When it comes to matching sake with food, there are no hard and fast rules. However, conventional wisdom for pairing the drink with wagyu beef — that most luxurious of meats, sumptuously marbled with buttery fat — suggests choosing earthy, full-bodied sake with copious acidity, such as kimoto– or yamahai-style (sake production methods that use naturally occurring lactic acid) brews.
To the best of my recollection, I’d never encountered the combination of wagyu with highly polished, refined daiginjō and junmai daiginjō (the highest grades of sake) varieties, which tend to veer more toward fruit than forest floor, with sweet floral notes rather than bracing tartness. There’s a first time for everything, though.
With a mostly open mind, I walk into Yakiniku Jumbo Shirokane, a popular grilled beef restaurant in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. I’ve been invited to sample several wagyu dishes paired with brews from the innovative sake company Nihonshu Oendan, which partners with small producers in six prefectures to create a line of sake showcasing the terroir of each region. The company sells exclusively muroka nama genshu — unpasteurized, undiluted sake that has not undergone charcoal filtration — and nearly all of it is junmai daiginjō.
“To pair sake with this kind of food, you need something that’s powerful and acidic,” explains Nihonshu Oendan CEO Nao Kohara. “I think our nama genshu works because it’s smooth and has a ricey sweetness that’s not too aromatic, so it stands up to the richness of the beef.”
The first bites make it clear that the tasting session would be full of surprises. Tender slices of beef heart cured in shio kōji (an enzymatic catalyst made with the mold aspergillus oryzae) resemble a pile of bright pink ribbons sprinkled with sesame seeds. This — together with a potato salad that tastes like a chilled version of nikujaga, a comforting dish of beef and potatoes cooked in sweetened soy sauce — is served with a Noto Junmai Daiginjo from 2019, brewed in Ishikawa Prefecture.
The pairing works on the principle of umami’s synergistic effect, the dishes amplifying the sake’s mouth-filling, silky texture. A dollop of raw minced beef spiked with shiso (perilla), rolled like a cigar in roasted nori, comes with a 2019 Ageo Junmai Daiginjo from Saitama Prefecture; the gentle, anise-tinged sweetness of the sake complements the freshness of the shiso and serves as a counterpoint to the seaweed’s toasty flavor. A rich stew of beef tendon, brightened with the zing of ginger and sliced scallions, matches the vivid and complex 2019 Kunisaki Junmai 55 from Oita Prefecture.
Kohara hadn’t considered the possibility of pairing his sake with wagyu until Nihonshu Oendan began working with Beatus, Inc., the company that runs premium Japanese meat distributor Meat Yazawa, as well as a restaurant group that includes Yakiniku Jumbo Shirokane, Yakiniku Yazawa and Toritama Kagurazaka.
“The first time I tried it was at Yakiniku Jumbo Shirokane. Both the quality of the meat and how it was presented, in a refined way with distinct flavors and creative touches, worked well with our sake,” he says.
He adds that, on a philosophical level, similarities between the core missions of the two companies underscore the match: “Yazawa started off as a meat wholesaler working with small producers and packers, but the company opened restaurants to help purveyors raise the value of their products by presenting them in the right way to new audiences. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with sake,” he says.
From Oct. 24-28, Nihonshu Oendan and Yakiniku Yazawa will host a pop-up restaurant at the Nihonshu Matsuri event inside the Nihonbashi Takashimaya Shopping Center. The festival will feature tasting booths where shoppers can meet brewers; a variety of food stalls; and pop-ups by Sake’s Kitchen, Gem by Moto and more. The Yakiniku Yazawa pop-up will offer tasting sets of wagyu dishes paired with Nihonshu Oendan sake starting from ¥950. For more information, visit bit.ly/nihonshumatsuri2019.