Sake has been around for over 2500 years. But for many, this clear Japanese wine made from fermented rice remains something of a mystery. Even though it crops up in cocktails and is a staple in Asian restaurants, it’s not a drink many Westerners know that much about. And it’s certainly not one you think of pairing with food.
But you should.
While relatively subtle and light, high-quality variations of sake produce a delicate, fruity flavor that pairs well with an abundance of dishes.
Intrigued by the wonders of this alcoholic beverage? Look at the five main variations of sake and which food types complement them best.
The Five Different Types Of Sake
Sake doesn’t just come in one variation. There are a variety of different ways to produce this special alcoholic beverage that separate it into five diverse categories.
The purest form of sake available. Containing no brewers’ yeast or brown sugar, Junmai-shu is a full, rich-tasting sake with a high level of acidity that is best drunk cold.
A lighter, more delicate variety of sake that has a powerful, alluring aroma, Ginjo-shu is made with the addition of yeast and is best served cold.
A type of Ginjo-shu, Daiginjo-shu also has a potent aroma. Light, smooth, and full of flavor, Daiginjo-shu’s qualities are best experienced when it’s drunk warm.
Characteristically light and smooth, Honjozo-shu contains brewer’s yeast and has one of the lowest alcoholic contents of the five types. Best served warm.
This sake is called Namazake because it’s raw and unfiltered. Velvety and smooth, Namazake is sometimes considered a dessert wine due to its uniquely sweet flavor and aroma.
As you can see, different variations of sake have different tastes, textures, and aromatic qualities. This also means that they need to get paired with different foods to produce the best combination.
Great Food Pairings For Sake
Something that surprises many people is how truly versatile this wine actually is. Able to pair with a wide array of different flavors, textures, and food groups, sake is renowned for its ability to complement many meals. However, there are some pairings that stand out from the rest.
As an inherently Japanese beverage, sake has a long history of getting paired with raw fish and sushi dishes. In fact, sushi and sake are considered one of the most magical pairings around.
The clear, crisp flavor of the sake alongside the salty fattiness of tuna or salmon sashimi creates a balanced flavor combination that is near impossible not to like. However, sake also pairs well with other oceanic foods, such as tempura shrimp and fresh, delicate calamari.
The best sake types to pair with seafood are ones with more fruity, floral notes, such as Ginjo-shu and Daiginjo-shu. With their sweet aromatic qualities, they pair beautifully with fish.
Because of how subtle and crisp good quality sake is, it pairs well with richer foods that need something light to balance it out. Fatty meats such as pork belly are a great complimentary dish, able to ground the delicateness of sake with its robust flavor and richness.
Rib eye steak and wagyu beef make great pairings with sake too. With rich, heavy meats like these, sake can cut through those layers of grease and refresh the palate for every bite.
If you are planning a meal with rich, fatty meats like these, choosing a bold but clarifying sake such as Junmai-shu or Namazake is your best bet. A sake cocktail can also add that lighter balancing touch.
Full of deep flavor, richness, and spice, ramen is another historically classical pairing for this beautiful rice wine. A quintessential Japanese dish, ramen has long been accompanied by a cleansing cup of cold sake for a perfect balance of intensity and refreshment.
A traditional bowl of ramen noodle soup typically features a variety of different meats and vegetables, such as braised pork (chashu), bok choy, mushrooms, dried seaweed, and soft-boiled eggs. The combination of these flavor-packed toppings with the sake creates an extremely well-balanced meal.
When it comes to pairing sake with ramen, a higher alcoholic content is advised. That means you should reach for the Junmai-shu or Daiginjo-shu for a compatible pairing.
Vegetables and Salads
There are plenty of vegetables and salad dishes that pair equally as well with sake as meats do. Cucumber, eggplant, bitter gourds, sweet potatoes, chestnuts, bamboo shoots and Japanese radish (daikon) all work well with the flavor and composition of the clear and refreshing sake.
If you want to go for the really traditional option, eating a dish with the spicy lotus root known as renkon is another very classical pairing with sake. Warm Junmai-shu and Namazake are best recommended for these types of plant-based foods and dishes.
Fruit is a really popular food group in Japan, which is probably why sake is such a popular companion to fruit-based desserts. With its naturally subtle sweetness and fruity aroma, sake on its own or in a martini is just as at home next to a beautiful fruit plate as it is at a formal dinner.
Some of the best fruit pairings for sake include figs, melons, muscat grapes, and bananas. They are best paired with a light but fruity sake like Honjozo-shu, Ginjo-shu, or Namazake.
There is a long-held belief that if you drink sake alongside some persimmon, you can avoid a hangover the next day. This is due to the high quantity of tannins found in the persimmon fruit, which trigger a detoxification effect within the body. Dried persimmon also makes a good sake side-snack.
Make Sake Part Of Your Pairings
If you love trying new wines and experimenting with more exotic and adventurous food pairings, then sake needs to be on your list. Its pure, unprocessed flavor makes it highly versatile and easy to pair with a broad variety of foods, and its clean, subtle flavor notes make it a great drink all year round, rain or shine. Plus, you can tailor your dishes for all kinds of dietary requirements and still create a taste sensation.
All in all, sake is a delicious, adaptable, and culturally prolific rice wine that broadens your pairing potential considerably. As they say when clinking glasses in Japan, Kanpai!