What kinds of foods pair well with sake? The obvious answer is Japanese, but, as sake continues to expand abroad, industry professionals and consumers alike are discovering a whole new world of pairing possibilities for the brew.

At the sake specialty shop Sakaya, in New York City, owners Hiroko Furukawa and Rick Smith regularly hold events that match sake with cheese and other foods more commonly associated with wine. Instead of always recommending sake with traditional Japanese dishes such as sushi, they encourage their customers to try sake with global cuisine.

For turkey and game birds, Furukawa suggests tart, flavorful yamahai and kimoto styles; with rich meats like roast beef, she recommends trying robust, unpasteurized nama-genshu.

“The acidity and sweetness of unpasteurized sake harmonizes with the fat of the beef,” she says.

Furukawa and Smith have been experimenting with sake pairing since they opened their shop three years ago. They started by trying it with the Thai and Vietnamese food they were frequently cooking at home. Over time, they began to compile a cache of tips that they could share with their American clients, most of whom were sake neophytes. The feedback from customers has been extremely positive.

“Many people are afraid to try new pairings because they don’t know anything about sake beyond the fact that they like it,” Furukawa observes. “We try to bridge the gap between novices and experienced people. We wanted to pair sake with non-Japanese food, not just because we are selling to a non-Japanese market, but also because we don’t cook Japanese food all the time.”

The two recently worked with a vegetarian restaurant named Dirt Candy to host a successful sake-pairing dinner, and they are actively seeking collaboration with more non-Japanese restaurants.

Increasingly, in countries such as the United States, France and Sweden, restaurants are including sake on their drinks lists and serving it with local cuisine. While still far from widespread, the idea of pairing sake with non-Japanese food is even beginning to gain acceptance among aficionados in Japan.

Sake and wine expert Satoshi Kimijima has been in the industry for 26 years and says that both sake and food culture in Japan have seen significant changes in that time.

“Thirty to 40 years ago, most sake was very light, dry and simple, designed to match sashimi and sushi,” he explains. “But it’s becoming rarer and rarer to find those kinds of traditional dishes in people’s homes. Now, there is so much variety (in food and sake).”

Modern sake styles include full, highly acidic kimoto and yamahai types; delicately sweet and sparkling sakes; bold and fruity unpasteurized styles; and smoky, sherry-like aged sakes. Now, more than ever, the beverage has the potential to match a wide variety of cuisines — particularly, notes Kimijima, when it is served in new, nontraditional ways.

“Adding sparkling water, such as San Pellegrino, will soften the alcohol and make sake easier to pair with Western food,” he says.

Kimijima also suggests adding other flavorings to make pairing more exciting. For light dishes with citrusy sauces, try putting a twist of lemon peel into a glass of light, fresh sake. For autumnal dishes with richer sauces, serve aged sake accented with a thin slice of apple.

“It’s also fun to match the temperature of the sake to the temperature of the dish,” he notes. “Sake is the only alcoholic drink that will allow you to do that.”

At the moment, the restaurants in Japan serving sake with non-Japanese food are mostly limited to high-end French establishments, but Kimijima believes that once chefs and sommeliers start to recognize sake’s pairing potential, it will gradually make its way onto more menus here. In Europe and North America, sommelier exams already include questions about sake, and Kimijima has recently begun working with renowned wine expert Shinya Tasaki on a sake-training program for Japanese sommeliers.

The biggest challenge for industry professionals is to dispel the old image of sake in the minds of consumers. Although many Japanese are passionate about wine, memories of overindulging on cheap sake have marred their image of the drink.

Kazuo Yamasaki, who has taught a sake course at the Academy du Vin since 1994, says that most of his students become interested in sake after first learning about wine.

“A lot of people have a desire to rediscover what we have in our own country,” he says.

Although Yamasaki introduces the concept of pairing sake with global cuisine in his course, he says that many remain skeptical.

“In general, Japanese people believe that French wine goes with French food, Italian wine with Italian food,” explains Yamasaki. “It will take some time for the idea to catch on, perhaps five to 10 years.”

Though still a minority, some producers have embraced the new approach. Jihei Isawa, president of Katsuyama Shuzo in Miyagi prefecture, brings bottles of wine to sake-tasting events, along with samples of Japanese dashi kelp broth and French fond de veau veal stock, and invites guests to take the sake challenge. Isawa offers a small cup of dashi or fond de veau and then asks tasters to try it, first with wine and then sake. The comparison is eye-opening.

“Everyone is surprised at how well the sake works with fond de veau,” he says. “I wanted to focus on the most basic element of (French and Japanese) cuisine so that people could easily see the difference.”

Sake is lower than wine in tart components such as tartaric and malic acids but higher in amino acids. As a result, it is a beverage rich in umami, the “fifth taste” that makes the savory flavors of meat and cheese so appealing.

“Wine is completely different from sake,” explains Isawa, who is also a trained sommelier. “You can’t pair them with food in the same way. Wine can work with vinegar, while sake is a particularly good match for foods with sweetness, umami and saltiness.”

The Isawa family also owns a cooking school in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, called the Miyagi Chouri Seika Senmon Gakkou that teaches everything from Japanese cuisine to chocolate making. Isawa applies the same “cooking logic” taught in his school to the production of sake, and is experimenting with ways to create brews that will be more food-friendly.

“I want people to have the courage to try sake with different kinds of cuisines because it’s so much more interesting,” he says. “In many ways, sake is like rice: It goes well with anything.”

Don’t be afraid to experiment

You don’t have to worry about being very precise when pairing sake and food. Experts agree that sake is more forgiving than wine.

The basic rule is to consider weight: Lighter dishes such as steamed vegetables and poached white fish will pair well with lighter styles of sake such as ginjo-shu , while richer dishes are a better match for heavier styles with higher acidity such as yamahai and kimoto . Foods high in umami — meats, cheese and tomatoes — work well with a wide range of sakes. The most important thing, though, is to keep an open mind and experiment.

Outside of Tokyo, in Shizuoka Prefecture, several brewers are welcoming the challenge of matching sake with non-Japanese cuisine and are urging consumers to think outside of the box.

Noritsugu Hashimoto of Hatsukame Shuzo

recommends Tomizo Tokubetsu Honjozo with delicate steamed vegetables such as asparagus served with a warm butter and olive-oil dressing.

Kazutaka Takashimae of Takashima Shuzo suggests trying Hakuin Masamune Yamahai Junmai Genshu with grilled fish, red meats in barbeque sauce or long-simmered dishes such as Boeuf Bourguignon and Coq au Vin.

Yasuo Nakamura of Hamamatsu-Tenjingura Shuzo recommends Shusseijo Tokubetsu Honjozo with German-style stews.

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