Musings by the Masu: The Sake Pairing Expansion

This week the sake chronicles continue. Huzzah! In Part I, I explored the science of sake brewing and certain aspects that make it unique from wine and beer. A bit wonkish, I might admit, but hey, science matters. In Part II, I take to the streets (metaphorically speaking) to pair sake with cuisines outside of Japan. Unconventional insobriety.

A great food and sake pairing must harmonize the components of a dish and the characteristics of the sake. Sake is often subtle and delicate, but it can also be full-bodied and savory. It is commonly crisp and dry, yet sweet sake is also in abundance. In numerous respects, sake is preferred over wine for food pairing assignments. For example, sake has a lower overall acidity (5-10 times, in fact), higher amino acids, is more mild on the palate, and contains no tannins that complicate some red wine pairings. Sake certainly has a lot of pairing potential.

Notwithstanding this potential, most are disinclined to select sake when sushi isn't on the menu. In a way, this is surprising. At last observation, Japan has chickens … and cows … and vegetables. Salad? Check. Spicy and savory dishes? Check. Fried chicken, marinated beef and seafood? Check. If sake can pair with the diversity of Japanese cuisine, surely these pairing techniques can be translated to other cuisines of the world.

Oh, they can. Wonderfully. So let’s get to it...

The Four Fundamental Traits of Sake.

Wine possesses four fundamental traits: acidity, tannins, alcohol and sweetness. Sake of course does not contain tannins, but I will maintain a four fundamental traits methodology for sake by adding umami to the equation.

1. Acidity.

Acidity is cited as the most important factor in pairing food and wine. Although sake has much lower acidity than wine, it is still critical to consider its presence, both in the food and the sake, to determine the best pairing. Higher acidity sakes cut a dish that is rich, salty, oily, or mildly spicy. Deep fried foods, cream-based sauces, oily fish and shellfish are all prime candidates. On the other end of the spectrum, lower acidity sakes can balance flavor across the palate and easily support light- and medium-bodied dishes with bright, fresh ingredients.

Often the acidity value is provided on the sake label. Guesswork not necessary. The acidity value is measured in millimeters of a base chemical necessary to neutralize 10 ml of sake. Science geeks rejoice! The acidity number typically ranges from 0.8 to 1.9 (with a median approximation of 1.2 or 1.3), so even if you are not scientifically inclined, remember that the higher the number in the value range, the more acidic the sake will be.

2. Alcohol.

Sake typical falls within the range of 14-16 percent alcohol by volume. Alcohol is exaggerated with food, especially with salty and spicy dishes. If a dish already leans salty or spicy, choosing an alcoholic sake to pair would be equivalent to adding oil to the flames. If you choose a spicy or salty dish, leave the genshu on the shelf.

Ochoko Row.

3. Sweetness.

Sweetness can be an effective counterbalance to heat and coax out the flavor of spices, and in so doing garner more depth and complexity to the spice on the palate. Sweetness can additionally accent a dish’s richness and saltiness. Sweetness is a fan of the amorous old adage, opposites attract.

Once again, the sake label is ready to assist. A sake meter value (or “SMV”) provides a spectrum of sweetness measured approximately from -10 (very sweet) to +10 (very dry). Remember, high and dry; small is sweet. Despite its widespread use, the SMV figure should not be relied upon as the sole predictor of taste. Acidity, temperature, milling rate and a host of other factors are also important considerations. Notwithstanding, SMV can get you in the sweetness ballpark.

4. Umami.

In 1908, a Japanese chemist published research concerning the source of the delicious savory flavor found in kombu (seaweed): glutamic acid. He called his finding umami. At the time, no one paid much attention - likely because he combined the fascinating topics of seaweed and chemistry. But, undoubtedly, he identified a biochemical element that would revolutionize the food industry.

Umami is difficult to describe, but generally it is a pleasant, savory taste imparted to food primarily through glutamate, an amino acid found in many foods. In a way, umami can be thought of as a natural flavor enhancer. Food plus umami equals deliciousness.

Sake contains significantly greater amounts of amino acids, and specifically glutamate, than its vinous counterpart. The enzymatic action of koji (recall that this is the catalyst that facilitates the conversion of starch into glucose) has the byproduct of releasing high levels of glutamate. Koji comes through, again. Compared to wine, sake can easily contain three times the glutamate per liter. Pairing sake with foods naturally containing umami, such as meat, fish, cheese, tomatoes and mushrooms, intensifies the satisfying savoriness on the palate. Umami, good. More umami, better.

Well, not quite so simple. As delicious as umami can be, it is not merely “the more umami the better.” Particular pairing and preference should take priority. For some foods containing naturalumami, a sake with umami to match pairs perfectly. However, a dish that is fresh and vibrant, with little trace of umami, could potentially quarrel with a sake of opposite character. In the end, the pairing must enhance the tasting experience, not detract from it. Pair wisely.

Vietnamese Cuisine: The Food Cart Phenomenon.

For me, there are few culinary (and life) experiences that could match a Vietnam street stall pilgrimage, and a saved seat at one of the brightly-colored miniature plastic tables lining the streets and brimming with hungry patrons. Sold from pushcarts, stalls and bicycles, one can easily procure any desired food, at any desired time. Culture, food and beverage collide in a wonderful accord of flavor, vibrancy, and excitement. I adore this system.

Unfortunately, I am not in Vietnam. Fortunately, I have Trin, the next best thing, and one of my favorite local chefs. For my pairing experimentation, she serves up her take on a classic Vietnamese dish, bánh xèo, available at her restaurant, The Rice Place.

Accompanied by lettuce and fresh herbs, bánh xèo is perhaps best explained as a savory and lightly-fried crêpe made of rice flour and stuffed with pork, shrimp, diced green onion and bean sprouts. It is often accompanied by nuoc cham, a dipping sauce comprised of fish sauce, lime, sugar, garlic and (of course) minced chili.

The dish combines all of the classic culinary characteristics of Southeast Asia. Lime, fish sauce, chili and fresh mint take center stage, brightening the palate and countervailing the oil from the fried rice flour. The fried component does add a complicating layer for my pairing considerations, but I am up to the challenge.

To pair with these light, fresh flavors, I chose a Junmai Daiginjo produced by the Kamoizumi Shuzo Brewery from Hiroshima Prefecture in southern Japan. The sake was full flavored with mild sweetness, persimmon fruit and subtle notes of mushroom. The sweet, delicate flavors made a great match for the fish sauce, lime and sweet chili flavors contained in the dish. Slightly fried, the dish needed a crisp companion with sufficient body to keep up with the oils from frying. This sake was more than game. But hey, why stop at bánh xèo? This Daiginjo would also pair brilliantly with other classic Vietnamese dishes, such as bún chả and summer rolls.

Cụng ly!

Korean Barbecue: Sweet Meat, Mate.

Korean barbecue is a venerated constituent of Hawaii's multicultural cuisine, and is reliably present at any family gathering or potluck at the beach. It's not a party without bulgogi and kalbi. I turned again to Chef Trin to whip up her interpretation of the classic kalbi meat plate.

Kalbi plate, available at The Rice Place. Sake not included.

Kalbi is one of my favorite grilled meats for two reasons. First, the meat. Korean-style short ribs, cut lengthwise across the rib bones that result in a thin strip of meat perfect for fast cooking on the grill. Life is best spent around the bone. Second, the marinade. The shorts ribs are bathed in a sweet garlic marinade with a healthy dose of mirin, soy sauce, sesame oil and green onion.  Sweet, savory, and charred to perfection over an open flame. This dish is hard to beat.

For kalbi, I sought out a special style of sake with ancient origins.

Recall from Part I that the primary ingredients for sake, rice, water, koji, and yeast, are combined in a large fermentation tank, the combination known as the moromi or main mash. In the original “kimoto” method utilized as early as the Seventeenth Century, the moromi was traditionally mashed into a purée by dozens of laborers employing long wooden poles. This was an exhausting, time-consuming and labor-intensive technique, but ultimately helped lactic acid bacteria proliferate naturally, preparing an environment for the yeast cells to commence the fermentation process. In 1911, it was discovered that, by adding a small dose of lactic acid to the main mash at the beginning, the fermentation process could be accomplished in about half the time. This “quick fermentation” method, however, does have a drawback: yeast is prone to die at the end of the fermentation process, triggering the release of impurities that detract from the flavor of the sake. As a result, some breweries still utilize the kimoto method to ensure these impurities are not contained in the final product.

Sake brewed in the kimoto method enjoys outstanding flavor that is more full, complex and rich than a junmai prepared through modern quick fermentation. These sakes are definitely worth the work, with a combination of sweetness, vibrancy, and flavor that is distinct and memorable. Foods that balance savory and sweet pair extremely well. Sounds like a soulmate for kalbi to me.

My Selection: Otokoyama Kimoto Tokubetsu Junmai. This kimoto was rich and full bodied with notes of wheat, chestnuts, dried rice and mushroom. The earthiness and slight gaminess of this sake was a pleasant contrast to the sweetness of the marinade. Layered on the palate and expanding as it warmed, this sake was additionally an excellent pair for the charred elements from the grill. As a bonus, the brewery adds a little extra to the bottle - literally, in an extra-large 900 ml bottle. As a note, if you cannot locate the kimoto, Otokoyama’s Tokubetsu Junmai “Man’s Mountain” would be a worthy substitute.


Thai Cuisine: When Life Gets Spicy, Sake Gets Cloudy.

Thai cuisine tends to be spicy. Even when the waitstaff insist that it isn't, it is. Heat and spice are complicating factors when sake pairing, and there is plenty of both on the menu.

For me, two dishes are essential: Pad Thai and Curry. For both, let us assume (as we should) that there will be a mild firestorm in the mouth. My solution: nigori.

Recall from Part I that nigori is an unfiltered, milky-white (or “cloudy”) sake that is often quite sweet. Usually destined for the dessert menu, nigori can also be an effective counterbalance to the exotic spices and heat of Southeast Asia.  

Okay, confession time. I am not a nigori enthusiast. Nigori is often immensely sweet, monotonous and callously snubbed by most sake snobs. It is what I would [un]affectionately label as the white zinfandel of the sake world. (Gasp). Okay, I would admit, that does sound rather cruel.

I have humbly discovered, however, that nigori definitely has its place, and doesn’t always come with drowning sweetness. When paired correctly, nigori sake is unrivaled. Thai food is exemplary for this purpose.

I turned my nigori gaze toward Kamoizumi Brewery's Nigori Ginjo "Summer Snow." On the palate, the sake was (only) slightly sweet with a rich, creamy texture and flavors of peach, lemon, coconut and melon. Texture in this pairing worked splendidly, as the curry was matched both in flavor (with the coconut and citrus, in particular) and creamy texture. The sake possessed surprising complexity of flavor, excellent balance, and a subtle, dry finish. For Pad Thai, the creamy texture was complementary to the drier noodles, and the coconut and lemon flavors again nicely matched the flavor profile of the dish. Perhaps most importantly, the extreme heat was pleasantly restrained.

While most Thai dishes bring the heat, I did manage to find a stir fry for those readers less infatuated with the Thai chilies. The chicken cashew stir fry still supplied classic Thai flavors, but lacked intense heat, affording the opportunity to pair a sake that wasn’t still in the clouds. For this dish, a junmai worked nicely, with sufficient body, acidity and umami to match the richness of the cashews and chicken.

For some dishes that are on the extreme end of the gamut (e.g., Thai hot), even nigori sake may not be able to keep up. This might be a good time to break out the beer…

Chok dee!

Spanish Cuisine: A New Umami Amigo for Your Manchego.

A jaunt into Europe can demonstrate sake’s truly global pairing prospects. For this, I turned to Spain, the land of tremendous wine, cheese, and of course, paella, the national dish. At its core, paella exemplifies a vibrant and festive culture of family gatherings and community celebrations. Fortunately for me, my good friend Zack is a tremendous host and paella virtuoso. Our Sunday afternoon was spent poolside with paella, friends, libations, and great conversation. How very Spanish indeed.

In Spain, it begins with tapas. We started simple, with a steamed artichoke and homemade mayonnaise, and sliced baguette topped with Manchego cheese and quince jam.

Spain managed to produce possibly the best cheese in the world for pairing with sake. I am certain it was intentional. For the mild, umami-rich cheeses of Spain, I turned to Miyasaka Brewery from Nagano Prefecture in central Japan, and its beautifully-balanced Yawaraka Junmai “Sake Matinee.” A wonderful, rich profile of caramel, cream, and grain with subtle fruit notes of Asian pear, peach and plum. Gentle sweetness, sufficient acidity, and finely balanced. A dependable companion to Manchego, Ibérico and Ibores.

After tapas comes paella. Paella is a rice dish showcasing a variety of meat, vegetables, seafood, and spice. Zack chose a Valencian paella that combined local ingredients, including shrimp and ono (wahoo), with classic elements of chicken, chorizo and spice (smoked paprika and saffron).

For this dish, I wanted a sake that was full bodied with higher acidity to keep pace with the spice, chorizo, and general flavor profile of the dish. I was additionally looking for higher amino acids to accentuate the tomato-based soffrito and variety of meats and seafood with natural umami.

Enter Kokuryu Kuzuryu Junmai “Nine-Headed Dragon.”  A rich, full-bodied junmai, the nose was filled with roasted rice, grains and subtle citrus. On the palate, the sake was smooth with flavors of cocoa, roasted rice, and a hint of caramel. The acidity cut the richness and oils from the meats, and the body was able to keep pace with the spice. The rice flavor profile mimicked the paella’s fundamental ingredient in a way that was complementary rather than overbearing. As the sake warmed, it softened, enhancing its overall harmony, and ultimately pairing better with the dish.


A Harbinger of Sweetness.

Savory indulgence finds its conclusion. Admittedly, it took some trial and error to find favorable pairings for all of these dishes. With a little practice, however, the results can be thoroughly rewarding.

Who is ready for dessert?! Patience, grasshopper. One must wait, for now. I complete my sake musings trilogy next week with Part III, wherein dessert will take the spotlight in a sake-pairing euphoria for the sweet tooth.