Unexpected Successful Sake Pairings

Sake’s wide range of styles based on regionality and production methods allows for an incredible number of culinary applications.

There are certain things in life that are enhanced by enjoying with sake. When is the last time you tried chicharrones (crispy pork rinds) with sake? Personally I like
Takeda Shuzo’s Katafune (Niigata Prefecture) with this Mexican treat, my ideal snack. 

How about freshly popped movie theater popcorn drizzled with butter and a Hiroshima sake like Miho Imada’s Fukucho Junmai Ginjo enhancing the layers of spice and lavender from the sake.

There are a number of unexpected partners in crime with sake. But this concept is not new, records of manga featuring sake with Western dishes date back to the early 1980s where the first instance featured a French style escargot with butter and pernod suggested with Niigata’s Kondo Shuzo Junmai Daiginjo Koshino Karoku.

With sakes evolution and experimentation over the years comes great and surprising options. Take for instance Nagai Shuzo’s sparkling sake, Mizubasho Pure from Gunma Prefecture. This creamy and elegant sake reminiscent of French champagne makes a unique match for dishes like fresh oysters, smoked salmon on bagels or deviled eggs topped with bacon.

Other sakes that simply create a long lasting impression are koshu (aged sake) styles. A couple years ago I hosted a dinner at the Culinary Institute of America, COPIA in Napa. The executive chef at the time is one of my favorite Italian style chefs. When we first started planning, I requested the dishes to stay as traditional as possible. The outcome was quite spectacular for the 40 or so attendees as well as myself. 

Dishes included in the four course meal included a Vitelo Tonatto (thin sliced veal cutlets served with a creamy tuna sauce with capers), A traditional Piedmontese dish, beet and goat cheese salad for the first part paired with Tamura Shuzo Yamasake 4 Junmai Ginjo from Tokyo which interacted beautifully with the bright accents of the dishes. 

The second course, one of my favorite Roman creations, Cacio e Pepe, a house made spaghetti served with pecorino cheese and black paper, simple yet quite flavorful and strong. The pairing here was quite difficult, I was trying not to overpower the sake. My final choice was a koshu style, 2016 Shizengo Cuvée 18 Koshu by Oki Daikichi Honten from Fukushima. It was like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel! Hands down the most popular pairing of the night defying all expectations from the group that included master sommeliers, winemakers and other industry related guests. 

For the third course a lively Dover sole piccata dish with lemon, butter and caper sauce and asparagus. This dish was a treat with Matsuno Kotobuki Ginjo by Matsui Breweries from Tochigi. I found that Tochigi sake’s unique herbal and crisp characteristics make for a best friend of hard to pair dishes like asparagus, artichokes or broccoli. And this has been one of the avenues for sake to enter renowned western style restaurants where the sommeliers find sake to be the best friend to dishes that are quite difficult with wine. 

For the fourth and final course, one of my all time favorite desserts when executed properly, tiramisu. Layers of ladyfinger cookies dipped in espresso and Kahlua with layers of mascarpone cream in between dusted in cocoa powder. Alongside a traditional cannoli, a crispy shell filled with pistachio and orange cream. Sounds and it is a complex dish to marry. The final choice to pair was the 2016 Nechi Otokoyama Tokubetsu Honjozo Nama by Watanabe Sake Brewery from Niigata bringing an exciting component to the party with layers of citrus and cocoa that balanced out the sweetness and richness. 

Other favorite experiments with food and sake include southern style smoked BBQ brisket paired with Urakasumi Honjozo Genshu by Saura from Miyagi or Fuku Chitose Yamahai Junmai by Tajima Shuzo from Fukui. You can find me enjoying fried chicken with Ama No To Tokubetsu Junmai Nama by Asamai Shuzo from Akita, just heavenly matching the rich and umami layers of the fried chicken with the sassy attitude of Ama No To.

I challenge you to discover your new favorite pairings with the diverse sake styles and share them with the world.