Sake 101
Ep.4 “Tell Me How To Pair Sake With Food!”

Aya and Tomoko (Tomo), total beginners when it comes to sake,

are here to learn from Saki (sake sommelier & journalist) how to enjoy sake.
If you’re new to sake too then you’ve found the right place!

Aya and Tomo are slowly learning how to enjoy the pleasures of sake with the guidance of their good friend Saki.
Tomo wants to take her understanding even further by learning how to pair sake with food.

Edited by TOMOKO
 Translated by Jojo Brandel, Saki Kimura
Special Thanks: Jizake Miyukiya

Beer goes great with gyoza. Red wine tastes amazing with cheese. Makgeolli is a perfect match for korean pancakes. Even fried chicken is better with a highball… Every drink has a perfect match…

Hey Tomo, why are you talking to yourself?
Stop acting like such a weirdo!

Give me a break! This has been something that has been on my mind for a while.
What do you like to eat when you drink?

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never given any particular thought to pairing food and alcohol. I don’t really eat and drink at the same time. Especially when it comes to sake, I am more than happy to try and understand and enjoy the flavor of the drink itself, so I don’t need any food.

You never eat anything while you drink?
You’re missing out on one of life’s greatest pleasures!

Stop exaggerating! It can’t be that good.

Would I ever lie to my friend?
Just think about it. An ice-cold beer and crispy, juicy gyoza. A refreshing highball with a basket of pippin’ hot fried chicken. Is there anything better after a hard day’s work!?

I guess…

Wow, that was cold, Aya.

If you really want to learn to appreciate sake, you have to enjoy it with a delicious meal!

You are just saying that because you love to eat.

What did you say!?
Why don’t you come over here and say that to my face!

Hey now, don’t get too emotional, you two.

I’m fine. Tomo is just flipping out for no reason.

That’s true (chuckles)

You too, Saki?
There has to be some kind of equivalent combination like gyoza and beer for sake, right?

No, you’re absolutely right, Tomo.
Sake is made from the staple of Japanese cuisine, rice. That means it’s perfect for being eaten with food. You can pretty much divide possible pairings for sake into roughly five categories:

 1. Similarity
 2. Bringing out sweetness and depth
 3. Neutralization
 4. Creating a new flavor
 5. Palette cleanser

That’s great and all, but I need some specific examples.

A good pairing based on “similarity,” would be something like a warmed cloudy sake with a bechamel sauce. Aged sake and smoked food is also a good combination.

So something like a gratin would taste good with unfiltered sake? I have never even considered trying them together, but they definitely have a similar texture!

You can also trying pairing food and sake to “bring out sweetness and depth” in the particular sake. If you feel like a certain sake is bland at first try licking a little bit of salt and taste it again. This will help bring out its inherent sweetness.

Ah, just like sprinkling salt on watermelon to make it taste sweeter.

Exactly. You can do better than licking plain salt also. Just pair sake with a salty meal instead.
Sake that has a lot of acidity can “neutralize” the smell of sashimi, that’s what the third category describes.

So, people who don’t like raw fish might actually enjoy it if they pair it with the right sake? That’s pretty interesting.

I’ve heard the same thing before, but honestly I feel sake just makes sashimi taste even fishier.

Excellent observation, Aya.
Some types of sake can exaggerate the fishy taste of sashimi. It’s still not really known specifically why this happens.

That’s why I think the whole thing about pairing food and sake is a hoax.
It tastes better by itself!

Well, don’t jump to conclusions, Aya. I haven’t explained because there are a lot of technical terms involved.
I think you know that alkalis and acids neutralize each other. The reason why pairing food and sake
does work is because the acidity in sake neutralizes Trimethylamine, an alkaline substance that produces fishy smells.

So why do other kinds of sake make sashimi even more fishy tasting?

There is no exact scientific explanation for it yet. According to some studies, this phenomenon occurs when you drink fragrant sake with low acidity. Apparently there is some sort of chemical reaction that occurs with the Isoamyl or caproic acids…

Okay, you lost me there.

Right, the terminology is not what is important.
I just want you both to remember how to choose the right sake when you eat sashimi. Pick out a sake with enough acidity that isn’t so fragrant so that it reduces the fishy smell of your sashimi.

Kind of like how you can get rid of the smell of raw fish from a cutting board by cleaning it with vinegar.

That’s right! If your sake isn’t acidic enough, try adding a drop of citrus. Also, warming up sake can help ease the smell of raw fish, just like how it’s more effective to wash with hot water.

So, what is the fourth category all about?
How do you “create a new flavor”?

If you combine a ricey, dry sake with chocolate you can create a new flavor profile that is similar to whiskey or brandy.
Lastly,  a “palette cleansing” sake can help refresh your palette when you are eating fried foods.

There really are a lot of different ways to pair food and sake!

Now let me give you some examples. Here’s a good one…

Wait! Wait! Here’s a challenge for you.
What kind of sake goes well with bagna càuda? I once got bagna càuda with one of my friends at a Japanese-Italian restaurant, but it tasted kind of off with the sake we ordered. The sake had such a sweet aftertaste. Was there a problem with that pairing?

Isn’t bagna càuda Italian? How on earth would you pair that with sake.

Right. Bagna càuda is made with garlic, so it might seem difficult to pair with sake.

Yeah, garlic has such a strong flavor. It’s always going to overwhelm the sake.

Actually, garlicky food can be nicely paired with sake that has a high acid content or moderate bitterness.

What! Bitter sake tastes good with garlic?

Yes. A junmai sake with a decent amount of acidity and umami will do great, or anything with an aged flavor and bitterness will be an excellent combination with bagna càuda.

These pairings are pretty nuts! It’s so interesting.

Also junmai sake flavoring like freshly cooked rice can work since it is kind of like a blank canvas. In contrast, fragrant sake is going to taste pretty bad with bagna cauda. That would be like trying to mix a pastel color with black paint. Sometimes two strong flavors will also clash.

Honestly, I just don’t really mixing up all these flavors.
Is there any hope for people like me? Can we enjoy sake with food too?

I recommend trying the fifth category, “palate cleansing” sake. I think you might like the refreshing aftertaste.

Hmm, but can’t I just do that with water?

That’s completely different.
Sake can wash away what water can’t and can make the aftertaste of certain foods even better.

I get it.
It’s more effective to clean out your mouth with acid or alcohol.

You’ve got it, Tomo.

Always think of those five categories when you’re pairing sake with food. I think you’ll soon find that well paired sake and food can enhance the flavors of both. With a little experimentation you can find which category you like the best.

I can’t wait to find my favorite pairing!

I still think you just love eating…

In summary

– Sake pairings can be roughly divided into five categories:
 1. Similarity
 2. Bringing out sweetness and depth
 3. Neutralization
 4. Creating a new flavor
 5. Palate cleanser

– Some types of sake can be even tastier when paired with food!

– Experiment to find joyful synergy between sake and food!