Food that is too strong in any facet – spicy, rich, hot – will overpower sake. But take away those obvious mismatches, and what remains in western cuisine works very well indeed with sake.
Sake and food is hardly rocket science. It works just like wine does. You want to compare and contrast. So you look for similarities or contrasts that bring out the best of both the food and the sake. If you’re lucky, you get a synergy that makes both food and drink better than they would have been alone.
Interestingly, though, traditionally in Japan sake and food have not been paired as precisely as wine and food in the west. Sure, they have always enjoyed sake with food in Japan. But sake was used to support the food, taking a supporting role. “Ryori ni jama shinai,” they say. “Sake that does not interfere with the food.” Sure; this is changing. But historically, and often today as well, this was the thinking.
So what do you look for? What do you latch on to when pairing? Lots of things. Sweetness or dryness, fruity aromas or earthy ones, flavors that can run from rice-like to herbal or nutty. Structure, volume, acidity, texture, and length of finish are valid too.
One more biggie with sake and food is umami – that elusive savoriness that some call a fifth flavor element. Without it, sake is too simple. Too much umami and it’s cloying. But matching umami in sake and food is a great pairing principle.
There are a number of situations where wine doesn’t quite work, but sake is near perfect. Vinegar-laden food is one example, including leafy green salads. Soy-tinged food is another, which is important as that important flavor element finds its way into more and more dishes. And sake asks no quarter of wine when oysters are on the table.
One thing you can’t do is pair a sake to a dish based on the label alone. That works for wine quite often; not so with sake. Why not? Flavors and aromas are not consistent enough across regions, nor across grades of sake. The label alone will not tell you enough. You have to taste it to know how to pair it.
Fortunately, it is hard to have a real mismatch with sake: even if the pairing is not perfect, you have leeway. So feel free to experiment.
See the chart for a few suggested pairing strategies, starting with either the sake profile or the food. These are just examples; the principles will take you off on your own. Try appealing pairings for yourself and discover just how food-friendly sake truly is.
Sake – Food Pairing Chart – Starting with Sake
(I’m working on getting these charts bigger and downloadable)
Sake – Food Pairing Chart – Starting with Food
More information on Japanese Sake
Japanese Sake Grades
How is Sake Made?
How to Read the Labels
How to Serve Sake
Sparkling Sake: sake2me
Sake World – John’s website about sake
esake.com – Over 350 pages and 400 photos. A great resource!
The Sake Notebook – list of 250 recommended Japanese sake and Sake’s Hidden Stories – an ebook by John Gauntner