Sake, or nihonshu is a remarkable beverage that can be enjoyed by themselves and also pairs well with almost any kind of food. It is made from sake rice which is fermented in the presence of koujikin and yeast and there are various styles of sake—delicate and sparkling, bold and unpasteurized styles, and ones with rich and substantial notes.
on January 25th, a sake pairing seminar was held by globally distinguished Sake Specialist, Mr. Michael Tremblay at Consul-General of Japan in Toronto Ms. Takako Ito’s mansion. The night of discovery proved that sake is much more versatile than one may assume. Excellent sake was selected by Mr. Tremblay, and paired with Japanese food prepared by Mr. Genya Watanabe, personal chef to Consul-General Ito.
Mr. Michael Tremblay, who shared his extensive knowledge on sake, is a certified ‘Sake Samurai’—a title given to those who “share a love of sake and the desire to nurture it, to restore the pride of sake and to spread sake culture not only within Japan but throughout the world”. Mr. Tremblay, the Head National Sake Sommelier at Toronto’s Ki Modern Japanese Restaurant + Bar which boasts the largest sake list in all of Canada, is also Ontario’s first certified Advanced Sake Professional, and the first person to hold a course on sake in Canada. He has judged sakes at four International Wine Challenges and has organized the Toronto International Sake Challenge.
Types of Sake
There are five main kinds of sake: Junmai-shu (full and rich body with high acidic level), Ginjo-shu (delicate and light note, best served cold), Daiginjo-shu (full body and high on fragrance), Honjozo-shu (alcohol added, light and smooth) and Namazake (unpasteurized). They have unique taste as they are all brewed in different ways, and types of water and rice used also make a difference in the sake. Generally speaking, the more polished the rice is—with less protein and oil the grain contains, the higher quality of the sake. The premium sake, Ginjo(吟醸) has at least 40 per cent of the grain polished away, and Daiginjo (大吟醸)’s grain is at least 5o per cent polished.
As Mr. Tremblay said, sake is a “Chameleon” beverage that can be served at a variety of temperatures. Umami, or savory taste coined in 1908 by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, is one of the five basic tastes (sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness). Mr. Tremblay explained that sake contains the highest level of umami in comparison to other kinds of alcoholic beverages and the savory taste is especially amped up when it is warm. The easiest way to taste umami is to lick kombu a kelp, or heat up shiitake mushroom in the microwave for few minutes. In western foods, parmesan cheese and dried tomatoes possess the highest level of umami.
Tips to pair sake with food
To pair sake with food to achieve the perfect combination, is to keep in mind the palette that consists of sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness, and try to keep them balanced. Sake is a drink that complements food without overpowering them, so they won’t end up tasting disastrous unlike when you mismatch wine with food (it can be very bad). Matching texture to texture works: for example, umeshu or brandy with honey-like thick texture, goes extremely well with cheese.
If your dish is salty
The delicate Koshi no Kanbai ‘Sai’ Junmai GInjo works perfectly with salty foods like edamame. ‘Sai’ not only accentuates the food but also draws on the flavors to deliver even richer tastes. With its minimum acidity, it is using carefully polished rice to achieve pure, clear taste with crisp effortless aftertaste.
Tuna and red-snapper sashimi was served with Nanbubijin Junmai Ginjo, premium sake from Iwate Prefecture which was Mr. Tremblay’s favourite pairing of the night. It is an elegant sake with soft fragrance. Its fruity note is reminiscent of pears and Muscat grasp, and pairs well with delicate tasting salty dish like sashimi.
If your dish is acidic
Ryujin Junmai Daiginjo Nama Zume has a bright fruity aroma with an elegant sweetness. It pairs perfectly with acidic dish like nanbanzuke, a staple side dish at izakaya and Japanese restaurants. Its smooth texture and sharp after taste accentuates the sweetness of the dish.
If your dish is fatty
If you rish to pair fatty woods with sake, one that can balance the fat with acid or match its richness with alcohol levels are the perfect pair. Dewazakura Tokubetsu Junmai Kazezansui is a perfect match with fatty, juicy dish like wagyu steak. Brewed using local premium rice and aged for 10 years, the dry style sake with umami notes amps the umami of the meat.
If your dish is sweet
If you are pairing sake with desert, Nihonsakari Kohaku No Zeitaku is a perfect pair with deserts like matcha tiramisu. The not too sweet, rich in aroma sake is a perfect sake to pair with sweet dishes. Pairing sweet with sweet is a little too much, and the sweetness of food can disrupt the sweetness in drinks.
If your dish is bitter
Zaku Honotomo Junmai is known for its rich, full flavor and it pairs well with bitter dishes like fried Okinawan dishes—bitter melon and bonito flakes. The winner of Sake Competition 2017 has no extra distilled alcohol added during its brewing, and is a perfect dish to pair with bitter dish as it can mask acidity in food and allow you to taste the sweetness.
(Japanese Article: 伊藤恭子・在トロント 日本国総領事公邸にて日本酒のペアリングディナーセミナーが開催｜メイド・イン・ジャパンでカナダを攻めろ！）