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Snacking on squid guts and soybeans

by Steve Trautlein

Doritos and Budweiser, canapes and Champagne, jamon and Tempranillo — when it comes to happy hour, everyone has their favorite combination of booze and umami-infused treats. In Japan, where sipping sake and nibbling on pickles or dried fish has defined leisure time for centuries, the scene is enlivened by traditional pairings of snacks and liquor. To help figure out what works best with what, I asked some experts on cocktail-hour munching.

First stop is the Japanese pub, where mass-produced lagers dominate the beer list and the appetizer menu ranges from the raw to the deep-fried.

“There’s a reason why most people at an izakaya start with beer,” says Mark Robinson, the author of “Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook” (Kodansha USA, 2012). “Apart from it being the quickest way to organize a toast, it clears the palate. If you want to dive straight into the deep-fried stuff, fine. But the raw, live taste of beer pairs better with sashimi. It’s a light and energizing combo and you don’t have to eat in a hurry — it won’t go cold.”

The inoffensive flavor profiles of Asahi Super Dry, Kirin Ichiban and the like mean that they’re versatile enough to go with edamame soybeans in summer and hearty seafood in winter. “A meaty fish like kanburi (winter yellowtail) — now in season — works well with sweet grated wasabi, salty soy sauce and shredded daikon for that bitter chalkiness,” Robinson says.

Next up is the highball, which, amid the global boom in Japanese whisky, has become the cocktail of choice for trend-conscious local drinkers. Unfortunately, many izakaya stock only bottom-shelf whisky — I’m looking at you, Suntory Kakubin — and opportunities for agreeable food pairings are slim.

Tazlu Endo, a former editor of the Japanese-language Whisky Magazine, suggests asking bartenders to break out the good stuff and match it with traditional drinking snacks known as otsumami. “Some nice options to pair with (good-quality) whisky would be sake toba (a jerky-style dried-salmon snack from Hokkaido) and Narazuke (pickles soaked in sake lees from Nara),” he says.

In February 2011, Endo helped organize a tasting session that featured six premium scotches and a half-dozen otsumami; he invited in a group of international whisky experts to see what pairings worked best.

Iburi gakko (smoked pickles from Akita) is pretty popular among Japanese whisky fans, but most Scots seemed to prefer cheapie kappa-ebisen (shrimp crackers) — because it’s exotic for them, I suppose,” he says. (Sample comment from the tasters: “A sweeter whisky works well with these crackers because it brings out remarkable flavors, like cheddar cheese.”) It’s widely agreed that nothing goes better with otsumami than the drink they were intended for: sake. According to Yoram Ofer, the owner of Sake Bar Yoramu in Kyoto, the classic snacks remain the most versatile. “Dried squid and edamame will work with a very wide variety of sake,” he says.

Unlike most sake professionals, who believe that the flavors of the drink should hide behind the food, Ofer seeks more dynamic pairings. “I want to taste both, not to kill either of the components,” he says, reeling off sake recommendations for snacks as diverse as yakitori (“high-umami nama-genshu types”), sashimi (“lighter, fragrant” varieties) and even an egg dish, dashi-maki tamago (“nigori sake, preferably usu-nigori“).

Pairing Japanese liquor and food can be a challenge when dealing with unfamiliar flavors. And nothing is more alien than the dish of chopped squid or fish viscera known as shiokara.

“Shiokara is a hard food for a lot of people to swallow,” acknowledges Yukari Sakamoto, author of the gastronomic guidebook “Food Sake Tokyo” (Little Bookroom, 2010). “Squid sashimi mixed with its own innards is a funky and rich dish.”

Sakamoto, who is a certified shōchū adviser, recommends fighting fire with firewater, as it were. “Shiokara calls for an aromatic shōchū that has some sweetness to match the inherent amami (sweetness) in the squid,” she says. “Imo-jōchū (made from sweet potatoes) is ideal. The potatoes often contribute a sweetness to the shōchū, and it has enough body to stand up to the rich dish.”

Of course, not all encounters between food and booze are happy ones. “Peanuts are hopeless, as they coat your mouth after being crushed by the teeth,” says sake expert Ofer. That pretty much rules out combining nihonshu with the nut-and-rice-cracker snack known as kaki-pi, which is often served at bars. “You need something fizzy to penetrate through that layer.”

In that case, it might be best to stick with that Budweiser.

Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way through Japan.

You gonna eat that?

The piquant seafood snack known as shiokara can be a mouthful for even diehard fans of Japanese food (see main article), but it’s not the only dish that requires an iron stomach.

Odori-don, made variously with squid, octopus or shrimp, is a rice bowl so fresh that the shellfish is still moving (odori translates as “dancing”). Inago, available in rural areas of central Honshu, is a sweetened snack of … fried grasshoppers. And at high-end suppon (turtle) restaurant Daiichi in Kyoto, diners can enjoy turtle-blood-infused sake along with the ¥23,000 set menu.