What are good alcoholic beverages to enjoy with “washoku,” traditional Japanese cuisine? While beer, shochu and even whisky and wine are popular choices, the best match by far is sake, the national beverage of Japan. After all, washoku has been developed over many centuries as a cuisine to go well with sake, and sake in turn has evolved to partner well with the dishes that are enjoyed by the Japanese people, especially washoku.
Washoku is a subtle yet demanding cuisine. It does not rely heavily on the strong flavors imparted by spices or herbs, but on the freshness and seasonality of the base ingredients. The seasonings added are used to accentuate the five basic flavors — saltiness (found in soy sauce and miso); sweetness (sugar and other sweeteners plus “mirin,” an alcoholic beverage closely related to sake); sourness (vinegar, citrus and “umeboshi,” or preserved ume plums); bitterness (coffee and some spices) and umami. Umami, which is often described as a savory taste and is abundant in fish, meat and many vegetables, is the main component of many Japanese seasoning ingredients such as soy sauce, miso and mirin. It’s also the main flavor component of sake, along with sweetness and other flavors. Drinking sake with a washoku meal brings out the umami in each dish in a subtle yet very effective way.
Sake has another much-appreciated effect, especially when it’s enjoyed with fish, meat and poultry. Japanese people (along with many other East Asians) have historically had a strong aversion to “kusami” or the gaminess of animal products, so meat and fish are always cooked in a way to lessen the kusami. In washoku, the main ingredient that accomplishes this is sake, which is used widely in cooking in addition to being a beverage. When Japanese started to eat meat again in the late 19th century after centuries of imposed abstention, sake was used widely to combat what was perceived as the unpleasantly strong gaminess of beef and pork. A good example of this is sukiyaki, where thinly sliced beef is simmered in a combination of soy sauce, sugar and sake. The alcohol in sake, as well as the umami and sweetness, help to combat gamy flavors. Although sour ingredients such as vinegar and citrus as well as strongly flavored ingredients like onion and ginger are also very effective in lessening gaminess, they also add their own assertive flavors to a dish. Sake is more subtle; in small quantities, it does not affect the flavor much but still serves to lessen the gaminess and enhance the umami of fish and meat.
Drinking sake with fish or meat dishes helps further dissipate any gaminess. If the fish is served raw, as it is in sashimi and sushi, sake is the ideal accompaniment, even though fish that’s fresh enough to serve uncooked has very little gaminess.
Sake is also a good choice when the flavors of a dish are strong in one way or another. Unlike many wines, sake doesn’t clash with sour or spicy flavors. For example, a dish of vinegar-flavored vegetables or seafood called “sunomono” is often part of a washoku meal. The vinegar and citrus flavors in sunomono can conflict with a fruity wine, but sake simply serves as a fairly neutral, yet still flavorful, backdrop to the assertive flavors. The fragrance and flavor of herbs such as “shiso” (perilla), “mitsuba” (Japanese parsley) and myoga ginger that are used frequently in washoku also go well with sake.
Lastly, you may be wondering whether sake is best served chilled (reishu) or warm (atsukan). This is a matter of preference, but I prefer to have chilled sake when the food is the main event, such as a multicourse kaiseki meal. Chilled sake is more subtle and muted than hot sake, so it acts as a supporting player to the flavors of each dish. You also tend to get tipsy a bit faster when drinking hot sake, which may dull your taste buds a little. But there’s no denying that few things are as enjoyable as sipping hot sake while enjoying a bite of different “tsumami” (snacks that go well with drinks) on a cold winter’s day.
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