The versatility of sake and its dialogue with food
Sake is an ideal beverage for pairing with a variety of foods.
And by following just a few tips, it’s easy to experiment with sake at your own dinner table.
There are few alcoholic beverages in the world that possess the versatility of sake. For starters, Japan’s rice-brewed national drink is available in a multitude of styles that encompass a wide range of profiles, from earthy, rich and complex to elegant, fruity and aromatic. Sake is also flexible in the range of temperatures at which it can be served (from 55°C to 5°C!), giving you even more possibilities in terms of its flavour profiles and the ways in which it can be drunk. Whether served alone, on the rocks, mixed in a cocktail or paired with food, sake has a chameleon-like quality. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why it has grown in popularity in places like Toronto, a multicultural and multi-cuisine mecca where diners across the city are learning to appreciate sake’s understated ways.
When it comes to food pairings, sake tends to provide a supporting role to a meal and rarely overpowers even the most delicate of dishes—a concern that often limits wine-food pairings. Sake excels in integrating the many ingredients found in the Japanese kitchen, some of which may seem in conflict, and it effortlessly harmonizes the resulting flavours and textures that appear on your plate. For those looking to experience sake’s versatility, I’ve compiled some tips and tricks below that will enhance your next experience with sake and food.
Words of wisdom in the quest for the right sake
Before you can narrow the field of sake offerings to the perfect food accompaniment, you first need to get a read on the words that pop up on a sake label.
A very versatile sake, designed for complementing food. It can be served warm, at room temperature or chilled and is a great option if you are serving only one sake with a multitude of dishes. Food pairing: generally great with everything.
Full and richly flavoured sake that highlights the savoury nuances of the rice with which it is made. It generally has more umami and acidity than Honjozo. The profile can lean towards earthy tastes, even mushroom and broth. If you find “Kimoto” and “Yamahai” on the label, expect added umami, richness and complexity in your glass. Junmai sake can be served at a multitude of temperatures. Food pairing: oily, rich, fatty dishes and grilled meats.
Fruity aromas are typical of this sake (think banana, melon and apple), as are simple, elegant flavours. It has a lower acidity than a Junmai or Honjozo sake. Given the wine-like characteristics of these grades, this sake is generally best served slightly chilled. Food pairing: simple dishes are best, and foods with some acidity.
This is the pinnacle of sake. Its characteristics are similar to Ginjo sake except with a more refined palate. Food pairing: same as Ginjo, although this sake makes a great aperitif, as its delicate, simple flavours can be enjoyed on their own.
While sake is less likely than wine to cause disastrous pairings with food, understanding the basic profile of its grades and styles is a helpful start to achieving the perfect partnership. Generally, food-and wine-pairing rules can be applied to sake, with some additional factors to consider:
A sake’s profile can drastically change at different serving temperatures. When a sake is chilled, the acidity and aromas are subdued, while bitterness is enhanced. Conversely, the acidity, umami and sweetness are enhanced when a sake is gently warmed. To match a dish with sake, find a serving temperature that coordinates with the sake. For instance, rich, fatty dishes and meats can be tamed by gently warming a Junmai.
Dry versus sweet
While the range between sweet and dry sake doesn’t vary anywhere near that of wine, it can nonetheless affect food pairings. Dry sake will complement salty dishes by downplaying their saltiness while they bring out the sake’s subtle flavours. In addition, dry sake like a Junmai, with moderate to high acidity, can greatly complement fattier dishes like tempura or those with a cream base.
Sweet sake can be soft and slightly viscous and is great with tart or acidic foods, like the vinegared rice in sushi or dishes with the tart citrus-soy sauce, ponzu. Slightly sweet sake will complement dishes that are slightly salty. With the exception of a few sake styles, “sweet” sake is not nearly as sweet as some wines can be.
Light versus full
Like wine, light, delicate sake such as a Ginjo or Daiginjo will pair well with light, simple dishes. Full-bodied and rich sake like a Junmai will stand up to just about everything else. A gently warmed Kimoto Junmai pairs well with braised pork belly.
Suggestions for sake and food enjoyment
In addition to sake grades and styles, the glassware you use can alter sake’s aromatic properties and affect the way you taste it. Play around with different cups to see what suits your palate and platings.
To experience sake’s full range of versatility yourself, and to understand its unique dialogue with food, there is no better place than at Kampai Toronto, an annual event that is just around the corner. There, approximately 150 sake varieties and dishes from 12 restaurant partners can be simultaneously enjoyed. Or, if you prefer to experiment at home, invite your friends over and have a sake-pairing party, ensuring you have many foods on the table to try out with your sake. There is a wide range of grades and styles from which to choose in Ontario. During a night out, you can also have a memorable time experimenting with sake and food pairings by selecting a restaurant’s “sake flight.” Trying several different sake varieties side by side is a very enlightening way to see how sake behaves with different foods. Kampai!
Sample some of Toronto’s best sake-food pairings
Torontonians are lucky to have many fine restaurants that offer great varieties of sake along with delicious Japanese dishes. To gather inspiration for your own sake-food pairing experiments—or if you prefer to leave the preparation to the experts—try one (or all!) of these exceptional pairings.
Hamachi + Jalapeño
From ki’s signature plates, the combination of creamy hamachi and zesty yuzu-soy sauce with jalapeño creates a bright, fresh flavour.
One of Japan’s most popular sakes, Wakatake “Onikoroshi” (Demon Slayer) has soft, honeydew melon flavours and a clean, dry finish.
ki modern japanese + bar
This crisp sake has so much body that it can even “slay the demon”! Smooth and elegant, the Wakatake “Onikoroshi” Junmai Daiginjo is the best match for ki’s fresh, buttery hamachi dish, which features lightly torched hamachi accompanied by fresh ginger and yuzu-soy sauce. kijapanese.com
This omakase-style (or chef’s selection) sashimi platter comes in several sizes, from sampler ($30) to large ($100).
From one of Japan’s smallest breweries, this Daiginjo is made with Japan’s highest-quality rice and local Fushimi water.
JaBistro recommends Daiginjo Konteki to pair with sashimi platters. With sweet aromas of cherry, mango, tropical fruit and powdered sugar, this flavourful sake from a small brewery in Kyoto matches well with clean fare like sashimi and shellfish. (Recommended by Kaita Okada, JaBistro) jabistro.com
Comes with five skewers, including Wagyu beef, duck breast and free-range chicken. Limited quantities only!
Made from rice that’s been milled down to 50% of its original size, this Dassai 50 is one of the fruitiest sakes you can find in Toronto.
Zakkushi: Japanese Yakitori Izakaya
Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo is a well-balanced sake that can be paired with fish or meat. Zakkushi recommends pairing it with the Yakitori Premium Set. The richness of the Wagyu beef and tsukune chicken skewers complements the full-figured flavour of this sake. (Recommended by Kazunori Eguchi, Zakkushi) zakkushi.com
Stone-Grilled Beef Tongue
Served with a hot stone on your table. Enjoy with cut lemons as well as the coriander sauce and yuzu pepper that come on the side.
Kingyo Premium Reserve
This Kingyo original sake is made specially in Fukushima Prefecture to match with all of Kingyo’s menu lineup.
Sizzle, sizzle, sizzle. Grilled tableside on a hot stone, this hands-on dish will be sure to entertain your party. To add some sweetness, pair it with Kingyo Premium Reserve by Suehiro Brewery. Enjoy it warm, chilled or at room temperature! (Recommended by Sissi, Kingyo) kingyotoronto.ca
Canada’s largest annual sake event, Kampai Toronto will showcase over 150 sake varieties from Japan. Whether you are new to sake or a sake enthusiast, this event offers extraordinary selections from top brewers of Japan and North America, paired with food from some of Toronto’s top
Japanese and international restaurants.
Kampai Toronto 2016
Date: Friday, June 3, 5 pm–10 pm
Location: The Fermenting Cellar, 28 Distillery Ln. The Distillery District, Toronto
More info: kampaitoronto.com
Michael has trained with world-renowned sake expert John Gauntner in both Tokyo and New York, and he is Ontario’s first Advanced Sake Professional. Michael is also a certified International Kikisake-shi and holds the WSET Level 3 Award in Sake. He is dedicated to finding unique sakes so that others can enjoy them too.