sake being poured

January 5, 2019

How to Pair Sake with Food

by April

Are you a sushi fanatic?

Do you love trying new creations and pairing them with your favorite sake? Or, are you on the outside looking in? Are you confused about how to pair this amazing drink with your food-of-choice?
Sake can be quite the intimidating drink for those who aren’t familiar with it. After all, there are a large number of factors that determine the flavor of your sake. However, when you pair it properly with your food, sake can complement food just as well as fine wine.
The fact is, there are several tips you can use to ensure your sake and food pairings are successful. After all, sake isn’t just a great tasting drink, it also offers an array of health benefits.
If you are ready to learn more, keep reading.
Sake is best known as a traditional Japanese alcohol made from fermented rice. Aside from being the country’s national alcohol beverage, it is known for being served during formal ceremonies, holidays, and grand events. But the origins of the deep, flavorful alcohol is a little bit fuzzy. Sake’s actual origins actually predate recorded history. The earliest known written record of Sake was mentioned in a Chinese text, recorded in the texts collectively known as the Records of the Three Kingdoms. In those texts, they mention Japanese drinking and dancing, and it is there that we get our first hint about the existence of sake.

The Fundamentals of Sake and Food Pairings

When you are trying to figure out what type of sake to put with your food, one of your top goals should be balance.
For example, light cuisine is best paired with smooth, clean sakes, while richer cuisine goes great with a rich sake. If you are eating a salty dish, choose a dry sake. With matchings such as these, you can achieve a state of equilibrium among the flavors of the food and sake.
You also need to aim for harmony. While many people don’t realize it, harmony among food and sake is possible. It’s similar to when a meat dish makes you crave red wine.
The key to achieving this with sake is to pay attention to its finish. A crisp finish or a shorter length ensures that sake won’t get in the way of what it’s paired with.
Sake is brewed by the fermentation of rice. And it’s not just any rice, there are specific kinds of “sake rice” that are used to create sake that you know and love (or that you are curious to try). The reason why this special rice has its own classification is because the rice is different from most table rice. The grains are larger, and they are grown specifically for the production of sake.
There are many factors that can determine the flavor, aroma, and feel of sake. There are about 100 sake rice types, and they each can alter the flavor of sake. Some rice will give sake a fuller flavor, while others might give it an acidity or a sweetness. Some rice gives sake a very light flavor.
The yeast used can affect the aroma of sake, and this is just as important of what makes sake. Depending on the yeast, sake can have a more fruity aroma, or maybe a more heavy aroma. As taste and smell are both key to our perceptions of flavor, so will brewers use different yeasts to complete the experience.
Koji is a mold that is used to help the fermentation process. It is steamed rice that has had koji mold spores growing on them. The koji actually helps sake develop its sweetness or dryness.
And last but not least, the water used and its mineral content can affect how the mouth feels of the sake. Soft water can help produce a softer, more flowing feel. Harder water can produce a fuller feel that is quicker and doesn’t linger as much.

Aside from the ingredients used and how the rice is polished, there are other parts of the process that can affect the flavor, body, and texture of a sake. Even the way that the rice is pressed can determine the ultimate product. There are methods that produce a high yield of sake by immense pressure to methods that involve hanging mesh bags of fermented sake rice and allowing sake to drip. The drip method produces the smallest yield, but make no mistake, it is also some of the best and the priciest.

Make Your Sake Based on Type and Grade

Regardless of where you go that serves sake, the menu is going to include sake grades used for classifying options that are premium or super premium, like Ginjo or Junmai. This is a great place to begin.
Learn more about each of the types/grades here:

Junmai Type Sake

The main feature of this sake is the strong rice aroma and flavor. The best match is going to be something similar – like a rice-based dish featuring heavy seasoning like chahan.
For western cuisine, choose an Italian risotto that’s topped with parmesan cheese. You are going to love this pairing. Other foods that would go well with the heavier Junmai are red meats, and fatty meats like fish and pork belly.
The Junmai sake is also known as the pure rice sake. That is because the only ingredients for this sake is rice, water, and koji. This gives the Junmai sake its heavier and fuller taste, with a higher acidity to boot. There is no adding of distilled alcohol in this kind of sake.

Ginjo/Daiginjo Type Sake

If sake is labeled Ginjo or Daiginjo, it’s going to feature a fruity smell. While it’s normally in the aperitif/digestive category, it’s also great with simple, light dishes. For this type, try to avoid super meaty or oily dishes. These are excellent in Japanese restaurants when paired with sushi and sashimi. It also goes well with Chinese-style steamed fish and other mild fish dishes where the flavor will not overpower the sake.
Ginjo sakes are known for their fragrance as well as their light, dry, and smooth flavor. Compared to the richer Junmai sakes, Ginjo sakes are a softer body and make for easier drinking and balance. One thing that gives Ginjo its distinctive flavor and body is how the rice polishing is at around 60% Seimaibuai (a term of value for how much of each grain of rice has been polished. In this case, 60% means that the rice was polished or milled 40%, leaving 60% remaining).
Daiginjo literally translates to “big ginjo” and that is because it is considered of a higher class than the Ginjo. The difference is how the rice polishing goes to 50% minimum Seimaibuai. To make it even more prestigious is how Daiginjo brewers use a special daiginjo koji. If you’re looking for sake that is superbly fragrant, light in taste, with a full and complex body, and a quick finish, the Daiginjo sake is your way to go. However, it is probably one of the most expensive ones you can go for.

Nama (Unpasteurized)

Any type of unpasteurized sake is sake that’s skipped the heat treatment stages. It comes with a freshness similar to white wine, which enhances the characteristics of what you pair with it.
You can pair this type of sake as you would white wine. You won’t go wrong doing this.

Futsushu and Honjozo Type

This is considered a restaurant classic. It has an aroma that’s much more reserved for a dry and light palette. This is a universal type of sake, as it appeals to all tastes. You can find this type in just about any restaurant or store that may sell sake.
When being made, there is a small bit of distilled ethyl alcohol (or brewers alcohol) that is added to the fermenting sake during the final stages. Combined with how the rice is generally polished in the making of this sake gives this beverage a light and drier flavor. This is also a more fragrant sake, if you are a fan of that. As such, Honjozo sake is great as a warm sake.
Futsushu is often called the everyday sake. It makes up around 80% of the sake market and there are little to no rules to how it’s made. Some brewers use regular rice and distilled alcohol in order to lower the costs even. While this sake is nowhere near as complex as other sakes, it can still be enjoyable.
You can pair this sake with virtually any type of food.

Pairing Sake and Food: Now You Know

There’s no question that when you first think about it, pairing sake and food properly can seem like a huge challenge. However, it doesn’t have to be.
With the tips here, you will be well on your way to achieving a great balance of flavors.
If sake isn’t your drink of choice, and you want tips on the best wine for steak, then we have information about that, too.