Like many people, I previously never truly understood saké. I knew the basics, but not enough to really appreciate it. Unless I went to a Japanese restaurant, I would not expect to see saké on the menu. Perhaps this is where the ignorance came from. I only expected to see saké at a Japanese restaurant, which is like saying French wine should be exclusive to French food. Why can’t saké go with Italian food? We’ve accepted that wine pairs well with sushi, so why not saké with non-Japanese dishes. To come up with some good saké pairings, let’s first discuss what saké is and how it’s made.
Many liken saké to wine, when in fact it’s actually more comparable to beer. The complex traditional method of producing saké is a laborious task. The essential idea is that the starch in rice is used to produce alcohol. To get sugar from the starch, a beneficial mold called Koji is introduced to steamed rice to convert starch to sugar. With sugar, we can now introduce yeast to get alcohol. The type of base rice and fermentation time determines the style of saké. Fermentation finished, the rice mash is pressed, filtered, and blended. You now have saké. That’s it in a nutshell, without getting into too much detail.
Knowing the basics, we can discuss five basic saké styles. One, there is Junmai-shu, which uses rice alone. This is known as “pure rice saké”. The taste profile tends to be richer in body and acidity with less fragrance. Two, there is Honjozo-shu, which uses rice with the additional ingredient of a little distilled alcohol. This style tends to be lighter in body with greater fragrance. Three, there is Ginjo-shu, which uses rice that has been milled down 40%. The taste profile is comparatively lighter and more complex. Four, there is Daiginjo-shu, which uses rice that has been milled down 50%. Similar to Ginjo-shu, this is the most complex and fine style of saké. Distilled alcohol, which is known as “brewer alcohol” is permitted but not always used for Ginjo-shu and Daiginjo-shu styles. A fifth, and lesser known style of unpasteurized saké, is known as Namazake.
To make a generalization, a Junmai-shu saké will be more robust than the lighter Honjozo-shu saké. For the wine drinkers out there, think of Junmai-shu as Chardonnay, and Honjozo-shu as Pinot Grigio. With that in mind, here are some saké pairings that go beyond sushi, and that I personally think are pretty darn delicious.
Consider serving the Kaiun “New Fortune” Iwaizake Tokubetsu Honjozo (on the shelf for $18.75), a citrusy, floral and easy drinking style, with a plate of melon wrapped in prosciutto. The interaction of fruitiness and umami in the food would be reflected in the saké. A humble pairing like this also reflects the less polished quality of both components.
For a more robust pairing consider the Kaiun “New Fortune” Iwaizake Junmai Ginjo (on the shelf for $24.00). Plumper, with round pear/apple fruit and zesty acidity, it partners up nicely with a Tuscan-style porchetta with fennel salad. The acidity in the saké will cut through the fat of the porchetta, while the fruity character will match up with the salad.