4 Tips For Successful Food and Sake Pairing

Greetings Sake Lovers, welcome to another KURAND Magazine article that introduces you to the world of sake.

Pairing food with sake is a great way to add an extra dimension to any sake experience. There is a saying that a good sake and food pairing is like a dish with an added secret ingredient that takes it to another level. But two things that taste amazing on their own don’t always pair well together. And while a good pairing can elevate both elements in the pairing, a bad pairing can do the opposite. Sake is incredibly versatile and gets on well with most types of cuisine, but food pairing can still sometimes be a bit of a tricky art. It can be difficult to know where to start. Fear not, because in this article we will look at 4 little tips to get you started.

Tip 1 Unleash the Umami

Sake and oden (“a Japanese one-pot dish consisting of several ingredients such as boiled eggs, daikon, konjac, and processed fishcakes stewed in a light, soy-flavored dashi broth” Wikipedia) is a classic pairing that needs no introduction in Japan.

But what is it about this pairing that makes it a classic? The secret is the umami. In the early 1900s, the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda discovered that when a certain type of amino acid called glutamic acid and a type of nucleic acid called Inosinic acid combine, they produce this otherworldly flavor that for some people, simulates a trip to culinary heaven. He also discovered that some foods, like kombu and green tea for example, are naturally high in both glutamic acid and Inosinic acid and that heat can amplify the effects.

This concept of umami had, until very recently, been largely ignored by the west even though umami is something that most people will have tasted at some point in their life probably without thinking too much about it, more often than not in fact. We might refer to it as meaty or savory, or just delicious. Indeed it is pretty hard to define and incredibly ambiguous which is perhaps why it went under the radar for so long outside Japan. In the west, it is that flavor you can’t quite put your finger on, but In Japan, it is the cornerstone that forms the foundations of Japanese cuisine itself. With the explosion of Japanese food culture around the world, it is also finally starting to create a buzz outside Japan in some corners of the gourmet food world. In the classic pairing of sake and oden, sake supplies the glutamic acid while the oden supplies the Inosinic acid.

Cuisine which is rich in the umami-creating acids can also help ease the acidity, bitterness, and astringency in the sake. Even sake with quite harsh off-flavors becomes much quaffable when matched with such fare. This type of pairing is all about dialing up the umami factor to the max, so select sake with as strong umami as possible. As Professor Ikeda discovered, another key element in pulling off the umami taste sensation is temperature. Just as warmer food has a higher umami potential, warming sake with a powerful umami factor unlocks hidden flavors and spreads them out giving an even more satisfying explosion of umami.

Due to the higher levels of protein in the raw ingredient, sake is naturally higher in amino acids, in particular, glutamic acid than wine. And due to the acidity and tannin in wine, particularly red, umami tends to make wine taste a little stiff unless there is salt in the dish to balance things out. Umami is essentially sake’s trump card at the dinner table. At a very basic level, sake and wine pair equally as well with most dishes, but throw in umami and wine just has to wave the white flag.

Tip 2 Avoiding Aromas that Clash

It is easy to overlook aroma when pairing sake with food, but almost half of the process of tasting happens not in the mouth or on the tongue, but in the nose. Scientists have concluded that our taste buds are really only able to communicate 4-6 basic tastes (recent studies suggests there may be up to 1 million tastes that our tongues simply aren’t sensitive or well tuned enough to process, but this might go some way to explaining why some people can taste better than others). The 6 tastes are commonly accepted to be salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami and fatty.

The actual flavor characteristics such as that which makes a banana taste like a banana and an apple taste like an apple are actually communicated by our sense of smell and touch. Our olfactory sensors to be precise, located at the back of the mouth just below the nose are where we actually process flavor. The aromas of the food we eat are sent to these sensors which then pass on the messages to the brain. The touch sensors then tell us about the texture of the food; they sense heat and electricity caused by spice.

Sake offers real diversity on the nose: from the fruity/floral bouquets of ginjo sake to the nuttier, more cereal centric aromas of junmai with the quirkier lactic and oxidative aroma profiles found in aged sake and traditional kimoto and yamahai styles sitting somewhere in between.

When pairing with cuisine, junmai is perhaps the safer option because of its tamer aroma profile. Ginjo aromas may clash with strong aromas in the cuisine, but also create a nice contrast with pungent herbs. Many Japanese people enjoy junmai with food because the aroma reminds them of a bowl of rice. Junmai becomes even easier to pair with many different types of cuisine when warmed.

Tip 3 Match the Texture

Texture is the mouthfeel of the sake: whether it is hard, viscous, or has some elasticity. The texture is largely determined by the hardness of the water used to brew the sake. Hard water has a richer mineral content and so tends to produce a much more grainy, rougher sake while soft water produces a softer silkier, juicy mouthfeel. Texture can also be created by leftover ori (fine lees) and unsaccrified starch molecules called dextrins. A higher content of glucose in the sake can sometimes increase its viscosity but this normally directly proportionate to the levels of acidity.
Texture is another part of tasting that is often overlooked, and yet some of the best pairings are created by various congruent textural matchings.

For example, for cuisine with a soft mouthfeel, such as miso-tofu or sashimi, match with sake that has a clear sharp taste.
The easiest one to understand is the pairing of nigori-zake. Nigori-zake has a thick/creamy texture in the mouth, and when matched with fishy stews and mackerel cooked with miso it adds depth to the dish.

Tip 4 Match the Body (richness)

Lastly, pairing the body or the richness of the sake with that of the cuisine is our final tip. Rich cuisine is best paired with rich sake and light sake with light cuisine. Matching the weight is essential to avoid clashes and or one of the elements in the pairing overwhelming the other.

For example, cooked eel has a very thick taste and goes well with mature sake that has a well-defined profile. Cuisine, such as carpaccio or white fish, where the ingredients should be center stage is able to best make its statement when matched with refreshing ginjo sake. There is less transformation in the flavors of the dish, but this pairing is all about complementing.

Why not come and try out the above food pairing tips the next time you are in Tokyo. At KURAND, you are free to bring your own food to pair with the 100 types of sake that are available to taste at your own leisure, with no time limits, all for one flat fee. We look forward to welcoming you soon.