One of the most fun aspects of purchasing a few new bottles of sake from Takara Sake USA Inc. is being able to think about how and when you will taste test them.
Although you can certainly drink sake by itself if you prefer, you will probably want to pair it with food eventually — but pairing sake with everyday food can be confusing if you are new to the flavors. Fortunately, once you understand the types and flavors, it is not difficult at all. Sake can pair fabulously with wide variety of everyday foods from around the world.
After all, you can think sake as a bowl of steamed white rice. If the meal can go with cooked rice, it will certainly pair well with sake! It is that simple.
Also, did you know sake pairs extremely well with many types of cheeses? Both sake and cheese are the products of microbial activity, so the savory flavors of the two balance and enhance each other perfectly. While wine and cheese can sometimes compete in pairing, sake can complement a wider variety of cheeses.
To help you get a better idea of how to enjoy sake with everything from appetizers to after-dinner snacks, we have shared some hints. Use them to create your own sake pairings right at home.
Types of Sake
Before pairing sake with any food, you will first want to consider the different types of sake and their flavors. Below are the more traditional varieties of sake you can find at Takara Sake USA Inc.:
- Junmai type: This is the most authentic style of sake reflecting the sake-making style in 17th century. The rice is polished to 70% of the original size and has round, earthy character with rich umami taste. Warming brings out its complexity and acidity.
- Tokubetsu Junmai type: Traditional style junmai sake that is made with the rice-polished to 60% maintains the junmai characteristics with mellowness and elegance or brewed with some other legally recognized “special” brewing method. Junmai sake is rich-bodied when it’s warmed.
- Junmai Ginjo type: This type of sake has no added alcohol. Ginjo sake is made with the rice polished to 60-50% and a special ginjo yeast that introduces a floral note and fruity taste. It is usually very clean and delicate, and it’s best served chilled.
- Junmai Daiginjo type: Like junmai ginjo, junmai daiginjo uses highly polished rice that is, this time, down to 50% and less. The sake is very delicate and pure with floral notes. Its elegant, unique fruity flavors are often very complex. Serve chilled to enjoy its unique taste.
- Nama-zake (-sake): Bold and fruity usually define nama-zake. This sake has not been pasteurized. Some nama-zake is pasteurized only once (normally sake is pasteurized twice) or micro-filtered to just remove active yeast to gain some shelf life. Be sure to refrigerate nama-zake to ensure it holds onto its freshness. It is best served as a chilled drink.
- Nigori: Imagine you are trying a super hoppy, hazy, and unfiltered IPA beer for the first time. You might love it, or you might pass on it. The Nigori sake is like a hazy IPA of sake. It has been unfiltered, or coarsely filtered, and it is milky white. It can be creamy and sweet due to the remaining rice solids. If you enjoy this memorable texture, you may find that it becomes one of your favorite types of sake to pair with food.
- Sparkling Sake: Sparkling sake is a newly crafted, non-traditional style of sake. For example, our own MIO Sparkling Sake is brewed in Japan using traditional sake ingredients and techniques, and then carefully carbonated. It is the most popular sparkling sake in Japan, and in the world. The delicate sweetness is derived from only rice, water, koji and yeast. If you enjoy Champagne, sparkling wine or other carbonated beverages, you are sure to love our MIO Sparkling Sake as well. It also pairs well with everything from a variety of breakfast quiche to evening desserts.
Guide for Pairing Sake With Food
Now that you have a better understanding of some of the most popular types of sake available, you can start pairing your favorites with different foods.
Before you jump all the way into your pairings, keep the following rules of sipping sake in mind as you experiment:
1. Harness Your Inner Japanese Attitude
Wondering how to pair Japanese sake with food? Opt to start your food and sake pairing with a traditionally Asian attitude. In Japan, sake is viewed secondary to the meal. This is different than wine and food pairings in the U.S. where wine can make or break a meal. Although this attitude toward sake has been moving in a different direction, it may help you be less worried about making a pairing mistake. Remember, there are no mistakes when pairing sake!
The excitement and adventure comes from trying new things. Try Sho Chiku Bai SHO Junmai Ginjo, premiering in 2017, is crafted from highly polished, premium Calrose rice, and pairs especially well with many international cuisines. Its quality and complexity meet the sophistication and dynamic quality of today’s world market. Pairing sake with Japanese food is a classic choice.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Pair Sake With Non-Asian Dishes and Events
Be open to pairing sake with American dishes, not just Japanese entrees. Just because sake comes from Asia does not mean it only belongs on a table with Asian ingredients. In fact, sake can go well at everything from a birthday celebration to a July Fourth picnic. It also can breathe new life into holiday meals and other annual gatherings and events. If you’re wondering what goes well with sake, the possibilities are endless.
As you’re getting started, try these versatile sake varieties:
- Sho Chiku Bai Shirakabegura MIO, Sparkling Sake: Sparkling, lively, sweet and fruity
- Sho Chiku Bai Classic Junmai: A full bodied, well-balanced sake with earthy complexity
- Shirakabegura Tokubetsu Junmai: Complex, balanced and elegant with a smooth texture
- Sho Chiku Bai REI Junmai DaiGinjo: Soft, full and a light, creamy finish with floral nose and a hint of melon
3. Consider the Flavors of Various Foods
The specific flavors of the foods your pairing sake with play a pertinent role in how well sake will complement the dish. For instance, take basic macaroni and cheese. It is a relatively bland dish, even if it has some pizazz to it. A light sake would probably just reflect the modest flavors of the dish. However, a spicier or robust sake would taste even stronger when put against a basic recipe.
Take a look at these options as you begin considering your favorite and most common flavors in your dishes:
- Sho Chiku Bai SHO, Junmai Organic: Silky, light and earthy
- Sho Chiku Bai Premium Ginjo: Delicately fruity, mellow and refreshing
- Sho Chiku Bai Nigori, Silky Mild: Bold and textured, sweet, fruity and creamy
- Sho Chiku Bai SHO, Ginjo Nigori: Velvety with floral notes and mouth-filling fruit flavor
4. Use Sake Instead of Wine in Your Cooking
Swap sake for wine in vinegar-laden recipes. Are you having a big salad featuring balsamic vinegar dressing? A wine may be too intense and sweet. Sake, on the other hand, tends to perfectly complement vinegar-based sauces. Soy-heavy entrees and sides also absolutely sing when they are paired with sake.
Try these sake varieties in your recipes:
- Sho Chiku Bai Classic Junmai: A full bodied, well-balanced sake with earthy complexity
- Sho Chiku Bai Extra Dry: Dry, Clean, crisp, and full-bodied
- Sho Chiku Bai Tokubetsu Junmai: Smooth, round sake with a medium body
5. Know the Correct Serving Temperatures
One of the best ways to make sure your sake pairing skills are top-notch is to know the ideal temperatures for the varieties you are serving. For example, Ginjo type sake is always served chilled, but traditional junmai type sake (ex. Sho Chiku Bai Classic Junmai, Sho Chiku Bai Extra Dry, Sho Chiku Bai Tokubetsu Junmai) can be served chilled or warm depending on the type of food you are pairing it with.
In fact, traditional connoisseurs in the 19th-century divided the sake serving temperature range into 10 different levels. Even the same variety of sake exhibits different characteristics at varying temperatures.
6. Trust Your Sake Tasting Judgment
No matter what the sake bottle says or what your friend tells you, the best judge of your sake is your palate. Testing it before a pairing will help you decide if it is too earthy to go with one dish, or perhaps too strong for another.
General Food Types and Their Ideal Sake Pairings
With the basic tips to help you on your way to becoming a sake and food pairing master, here is a look at several different food types and the varieties of sake that go best with them.
1. Basic Light Foods
For basic light foods, go for a light, chilled sake, such as anything that says "junmai ginjo" or “junmai daiginjo.”
For example, Sho Chiku Bai Premium Ginjo and REI Junmai DaiGinjo are perfect if you want a refreshing, chilled beverage. If you’d like something more savory, try Sho Chiku Bai Classic Junmai or Tokubetsu Junmai. They are ideal for serving warm, but they are tasty chilled as well.
2. Savory Sweet Foods
Sho Chiku Bai SHO, Ginjo Nigori and Sho Chiku Bai Nigori, Silky Mild are both great for teriyaki sauce, Unagi, meat with Kansas City-style barbecue, as well as sweet and spicy Thai, Chinese or Indian dishes.
3. Acidic Foods
Just as you pair dry with sweet, pair sweet sake with ingredients that have a higher acidity. Sho Chiku Bai MIO, Sparkling Sake is ideal.
4. Rich Foods
Having a full-flavored meal? You can choose full-bodied sake to keep up with the richness. On the other hand, if you want the sake to stay behind the scenes, choose something that is satisfying but does not compete with the main course. Sho Chiku Bai Classic Junmai, Sho Chiku Bai Tokubetsu Junmai, Sho Chiku Bai REI Junmai DaiGinjo and Shirakabegura Kimoto Junmai go best with these types of foods.
5. Oily Foods
Certain fish and poultry often have an oily texture. Lean toward sake that smells fruity, aromatic and acidic to complement fish and poultry dishes. It will cleanse the palate between bites, allowing you to savor the meal entirely.
Junmai type sake varieties are the ideal pairing choices for oily foods. These sakes provide full body with great umami (savoriness). The junmai type sake like Sho Chiku Bai Classic Junmai will also exhibit a pleasant acidic effect when it is warmed. If you prefer chilled sake, Sho Chiku Bai REI Junmai DaiGinjo and Shirakabegura Kimoto Junmai are great choices.
6. Dessert Foods
Choose a sake that leaves a little dryness on the tongue. It will bring out a food's sugary flavors, especially a dessert. Sho Chiku Bai MIO, Sparkling Sake goes well with fresh fruits, ice creams, and many kind of desserts. Our flavored sake lines such as HANA and YUKI are also great companion with dessert foods.
There are three scales used in sake tasting:
Each sake is unique in the way its characteristics are distributed on these scales. Although sake can be divides into many groups, in this example it is grouped into 5 basic categories for easier understanding.
|(A) DRY / SWEET||#||(B) TEXTURE||(C) AROMA|
|Clean & Dry||(1)||Hard & Crisp||Light & Pleasant|
|(2)||Soft & Smooth||Strong Ginjo Aroma*|
|Medium / Medium Dry||(3)||Smooth - Hard, Crisp||Mild Complex|
|(4)||Soft & Smooth||Pleasant Ginjo Aroma|
|Heavy & Sweet||(5)||Smooth||Light - Complex|
*Pleasant flowery and appley aroma
|#||Basic Sake Type||Category|
|(1)||Junmai (Dry type)||Clean & Dry|
|(2)||Daiginjo / Ginjo||Ginjo aroma|
|(3)||Junmai (Semi-dry type)||Complex|
|(5)||Nigori (Unfiltered) / Flavored Sake||Sweet & Rich|
|#||Pairing with Food||Suggested Accompaniment|
|(1)||Goes well with a wide variety of foods||sashimi, yakitori, lobster salad, grilled fish, marinated salmon (Lightly seasoned Chinese: spring roll, steamed dumping)|
|(2)||Perfect by itself or with lightly seasoned foods||sushi, sashimi, seafood salad, steamed or grilled white meat fish, oyster, steamd asparagus, wine cooked scallops|
|(3)||Enhances flavor of food||(mildly seasoned) tempura, sukiyaki, teriyaki, yakitori, tonkatsu, barbecued meats, many deep fried dishes|
|(4)||Fruity character particularly compliments dishes that are cold or vinegar-marinated||sushi, sashimi, seafood salad, shrimp cocktail, smoked salmon, oyster, marinated vagetable or fish with ponzu|
|(5)||Pairs well with rich and well seasoned dishes. (Great as a desert wine)||yallowtail teriyaki, spare ribs, Korean barbecues, unagi, Szechuan-style food (spicy foods), Peking duck, beef stew|
Where to Buy Sake
Takara Sake USA Inc. offers a wide variety of sake we brew ourselves in Berkeley, CA as well as and other Japanese sakes and beverages for sale online. Browse our online catalog to purchase your favorite products. If you find yourself in the Berkeley, CA area, you can also stop by our tasting room and take a look around The Sake Museum. Feel free to us ask questions either online or in person, too. We’re always happy to help, and before long, you’ll be a sake connoisseur, too. Happy pairing!