When you think about saké, you may think about a Hibachi chef serving the drink from across the cooking surface or a small white ceramic bottle adorning a sushi spread. But, the way saké has become synonymous with these styles of eating is not at all what was originally intended. In fact, saké food pairings go well beyond raw fish and soy sauce. So, what is the best way to enjoy saké, and how do you make the most of this delectable drink?
“There is a misconception that sushi and saké are a thing,” says Nes Rueda, managing director of Heavensaké. “In Japan, people drink white Burgundy or Champagne with their sushi, so this is really an American adaptation.”
He continues, “It’s not that saké is misunderstood, but it’s undiscovered. It’s not a beer, it’s not a wine–saké is its own thing.”
And, he’s right. Saké is much more than what American sippers have made it out to be. The beverage goes through a brewing process similar to beer but should be sipped like wine. (In fact, the best way to drink saké is from a white wine glass!). Saké has multiple styles, each with its very own nuances of flavor. Floral, fruity, sweet and dry—there is a saké for every palate.
“Saké is very personal, just like wine. Some may love a fruity Riesling but shy away from rich Chardonnay. In that same sense, some may love funky Yamahai saké or earthy Junmai saké but dislike pretty and elegant Daiginjo style saké,” says Eda Vuong, lead saké specialist at Saké School of America and brand ambassador for WESAKÉ.
But, there are some major differences in the way saké favors foods. Unlike other boozy beverages, saké is a vessel for flavors instead of an enhancement, Rueda explains. Whereas wine or beer may take food’s flavor to the next level, saké, instead, is designed to bring out the details you may have missed before.
In wine or beer pairings, it is best to find complementary flavors to those that are on the plate. But with saké, it’s actually about combining similar flavors for bites that will enliven the palate, says Miho Komatsu, a WSET-certified saké educator and brand ambassador and manager of Akashi Saké Brewery.
“It is always best to find similar flavor profiles. Finding a similar profile will make tastes double. It is not one plus one equals two with saké and food. It’s one plus one equals ten,” she says.
Ready to get sipping? Here are some saké and food pairings you should try when you crack open your next bottle.
Saké and Mediterranean Flavors
One of the most refreshing (and interesting!) takes on saké and food pairings is saké and Mediterranean cuisine. Evan Zagha, co-owner of TwinedNYC, notes that he grew up eating Greek food and it has now become one of his go-to saké and food pairings. Additionally, coastal Italian meals where seafood and citrus are the stars of the show can also create a synergy with saké that will be a surprise and delight.
“It is fat-heavy, so you have a lot of oil. There’s an insane amount of seafood, so you have that salinity, that brininess from all those [kinds of] seafood that gets cut or complemented with all the different sakés,” he says.
Zagha adds that Middle Eastern food, closely related to the Mediterranean style, should also be explored with saké. Israeli couscous and grilled meats or rice popular in Syrian cuisine are also complementary flavor profiles that become magnified by the addition of a glass of saké. “They’re kind of very similar all around, but they have their own life, their own heart. And those types of cuisines all go well with saké.”
Saké and Spice
Saké is a vessel for flavors, and instead of enhancing only some spices, or even clashing, saké is a great way to amplify all of those flavors, from the big and bold to the subtle.
Zagha notes that Moroccan flavors and South American cuisine, like Peruvian, are perfectly poised for pairing. Saké is also delicious with flavorful Mexican food, as it brings out all of those spices instead of clashing with them, Rueda adds.
Additionally, Saké pairs well with an American staple–barbecue—for the same reason, Komatsu explains. She suggests pairing burgers, ribs and grilled steak with steak sauce with a full-bodied style of saké. “Either Junmai-style saké or a classic saké that is not Ginjo style will work very well,” she says. (Ginjo style is more fruity and aromatic, and is light and refreshing, Komatsu says, while the non-Ginjo style is more Earthy.)
And, it doesn’t stop at barbecue. Vuong adds that saké stands up well to both Southern and Cajun-style foods for the same reason—the spice and heat. So, saké has a rightful place alongside gumbo and spicy shrimp and grits for a new sensory dining experience.
Saké and Fatty Foods
Just like Champagne and French fries, saké is also the perfect choice to be sipped alongside fried foods. Zagha explains that saké is light, bright and acidic, which balances the heavy, fatty, rich fried food on your palate.
Additionally, cheese is definitely on the menu when it comes to saké pairings. “It’s worth mentioning that wine and cheese can move over, because cheese and saké are the one true pairing, [so] bust out the charcuterie boards and saké,” says Vuong. She explains that saké has high levels of lactic acid that helps bring out and magnify the delicious milky notes of cheese.
Specifically, she recommends hard and semi-hard cheeses with a subtle amount of salt, noting Manchego, gruyère, blue cheeses, and pecorino as go-tos. “Saké has a little secret called acid. Saké has high levels of succinic and lactic acid. Lactic acid can be found in dairy products and fermented foods. Saké’s pairing affinity for those types of foods is very high and pairing like and like will multiply and enhance,” she says.
Rueda agrees, noting creamy cheese is one of the best pairings for saké, specifically those that are a little bubbly and with floral notes, as the umami enhancement from the sipper will elevate those tones.
Saké and Umami
Speaking of umami, Rueda explains that saké is a beverage in a class all its own and has the ability to be sipped alongside some common foods, but also some really hard-to-pair foods.
“There have been foods that are notoriously hard to pair with other types of alcoholic beverages, especially wine. Saké, though, tends to pair itself really nicely to these foods,” he says.
These include things like asparagus and Brussels sprouts. He also notes that pizza, particularly with mushrooms, “will blow your mind,” as the saké enhances the notes of Umami from the morel. Wagyu steak, caviar, uni and anything with truffle are also perfect with saké that contains floral notes or saké with a bit of effervescence for the same reason.
Another pairing that will hit the spot? Oysters and saké, says Komatsu. “My favorite pairing is oysters with Akashi-Tai Junmai Daiginjo Genshu. This producer is near the seaside. It is beautifully paired and brings a nice, clean finish at the end,” she says.
“Saké is full of surprises,” says Vuong. “The delicacy of saké’s umami, acidity and sweetness help prop up and highlight the ingredients instead of overpowering or fighting to take the lead. If anything deserves an award for best supporting character, it’s probably saké.”
How to Have the Best Saké Experience
If you’re looking to dabble in saké for the first time, we picked some of the best beginner tips shared by experts to ensure your saké experience is one that will be enjoyable.
- You should drink your saké 12 to 24 months after purchasing it for the best flavor.
- After opening, store saké in the fridge. It can last for up to six weeks before beginning to turn.
- Sip your saké from a white wine glass, as it allows the beverage to open up for a full sensory experience.
- Keep saké at the same temperature you would a white wine. However, as it warms, it will shift and express itself even more. Read more on how to serve saké properly.
- Ordering at a bar? Tell your bartender your preferred flavor profiles for a perfect fit.
Published: February 22, 2023