Randal Caparoso Wine & Food Advisory
from the Melting Pot of the Pacific

Understanding and cooking for
the new chilled sakes

© Randal Caparoso and Jane Faris

The recent introduction of ginjo ("super-premium") and daiginjo ("ultra-premium") sakes that are properly served well chilled - never, never warmed! - has opened up an entirely new world of food possibilities for chefs and restaurateurs; especially those who fuse classical European and Asian ingredients and techniques with easy regularity.

Here is a guideline that was developed for the chefs of the Euro-Asian style Roy's restaurant group (30 restaurants in all, located from Tokyo and Hawaii to the East and West Coasts) in 2001:

1. Since they are delicate and always served well chilled, all the new style sakes should be thought of like dry to off-dry white wines. Therefore, like white wines, they go very well with white meats (fish, shellfish, pork, chicken, etc.) and sauces appropriate for white meats.

2. Since they are made from rice, not grapes, the chilled sakes have only about the third of the acidity of white wine. Therefore, the use of vinegars and vinaigrettes should be moderated so as not to make the sakes taste flat or dull. However, you should not be afraid to use soft rice wine vinegars, or round, winey balsamic and Sherry vinegars, or vinaigrettes rounded out by palm sugar, seasonings, stocks, mirin, and fruit or herb/vegetable infusions.

3. Since the finest ginjo and daiginjo are made purely from rice, water, yeasts and the koji enzymes, they contain no bitter tannins or phenolics like, say, red wines or oaky Chardonnays. Therefore, you cannot expect them to be great with fatty or large cuts of red meats.

4. Typical chilled sakes are fairly full in alcohol (14.5% to 17%), and so they have good body and presence on the palate. Therefore, thinly sliced, lower fat meats balanced by vegetables, seasonings, and varying textures and sauces are very appropriate.

5. Since fine sake is in primarily associated with Japanese traditions, it makes perfect sense to incorporate Japanese ingredients, sauces, and cooking techniques into fusion style cooking meant for sake. The reason for this is that much of Japanese cooking - the use of dashi, sea vegetables, root vegetables, miso, shiitake, wasabi, sesame, etc. - is quite earthy, making it very compatible with the distinctively earthy, minerally or stony qualities of natural sakes.

6. Since the taste of ultra-premium sake entails a very subtle, harmonious balance of taste elements (as opposed to the more obvious acids, tannins and fruit sugars of table wines), a good rule of thumb is to avoid extremes of flavor when cooking for it. Think of it as similar to everyday, steamed white rice. While plainer in flavor than, say, garlicky noodles, cheesy polenta or buttery potatoes, it is that same plainness that makes steamed white rice very conducive to intensely flavorful, Asian influenced dishes. The quiet qualities of chilled sakes harmonize with food in very much the same way plain white rice harmonizes with many dishes.

7. Many Japanese avoid eating plain rice or sushi with sake, thinking it rather redundant (like drinking wine with grapes). However, sake is an easy match with starches of all sorts, including all the variations of pasta, beans, tofu, wild rice, Asian noodles (rice, bean thread, buckwheat, etc.), rice paper, potatoes, polenta, and even spatzle, crepes, dumplings and couscous (including Israeli couscous). The appropriate method of cooking with these starches is to apply a restrained use of oils, butters, creams and reductions that echo the round (rather than sharp), subtle taste and silky, creamy textures of chilled sakes, while maintaining a contrast and/or balance with each element in the dish.

8. Finally, you can identify foodstuffs that act as flavor "bridges" for sake by thinking of the Japanese concept of umami, the often overlooked "fifth taste" sensation perceived by the taste buds. The most obvious taste sensations are always sweet, sour, salty and bitter.

Umami is essentially an overall sensation of "deliciousness" resulting from complex food interactions - particularly within the presence of foods with high amino acid content - whether naturally occurring or activated through cooking processes. MSG, for instance, is essentially a manufactured umami enhancer; but the sensation of umami is naturally found in, say, vine-ripened tomatoes, well-aged parmigiano cheese, and especially mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, shiitakes and the rare matsutake from Japan, and especially truffles or in truffle oil).

Seaweeds of all sorts are also high in umami; as are seasonings such as schichimi and Chinese five spice. Complex, slowly evolved stocks based upon chicken, veal and shellfish, as well as the reductive aspects of braising, pot a feu, dashi, nages, and natural essences all achieve certain degrees of umami. The important thing to remember is that since the highest quality sake is perceived by the palate as subtle, harmonious, and ultimately delicious, judicious use of ingredients rich in umami can lead to easy food and sake matches.

Ideal food matches for chilled sakes

For Very Dry Styles (Sake Meter Values of +4 or more)

Smoked or grilled white meats and seafoods (smoked salmon, wood oven roasted oysters, wood grilled chicken, pork, rabbit, etc.) that match the stony, flinty dryness of dry sake.
White fish with either flaky, mild flavors (mahimahi, snapper, ono, etc.) to match the round dryness of the Wind, or slightly oily fish (cod, sea bass, tuna, salmon, hamachi, etc.) to match the fluid, silken texture of dry sakes.
Fleshy shellfish (scallops, oysters, abalone, lobster, etc.).
Raw foods, from tataki and tartare to sashimi and oysters.
Fish in fragrant broths, steamed, cooked in hotpots, nages, green (ochazuke) or black teas, or finished with infused oils.
Japanese custards (cha wan mushi) and seafoods in creamy "dynamites."
Restrained use of creams, butters and beurre blancs, coconut milk, oils (sesame, olive, grapeseed, etc.), aiolis, parmigiano (in risotto), and avocado - all to match the silky sake textures.
To match chilled, dry sakes' stony, earthy aspects, use of all varieties of sea vegetables, seasonings and minerally/saline seafoods (caviars, bonito flakes, eel, clam, sea urchin or uni, etc.)
Earthy vegetables such as mushrooms (fresh or dried), truffles (and truffle oil), root vegetables (daikon and other radishes, horseradishes, gobo, fennel, burdock, lotus root, etc.), mustards, toasted sesame seeds, and Chinese greens (choi sum, bok choi, ong choi, etc.).
Fragrant, leafy green herbs such as parsley, mitsuba, mints, dill, sweet basil, shiso, chervil, tarragon and Mexican mint marigold.
Crisp vegetables such as snow peas, cucumber, asparagus, bean sprouts, edamame, and fennel.

For Medium Sweet Styles (Sake Meter Values Between +4 and -5)

Rich, oily, even salty fish - such as sashimi grade tuna and hamachi, mackerel, salt cod (and brandade), cuttlefish, herring (nishin), anchovy and sardines, as well as caviars - that easily balance the stony, whispery sweet qualities of the off-dry chilled sakes.
"Sweet" varieties of shellfish (shrimp, crab, lobster, etc.), white fish, pork, and other white meats with mildly sweet glazes (yakitori, teriyaki, misoyaki, etc.).
Crispy fried foods (tempura, potstickers, spring rolls, lumpia, etc.).
Restrained use of sweet/hot seasonings (schichimi togarashi, Chinese five spice, jerk, Cajun spices, etc.) or mildly sweet/sour/spicy barbecue sauces (Asian or American variations).
Mildly acidic broths, oils, vinaigrettes and aiolis made with rice vinegar, mirin, yuzu, ponzu, etc.
Wok charred Chinese greens and sweet peppers with oyster or fish sauces.
Mildly hot fruit/vegetable relishes (Asian or Mexican salsas), dipping sauces (such as Thai) and mustards.
Earthy, salty and/or sweet toned Japanese ingredients (ginger, kabayaki, unagi, gobo, daikon, green tea, soba, sesame, umeboshi, nori, furikake, etc.).
Earthy seasonings and marinades such as moles, or using achiote, cumin, miso or sesame pastes, etc.
Fresh or dried seaweeds.
Fragrant rices (such as jasmine and basmati) and preparations of rice (arroz, paella, risotto, pilaf, etc.).
Strongly scented herbs and spices (such as star anise, kaffir, cilantro, Vietnamese coriander, Thai or licorice basils, saffron, cumin, paprika, allspice and achiote).
Pungent alliums (sweet onions, scallions, garlic, shallots, chives and leeks).
The entire range of taste sensations associated with Asian or Pacific Rim foods; including sweet (tropical fruit infusions, palm sugared sauces, hoisin, chutneys, Chinese or Japanese bean pastes, etc.), sour (use of vinegars, citrus juices, lemon grass, yogurt, tamarind pastes, green mango and green papaya), salty (soy, rock salt, fish sauces, caviars), spicy (fresh, dried and crushed chilies, Asian chili pastes, rayu and hot sesame oils, curry pastes and powders, Chinese red rice vinegar), and even bitter (peppercorns, spice sprouts, watercress, horseradishes, mustard, coriander and anise seeds, and mesclun greens such as arugula, mizuna, dandelion, mustard greens, cress, nasturtium) tastes.

For Sweet Nigori Genshu (Cloudy/Rough Filtered) Sakes (Sake Meter Values of -6 or Less)

Fuller white meats, game birds, and some offal (chicken, pork, duck, squab, sweetbreads, tripe, etc.).
Sweet/sour/spicy appetizers that incorporate the earthy flavors (such as Thai and Japanese dipping sauces) that sakes love.
Hotter seasonings (from Thai and Chinese chili pastes to Cajun and Indian spices).
Coconut laced curries.
Sweet/spicy/salty barbecued meats and ribs (sticky marinades, dry rubs, teriyaki and kal-bi).
Satays with earthy, sweet, sour, salty and/or spicy marinades and dipping sauces.
Fruit infused natural reductions.
European style (i.e. barely sweet) desserts with fresh fruit (especially pineapple, mango, banana, papaya, strawberry, lychee, longan, mangosteen and durian), coconut pudding (Hawaiian haupia), bittersweet chocolate (black or white), tapioca and rice puddings, custards, flan, panna cotta, anglaise, azuki beans, and scented flavors (vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, lemon grass, cardamom, citrus rinds, pistachios or almonds) - the only rule of thumb being "nothing-too-sweet" (like syrupy coulis) and avoidance of predominantly acidic/citrusy sensations, since nigori genshu style sake does not tend to be as sweet or acidic as dessert wines made from grapes.

April 17, 2002

To contact Randy Caparoso, write him at randycaparoso@earthlink.net.

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