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Catalan cuisine, sake’s international pairing pal

by Melinda Joe

“Please, just one bite,” cajoled Derrick Lim, patting my shoulder like a solicitous Asian grandmother. “You have to try this dish.” A certified sake professional, Lim had been explaining the concept behind his latest venture — a sake-and-tapas bar called Bam, located on Singapore’s trendy Tras Street — and was eager to demonstrate the harmonious relationship between Spanish food and Japanese nihonshu. “The chorizo is a great match for the sake,” he continued, pouring me a glass of Shichida Junmai Ginjo from Saga Prefecture and pressing a fork into my hand.

It’s not that I didn’t believe him. The look on my face was not one of skepticism, but of defeat. I’d just finished a 10-course dinner at the Tippling Club, one of Singapore’s best and hippest fine-dining restaurants, around the corner from Bam. That meal had begun with a salvo of eight intricately crafted amuse-bouches (which together count as one of the 10 courses) and had ended with me vowing to go on a diet immediately. Earlier that afternoon, I’d had the tasting menu at Jaan, another of the city’s top restaurants. After a full day of gorging, I stared at the plate before me — a pile of deep-fried chipirones (baby squid), sprinkled with chunks of spicy chorizo and served with a soft and wobbly onsen tamago (lightly poached egg) — with a mixture of curiosity and dread.

In the end, I couldn’t resist taking a few bites. Fried squid is one of my weaknesses, and the dish paired well with the sake: The saltiness of the chorizo highlighted the gentle fruitiness of the brew, and the egg matched its smooth texture. “There are many similarities between Japanese and Catalan cuisine. Both use a lot of seafood and ingredients high in umami,” said Pepe Moncayo, Bam’s executive chef and Lim’s business partner.

The combination of sake and Spanish flavors appears to be in vogue these days. At the Tippling Club, a dish of salt-baked celeriac topped with snow crab and a slice of jamon de Belotta was served with Hayashi Honten l’Ambredore Junmai, a golden brew from Gifu Prefecture that had been matured in Oloroso Sherry casks. A few months ago, a tasting at the popular culinary conference Madrid Fusion featured Dassai sake from Asahi Shuzo in Yamaguchi Prefecture, paired with jamon Iberico.

A group of nine brewers in Ehime Prefecture have even created a line of sake made specifically to go with Spanish cuisine. Called Mar, the Spanish word for “ocean,” the lineup includes three categories: The blue-label range complements seafood, while the red-label range pairs with tomato-based and umami-rich dishes, and the yellow-label range works with ham. Lim stocks a few varieties of each in the stylish, glass-encased refrigerator at the bar’s entrance.

“You’ve got to try the Joselito ham dipped in sake. It’s amazing!” the guest beside me enthused. Before I had a chance to protest, Lim had placed a small bowl of coconut ice cream, pineapple and fresh mint in front of me, alongside a glass of Tamagawa Konotori Kimoto Junmai from Kyoto Prefecture.

“You don’t have to eat it,” Moncayo said. “But it’s great with the sake.” He was right. The diet would have to wait.

www.facebook.com/bamtapas Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.