Food Pairing Tips for Japanese Sake

Despite a longstanding international belief that sake can only be served hot and is best with sushi or Japanese cuisine in general, the world is quickly coming to understand that premium sake has just as much to offer as an accompaniment to food as fine wines do. Yes, sake goes well with sushi and seafood, but there’s so much more to it with its complex aromas, textures, and flavors. With Michelin-starred and fine-dining restaurants around the world now serving sake, the world of haute cuisine is on the verge of a sake revolution. However, with often confusing and unusual terms in the sake world and no easy rules with pairings like wine does, it can be a little daunting when choosing what sake goes with what food. This article is here to help you understand the dos and don’ts of sake pairings while you find what works for you.

Pair Rich Flavors with Junmai

Junmai, meaning pure rice, refers to sake where no additional alcohol or sugar has been added, and it crucially uses rice that’s been milled to at least 70%. More of the rice grain remains in junmai than in ginjo and daiginjo, meaning that it retains that signature umami bite and somewhat smoky flavor. This makes it a natural choice for pairings with grilled foods, just perfect with yakitori. However, you don’t need to just pair it with Japanese foods. Full-bodied junmai, as well as mature sake, goes very well with strong cheeses like Stilton, with an umami combination that’s to die for.

In general, though, it’s a good idea not to pair sakes with very heavy glazes, sauces, and spices, such as those found in Southern barbecues. However, you can try using junmai sake in marinades as its richness really comes through. When you want to complement a rich, meaty flavor with a sake with plenty of bite, junmai sakes are ideal, whether it’s for a few yakitori skewers for a starter, a grilled steak, or a rich cheese board. Junmai can also be served warm and is a lovely pairing with appetizers on a cold winter’s evening.

Pair Light Foods with Ginjo

Ginjo sake is light, smooth and fruity, yet complex, thanks to having been milled to at least 60%. Ginjo sakes have a cleaner taste than junmai sakes, so they should be paired with lighter foods. A general rule of thumb for ginjo sakes is to avoid pairing them with all sauce-based foods. This would distract from the delicate notes of the sake. Instead, think about pairing chilled ginjo sakes with lightly seasoned fish, carpaccio, sashimi, and sushi. Ginjo sakes also go very well with crisp flavors like those found in a salad, or simple desserts like fruit salads. With ginjo, simplicity is key, so think light seafood, vegetable, or fruit dishes that won’t distract from the sake experience.

Don’t Overpower Daiginjo Flavors

Pairing food with a daiginjo sake can be a bit of a challenge as it is very easy to overwhelm its light and floral flavors. Generally, daiginjo sakes - like a single malt Scotch - should be the main event, with food mainly being used to complement it. Think of it as an aperitif. You can pair salty and savory foods with chilled daiginjo sakes, but only sparingly, and some sweeter daiginjo sakes can be paired with simple yet refined dessert flavors.

Know Your Dessert Sakes

As there’s no one type of dessert, there’s no one type of sake to go with a dessert. There are many types of sweeter sakes, but as with any other course, you have to consider the flavors of the particular dessert when pairing. For richer, bolder, smokier caramel flavors, consider a koshu - aged sake - where you may normally have a cognac. It’s smooth and supple and helps to heighten the dignified sweetness of a rich dessert. Also consider a thicker, sweeter kijoushu for situations when you may normally have a fortified wine like a sherry. As mentioned earlier, for clean and crisp fruits, consider a ginjo or a sparkling sake. For creamier desserts, like a cheesecake, chilled cloudy nigori sakes are a must. They are generally milder in flavor and strength, heightening the creamy sweetness of the overall experience.

Experiment and Enjoy Yourself

Sake pairings, like wine pairings, are of course subjective, and while these are good tips to keep in mind, it’s great fun to experiment and see what sakes you feel match with different foods. While sake does have its limitations and it is generally advised that it isn’t paired with overly saucy or spicy foods, the same can be said for wines, and just as French wine isn’t limited to French food pairings, sake certainly isn’t limited to Japanese cuisine.