If you’ve only thought to order a bottle of sake with your sushi, think again: That bottle of sake on the back bar may be the underdog of the spirits world, ready to take your next meal to the next level. Sake, or wine made from fermented rice with origins in Japan, is usually paired with sushi, ramen, tempura, and other Japanese foods. But there’s much more to explore beyond that classic duo.
The category of sake contains an incredibly wide range of varietals, brewing, filtering, and aging techniques, making it a super versatile pairing choice. While the term sake may evoke a perception of a clear, semi-sweet drink for many, available styles span from crisp and super-dry to soft and creamy to hefty, aged, and woody. The sake-making process also yields a great deal of amino acids that make sake pairings especially interesting. The amino acids from both food and drink play upon each other and create unique feelings of umami for the diner.
The diversity of sake begins with the type of rice used at the beginning of the fermentation process. There are more than 80 types of rice suitable for sake production, different from “eating” rice varietals, as they contain a specific starchiness at its center, surrounded by outer rice bran. Much like a winemaker, the sake brewer (known as toji) decides what pieces of that rice varietal’s personality they want to highlight with decisions in the sake making process. First, the amount of bran to be removed — or how much starch to be exposed — which results in more specific flavors as the percentage removed increases. This is the major designation for sake – “Junmai” indicates 30 percent of the outer bran has been removed while “Junmai Gingo” is 40 percent and the highest, Junmai Daigingo,” has at least 50 percent removed.
After the rice is carefully steamed and a specific mold and yeast added, the mixture is fermented; the toji chooses what temperature this happens, and slow fermentations at lower temperatures generally make for more developed, nuanced sake. The sake is then typically filtered, but the toji can also choose to handle the sake differently: nigori, or cloudy sake, is filtered with a larger mesh to purposefully leave behind some rice particles for a creamier taste and mouthfeel; muroka, or unfiltered sake, has not been filtered but separated from the solids for a clear sake that is much stronger than its counterparts. Finally, the sake is aged, or matured, in the bottle. Most age for under a year, but some, like koshu, ages for many years to take on a sweet flavor and darker color and taruzake is aged in cedar barrels to impose an earthy, woody flavor, much like heartier wines.
Intrigued to try sake with something other than a bowl of ramen? Here are four dishes to order with your ramen, and where to try the pairing. Trust us, you’ll never underestimate the pairing powers of sake again.
Deep Dish Pizza and Sake
What seems an unlikely combination actually plays beautifully into the food and beverage pairing philosophy of contrasts. Layers of unctuous melted cheese on a deep dish pizza means high fat content, each bite already substantial on its own. The right sake brightens this feeling by matching that heft with acidity, cutting through the tomato sauce — which is also acidic and lightly sweet — and cheese and bringing balance to the overall meal. A lean, dry junmai daigingo with some hints of fruit is a great bottle to bring along for this occasion; its clarity of flavors shines through without being overwhelmed by the food. A dry, sparkling sake in this vein can also be quite tasty with pizza, with a fuller body to match the strength of the pizza and small bubbles to help cleanse the palate.
To try the pairing: Bring a bottle of sake the next time you’re visiting Chicago deep dish staple The Art of Pizza. 3033 N Ashland Ave, Chicago, IL 60657.
Spicy Thai Food and Sake
The multi-layered flavors of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami make Thai food a great match for crisp and aromatic sakes. For spicier dishes, choose a sake with a hint of sweetness to temper the heat and a streak of acidity to highlight the top notes and bring balance to the bottom notes of the dish. It’s also a good idea to opt for junmai gingo or junmai daigingo sakes of slightly lower alcohol content to not compound the fiery elements of the food. Milder Thai dishes lean towards milder sakes as well, though the sakes still need enough body to keep them visible amid bold flavors. Sakes with some fruity notes — especially tropical fruits that harken back to regional Thai produce like pineapple — are ideal to complement the ultra-savory notes of most dishes.
To try the pairing: Silom 12 offers both warm and chilled sake alongside an array of Thai dishes from larb to pad kee mao. 1846 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60647.
Barbeque and Sake
Whatever regional barbecue you prefer, there’s a suitable sake style to make the pairing a new favorite. Cedar-aged taruzake sake draws parallels with full-bodied, more tannic red wines and pairs well with the stronger flavors of charred, fatty red meats like brisket. For smoky but sweeter barbecue varieties, try a yamahai sake with funky and pleasantly gamey notes but a sweeter bite and more acidity. More vinegar-based barbecue finds a great companion with junmai, which has a clean taste but a stronger body than its more polished counterparts. If your ultimate pick for grilled and barbequed meats is a rosé (we can pretend it’s still summer, right?), pick up a namazake, or unpasteurized sake, which is noticeably livelier and younger than other sakes and very refreshing — to be served cold only.
To try the pairing: Smoque has everything from St. Louis-style ribs to brisket for you to mix-and-match with BYOB sake. 3800 N Pulaski Rd, Chicago, IL 60641
Chocolate and Sake
Chocolate is a notoriously difficult dessert to pair with because it requires the beverage’s richness, acidity, viscosity, and sweetness to all be in sync. Depending on your chosen style of chocolate, look to match or top that sweetness level in the sake; oscillating between sweet and non-sweet effectively masks the flavors of the less-sweet item. A sake with a creamier mouthfeel, such as nigori, makes sense in the context of many chocolates for that melt-in-your-mouth sensation. Milk chocolates find a nice melody with aged koshu sakes, which are softer in both taste and texture but carry notes like vanilla or caramel reminiscent of brandy or whiskey. Dark chocolate, with its higher cocoa content, lower dairy fat, and resulting bitterness, goes with lighter sakes with more pronounced spice and earth flavors. The touch of acidity makes for a clean pairing.
To try the pairing: Splurge in a chocolate bar experience after dining at the Shanghai Terrace inside The Peninsula hotel, where small-bite chocolate desserts are available alongside premium sakes. 108 E Superior St, Chicago, IL 60611
by Jenny Dorsey
Full bio and bylines can be found at http://jennydorsey.co.