Rice with everything: Saké and food matching beyond Japanese cuisine

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Think there’s no way that just five wines could provide multiple matches for dishes as diverse as salmon, steak and stilton? Well, anything’s possible with saké. Kate Malczewski joins an awed panel as they road-test Japan’s finest


Even if you don’t know your junmai from your honjozo, you almost certainly won’t be shocked to hear that saké pairs well with a delicate piece of yellowtail sashimi, an artfully crafted bite of salmon nigiri, or some other classic Japanese morsel.

But we’ve heard whispers that saké can make cheese sing. We’ve been told it’s capable of parting the heavens when it’s paired with spag bol. We’ve listened, captivated, as one sommelier confessed a Saturday night fish and chips habit that could only be accompanied by a crisp 720ml of daiginjo.

And so we decided it was time to conduct our own investigation. We headed to 100 Wardour St with a team of saké-smart somms to pair a range of sakés with the restaurant’s inventive and eclectic menu. Some dishes had an Asian influence, some were fresh takes on British classics – all were made to test the veracity of saké’s rumoured food-pairing prowess.

How it works

We called in saké samples, one for each of the main styles outlined here. The panel first tasted the sakés without food, then sat down to try them with a range of dishes both with and without Asian flavours. All sakés were served chilled. All prices are ex-VAT trade.

Panel

Kate Malczewski, Imbibe; André Luis Martins, The Cavalry and Guards Club; Antony Moss MW, WSET; Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan; Sylwester Piasecki, Zuma

 

The sakés

Shochikubai Mio Sparkling
Though sparkling styles are more of a recent trend than a traditional staple, this lightly sweet, effervescent number makes an excellent ambassador to the entire category.
At just 5% abv – lower alcohol levels are typical of sparkling sakés – it shines as an aperitif, but it also manages to stand up to a variety of dishes.
‘Fresh green apples, fine bubbles, stone fruit, juicy watermelon, jasmine tea,’ SP. ‘Simple, sweet, frothy texture, very clean, delightful. Serve ice cold,’ AM.
5% abv, £5.50/30cl, Tazaki Foods, 020 8344 3000

Making sense of saké
If your knowledge of saké is rusty – or non-existent – we’re here to help. Brush up on the basics below

Sakés are distinguished by a multiplicity of factors, but two of the most important are the addition (or not) of brewer’s alcohol and the rice polishing ratio. Alcohol is sometimes added to saké near the end of the brewing process. This is not meant to amp up the abv, since all sakés must be under 22% and many are mellowed with more water afterwards. Rather, the alcohol brings out different flavours in the liquid and creates roundness. Sakés without the addition of brewer’s alcohol are dubbed ‘junmai’, meaning ‘pure rice’.

Rice polishing, on the other hand, takes place at the beginning of brewing. Each grain of rice is polished down to a specific percentage of its original size to remove the impurities in the outer layers. Honjozo is typically polished to at least 70%, ginjo to at least 60% and daiginjo to at least 50% of its original size. This also affects the flavour. Sakés with more polishing tend to be fruitier and more nuanced.

These two aspects make up the basis of the classification system for saké – so a saké without brewer’s alcohol that has been polished to 50% is a junmai daiginjo, an alcohol-added saké polished to 60% is a ginjo and so on. Then there are koshu (aged) sakés, nama (unpasteurised) sakés, flavoured sakés… but that’s a conversation for another time.

Fukukomachi ‘Evening Sky’ Junmai Karakuchi
‘Karakuchi’ means ‘dry mouth’ in Japanese, so it’s little surprise that this saké is characterised by its dryness. Multiple panellists also pointed out its savoury umami qualities and yoghurt-like creaminess, which often present themselves in junmai styles with less polishing (this one clocks in at 70%). ‘Rich and complex aromas with gentle notes of ginger and Earl Grey tea leaves,’ AM. ‘Mushroom, forest floor, silky texture, roasted tea,’ SP.
15% abv, £15.46/72cl, Tengu Saké, 020 3129 5044

Gekkeikan Nouvelle Tokubetsu Honjozo
This honjozo is labelled ‘tokubetsu’, or ‘special’, because it uses rice polished further than usual – down to 60% rather than the typical 70%. As a result, the saké is a bit softer and sweeter than others in the style. However, it’s still got a powerful, vibrant, round character and coating quality – due, in part, to the addition of brewer’s alcohol that characterises all non-junmai sakés. ‘Light, crisp saké with strong savoury aromas and flavours,’ CP. ‘Slight rice porridge and banana. Medium dry, low acidity and just a hint of umami. Medium finish, gently sweet and creamy,’ AM.
15%-16% abv, £12.25/72cl, Japan Centre, wholesale.japancentre.com

Keigetsu Gin-no-Yume Junmai Daiginjo 45
Junmai daiginjo sakés are sometimes regarded as the A-list because of their high polishing ratios and lack of added alcohol, and this one from Tosa Brewery certainly has star power. ‘On the nose, fruit for days. Peach, apricot, maple syrup, marzipan. Sweetness unfolds to slight peppery heat on the finish,’ KM. ‘Light herbal and lychee notes. Spice, sweet-sour aromas, yeasty character,’ ALM.
15% abv, £20.87/72cl, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350

Konishi Gold Daiginjo
This saké is made through the Konishi family’s ‘hiyashibori’ pressing method, in which the saké is pressed in cold temperatures with as little air exposure as possible to minimise oxidation. The resulting liquid is what one panellist described as a ‘textbook’ daiginjo. ‘Restrained, very focused. Green melon, apple, fennel, aniseed, low acidity and low umami, medium body, focused fruitiness. Short finish, ephemeral, delightful,’ AM.
15% abv, £12.97/72cl, Tengu Saké, 020 3129 5044

Also tasted: Tenzan Nama Nigori (faulty sample)

With the food

Mixed leaf salad and green beans with cashew nuts
The meal began with two vegetable dishes: a crisp, leafy salad, thoroughly tossed in a well-seasoned dressing and a simple plate of green beans with toasted cashew nuts. ‘The dressing on the salad is quite assertive. It’s playing a big part in the tasting,’ commented Christine Parkinson.

The dressing’s seasoning also brought out distinctive characters in the sakés. ‘The junmai daiginjo and the daiginjo were quite an interesting contrast,’ remarked Antony Moss MW. ‘I found the salt from the salad seemed to enhance the sweetness of the junmai daiginjo to the point where I didn’t want to have too much of this combination, but the daiginjo had an elegance. There was a dryness from the added alcohol and the fruitiness wasn’t too assertive
or overwhelming.’

Meanwhile, Sylwester Piasecki and André Luis Martins favoured the junmai karakuchi with the beans. ‘The karakuchi goes very well with the cashew nuts. It shows how well-crafted this saké is,’ said Piasecki. ‘Harmonious,’ agreed Parkinson. ‘Vegetables can be one-dimensional, and the added texture and mouthfeel from saké can enhance them.’

It makes sense, then, that sparkling Mio, the saké with the most distinct texture, came out on top.

‘I was surprised at how well the Mio worked. It sat separate from the salad, but provided something that wasn’t there,’ said Moss.

‘Mio was the star. It always has a slight earthiness you can miss because it’s fizzy and sweet, but the earthiness was a really nice combination with the beans and the salad. It came across as very balanced,’ concluded Parkinson.

Best matches: Fukukomachi ‘Evening Sky’ Junmai Karakuchi, Shochikubai Mio Sparkling

Salmon poké 
Next, a vibrant salmon poké bowl was selected in an effort to take saké outside the comfort zone of sashimi simplicity.
With avocado, cherry tomatoes, a zingy Asian-inspired slaw, crunchy green peas and silky raw salmon in a light but creamy dressing, the dish’s many strong elements presented more than a few challenges for our tasters.

‘I don’t think the Mio was as good with the salmon itself as it was with the accompaniments,’ said Parkinson. ‘It almost brought out an odd earthy quality in the sparkling saké,’ agreed Moss, while Martins felt that ‘with the tomato it was too much; too acidic’.

Again, two sakés stood out to the panel as particularly good matches, both for very different reasons. ‘This was one where the Gekkeikan Honjozo came into its own. The coating and the boldness and the umami were integrated in the right way,’ said Moss, while Martins warmed to its complexity and elegant finish. Parkinson, too, was enthusiastic about the Gekkeikan here: ‘The poké tames the honjozo. The fish tones down the vibrant flavours and crisp textures, softening the saké.’

For Piasecki, however, the karakuchi’s dryness was the ideal match for the poké. ‘It’s unbelievable how the junmai karakuchi proves itself to
work with everything – it’s such a gastronomic saké,’ he mused.

He wasn’t alone. While Parkinson enjoyed the honjozo with the salmon, the karakuchi was her favourite too. ‘At the very beginning, I got the feeling there was a faceoff between the salmon and the saké, but that just dissolved away and they both sat there working really well, supporting each other,’ she said.

Best matches: Fukukomachi ‘Evening Sky’ Junmai Karakuchi, Gekkeikan Nouvelle Tokubetsu Honjozo

Fish and chips
This slightly elevated version of the British classic featured fish that was coated in breadcrumbs rather than beer-batter, with thick chips, as well as tartare sauce and dousings of vinegar according to each panellist’s discretion.

The dish required a saké that could stand up to the salt and vinegar without overpowering the flavour of the fish. ‘The karakuchi became a bit too watery, but the junmai daiginjo opened up. It works fantastically,’ said Piasecki.

Parkinson also found the Keigetsu to be the star pairing. ‘There was a creaminess with it that seemed to sit comfortably and soak up the vinegar and salt. You get lovely aniseed aromas and flavours and it’s a balanced contrast,’ she commented.

Meanwhile, Moss and Martins leaned towards the Konishi Daiginjo as their preferred match.

‘I liked the cleaning quality of the alcohol. The flavours stayed on track and had more assertiveness, clarity and purity,’ explained Moss.
But both camps agreed that the honjozo would be excellent as a more economical choice. ‘It’s doing a lot of what the daiginjo does. It’s cleansing, it’s fresh, it’s got character,’ said Parkinson.

‘The honjozo is exactly the kind of saké I’d like to see on a gastropub menu,’ said Moss. ‘It’s relatively affordable and made in pretty big volumes.’

Best matches: Keigetsu Gin-no-Yume Junmai Daiginjo 45, Konishi Gold Daiginjo

Steak
Rare, fatty and rich, this steak was accompanied by smoked garlic, parmesan breadcrumbs and a bit of tenderstem broccoli for good measure.

The immense, primal flavours of the dish necessitated a saké with an equally boisterous profile and Moss found the junmai karakuchi to do the trick. ‘Umami stands up to umami and bridges the two. Lovely, really close to perfect. I can’t really think of any red wine going better,’ he said.

Other panellists voted for the Gekkeikan. ‘[The honjozo] brings an elegant harmony of flavours,’ noted Martins. For Parkinson, it was the ‘big, savoury-sweet butter and spice flavours from the saké’ that made it work so well.

Best matches: Fukukomachi ‘Evening Sky’ Junmai Karakuchi, Gekkeikan Nouvelle Tokubetsu Honjozo

Cheese
With funky blue, sharp cheddar, creamy brie and tangy goat’s cheese all carefully arranged on a single platter, were we over-optimistic in hoping for one saké that would work with them all?

Amazingly, we weren’t. In fact, fully three of them put in a good shift.

‘It’s always said that saké works really well with cheese and I think this proved it,’ said Parkinson. ‘The Gekkeikan, Keigetsu and Konishi all did extremely well for different reasons. The honjozo had a great textural contrast with the creamy cheeses. It was superb with the blue, full of umami, full of bite. It integrated, but at the same time it made you take notice.

‘Junmai daiginjo really is such a different saké, but I got tremendous results with that,’ she went on. ‘The fruit and the anise notes came out. There was all that, plus a wheatiness from the junmai. It was just a lovely contrast, really good with the soft cheeses, great with the cheddar, fantastic with the blue.’

For Moss, the characteristic fruitiness of the daiginjo sakés made both the Keigetsu and the Konishi stand out. ‘It was a well-expressed fruitiness, but it wasn’t so bold that it overpowered the cheese, and there wasn’t a mass of acidity covering up the flavour.

‘The things that people get really excited about when pairing sweet wine with cheese – these do all the same good things, but without the aggressive flavour cutting into the cheese too much,’ he concluded.

Best matches: Keigetsu Gin-no-Yume Junmai Daiginjo 45, Konishi Gold Daiginjo, Gekkeikan Nouvelle Tokubetsu Honjozo

Conclusions

  • Pairing a sparkling saké with bar snacks, such as nuts and deep-fried foods, makes an excellent aperitif alternative, with the added selling point of a lower abv.
  • Beyond Japanese preparations like sushi and sashimi, raw fish dishes like poké, crudo, ceviche and tartare also make fantastic matches with saké.
  • Though daiginjo styles are highly regarded, they aren’t always well suited to a hefty main course such as grilled meat. Instead, look to drier styles and robust honjozos for even more versatility throughout a meal.
  • Upselling your fish and chips with champagne? A by-the-glass offering of fruity, creamy daiginjo makes an equally refined, and even more imaginative, companion.
  • We opted to end our tasting with something savoury rather than sweet, but saké also works beautifully with desserts. Unlike wine, the saké needn’t match the sweetness of the pudding; sparkling saké’s frothy texture can complement a lighter fruit dessert, while a saké with a heavier coating quality can stand up to chocolate.
Panel comments

André Luis Martins, The Cavalry and Guards Club
‘With saké, it’s about the price and breaking the perception barrier. I think the Mio is the right way to introduce someone to saké, because it’s at a lower price point and there’s a bit of sweetness there and complexity. It’s a rollercoaster without going too extreme.’

Antony Moss MW, WSET
‘Saké is generally quite food-friendly, so pairing saké with food is largely about knowing what kind of things to expect, and it’s largely about preference and avoiding car crashes. There’s less in saké to go wrong with food than wine, so you can go in with confidence.’

Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan
‘If a customer tries saké, they like it. That’s not the problem. But saké is very expensive compared to wines that a customer would know, recognise and decide to buy. I think the best bet with saké, if you’re not in a Japanese restaurant, is to include it in a flight with wines. It doesn’t have to be a pairing.’

Kate Malczewski, Imbibe
‘This tasting managed to highlight just how versatile saké can be. Even with courses that packed a variety of flavours into a single plate, like the poké and the cheese, there were multiple sakés that complemented the entire dish. Pairing saké with foods outside traditional Japanese cuisine is clearly a world we are just scratching the surface of.’

Sylwester Piasecki, Zuma
‘Saké is at a disadvantage because of the price. A customer might get a cheaper saké that won’t offer them the value for their money, which will damage [the category’s]reputation, and the customer won’t go for it again because they’ve had a bad experience already. A good entry-level saké will make a difference.’


Many thanks to the team at 100 Wardour St for hosting the tasting and for all their help on the day.

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