Are more expensive sakes really better? How to pair sake with your food
Expensive or high-grade sakes taste elegant and complex but they don’t make the best combination for food pairing. Here's what you need to know about sake pairing.
You are dining with a client at a Japanese eatery, or maybe hosting a party at home. You want to make an impression so you get that bottle of Junmai Daiginjo – the highest grade of sake – thinking it will pair well with the wagyu. It’s an expensive bottle, you tell yourself, so what could go wrong?
Chotto matte! Expensive sakes the likes of Junmai Daiginjo would actually be more difficult to pair with food. In fact, you may be better off drinking the high-grade sake on its own.
Before we explain why, we need to talk about seimaibuai (say-my-boo-eye) – perhaps the most important word in sake terminology – and its role in determining a sake’s grade and flavours. (If you already know your Sake 101, you may skip the next few paragraphs.)
Seimaibuai refers to the rice-polishing ratio or the percentage value of the rice grain that remains after it has been polished or milled. Rice-polishing is the crucial first step in sake production. Each rice grain has a core of starch, which starts the saccharification of the grains after koji mould is added. Polishing the rice grain, via a machine, removes the outer layers of the bran to expose the starchy core.
A lower seimaibuai means a smaller rice grain with more exposure to the prized core, and thus the higher the grade – and price – of the sake.
A lower grade Honjozo, for example, has a seimaibuai of at least 70 per cent (30 per cent of the grain polished away).
Traditionally, the entry level Junmai sake had a seimaibuai of at least 70 per cent, a requirement that is no longer compulsory today as long as the brewery mentions the seimaibuai on the label, which can be of any value. Junmai also denotes a pure sake, meaning sake without the addition of any distilled alcohol.
The higher-grade sakes of Ginjo and Daiginjo have seimaibuai values of 60 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively. When these sakes are prefixed with “Junmai”, they tell you that distilled alcohol has not been added, for example, Junmai Daiginjo.
A more polished rice grain results in more elegant flavours. Thus, as a rule of thumb, you can expect Honjozo and Junmai to be more full-bodied and umami-rich than Ginjo and Daiginjo. The latter pair, on the other hand, tend to be more delicate on the palate, with refined aromas and flavours.
TASTE, NOT GRADE, MATTERS THE MOST
Maria Satoh, sake sommelier and advisor of sake distributor and bar Orihara Shoten in Robertson Walk, said an expensive Junmai Daiginjo is best drunk on its own or with very light dishes.
“If you pair it with food, it would lose a lot of its elegant flavours and aromas,” she added. “Of course, there are some exceptions. If your expensive Junmai Daiginjo leans towards a rich, wholesome style, then you can pair it with food, but not spicy ones.”
Therefore, sake grades are important but the taste of the sake matters the most, added Satoh. “[Tasting] your sake before pairing it with food is the best thing to do.”
Adrian Goh, director of sake distributor Inter Rice Asia, said: “In wine pairing, we make it work by complementing or contrasting the flavours of the food and the wine. For sake pairing, we go for a marriage between the sake and the dish. The goal is to have balance, where neither the food nor sake overwhelm each other.
“More expensive or higher-grade sakes are more difficult to pair with food. They are usually more delicate and have less umami. I’d usually drink Ginjo and Daiginjo on their own or with white fish or food with lighter, elegant flavours.”
SWEET WITH SWEET, DRY WITH FATTY
Learning the myriad types of sake can be an experience akin to staring at Tokyo’s labyrinthine subway map for the first time: Where do you start?
Goh noted that, for beginners, he would split sakes into two basic categories: Rich, savoury sakes like Junmai, and complex, delicate sakes like Ginjo and Daiginjo. For the former, they would have “less aroma, richer body and higher acidity, and would be suitable for meaty food like pork cutlets, grilled seafood, and beef stews”.
At Sakemaru Artisan Sake Hideout, a modern Japanese kappo eatery on South Bridge Road, chef Daisuke Yomogi pairs sweet sakes with dishes that are packed with sweet, umami notes.
“Pairing is easy. The direction of the taste is the same,” he said, demonstrating the coupling by marrying a Hokkaido uni wrapped in A4 Miyazaki wagyu sirloin with a Daigono Shizuku Nama, Junmai sake from Chiba Prefecture.
Echoing Yomogi, Satoh mentioned that pairing a sake with the same food profile or taste is “quite a popular approach”. “Depending on how sweet your sake is, it’d go well with teriyaki sauce-based dishes. A sweet and sour pork also works with a sweet Junmai Ginjo,” she added.
Master sake sommelier Joshua Kalinan suggested pairing a pan-fried angus ribeye with miso mushroom cream sauce with a Muroka Nama Genshu, Junmai (a concentrated, unpasteurised, undiluted sake with no charcoal filtration), adding that it was “a perfect match without any tannins”.
It’s worth noting that sakes from Junmai to Daiginjo can be sweet or dry, depending on the brewer’s style.
A dry Junmai Daiginjo would work well with sashimi. At his restaurant, chef Yomogi pairs the chutoro and otoro sashimi with Yukinobijin, Junmai Daiginjo sake from Akita Prefecture. The marriage works well; a dance of harmonious flavours on the palate.
Yomogi noted that “soya sauce is a great partner with dry sake”. “The Yukinobijin has a moderately fruity aroma, which cuts through the fishy aroma [of the sashimi]. Its dry taste also [brings out] the umami flavours of the sashimi and the soya sauce.”
Think of dry sake like acidity in wine – it helps tempers oily, fatty flavours. Kalinan said a dry sake will match a miso-flavoured cod as the style will “cut down the fattiness of the dish”.
Unless you can read Japanese Kanji characters, telling a dry sake apart from a sweet one on the label isn’t that straightforward. Another way, said Satoh, is to look out for the Sake Meter Value (SMV), a number prefixed with a + or – sign, for example, + 4. The higher the number, the drier the sake.
If the label lacks any taste profile indicators, take a peek at its alcohol by volume (ABV), which ranges from 14 per cent to 16 per cent. Goh said: “If the sake has a higher alcohol content, you can expect it to have more body and depth. However, if the ABV crosses 18 per cent, the sake is likely to be less flavourful [as the yeasts have converted most of the sugar into alcohol].”
WARM OR COLD? IT MATTERS
Sake is one of the few alcoholic beverages that can be served hot or cold. And there are a couple of rules to follow.
“If one were to warm a Junmai, a lot of umami is released,” said Kalinan. “There is a misconception that one only warms up an inferior quality sake, which is not true. I hardly warm a Junmai Daiginjo, though, as it will lose its delicate aromas and flavours.” The recommended temperature to warm a sake in a water bath is around 42 degrees Celsius, he added.
Goh added that pairing a cold sake with a warm stew or a seafood hotpot may be “jarring”. “I would pair it with a warm or room temperature Junmai with lactic characteristics. This will give the pairing a more harmonious element.
“Sake pairing is, of course, subjective. It’s all about finding the bridge between food and sake,” he added.