Traditional recipes

Sake and Sushi Pairings

Sake and Sushi Pairings

The best sakes for your sushi rolls

When it comes to pairings made in heaven, we can’t think of a match that’s better than sake and sushi. After all, they both grow out of ancient Japanese culinary traditions. In fact, besides tea, sake is the only beverage some purists will pair with their sushi.

Most sushi novices know that junmai daiginjo sakes, with their clean and crisp flavors, are perfect with a pristine piece of ahi tuna sushi. The rice that goes into these sakes — like the CHOKAISAN Junmai Daiginjo Sake (Japan) $55 (750 milliliters) — is highly polished, so the core that’s left behind makes a very smooth fermented drink.

But there are other styles that pair well with everything on the sushi menu, from tempura and eel to dynamite and seared Kobe beef. Try out these new pairings:

Sake: DEWAZAKURA Tobiroku "Festival of the Stars" Sparkling Sake (Japan) $14 (300 milliliters)

Flavors: This dry sparkler has crisp flavors of earth, minerals, and a hint of citrus. Pair with: A shrimp tempura roll is perfect with the crisp bubbles, so is a soft-shell crab spider roll.

Sake: RIHAKU Tokubetsu Junmai Nigori "Dreamy Clouds" Sake (Japan) $35 (750 milliliters)

Flavors: Expect mouthwatering acidity along with a flavor like ripe plums in this fruity, creamy, and slightly sweet sake. Pair with: We like the idea of this sake with a scallop dynamite roll.

Sake: TENRYO Junmai Daignjo Koshu Aged Sake (Japan) $36 (720 milliliters)

Flavors: Three years of bottle aging gives this dry sake a deep, rich flavor that’s reminiscent of caramel and nuts. Pair with: This sake could work with eel or even the flavors in seared Kobe beef roll.

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Top pairings

What type of food is the best match for sake and why? Shirley Booth, founder of the British Sake Association comes up with a few surprises and some useful pointers on serving temperatures.

Nihonshu wa ryori wo erabanai

This Japanese proverb, quoted in Philip Harper&rsquos The Book of Sake, translates as &lsquosake doesn&rsquot get into fights with food&rsquo. The high amino acid content of sake is what makes it so well suited to food, as it heightens the umami, enhancing taste and emphasising rich savoury elements.

In Japan drinking sake has always been accompanied by eating, and there are some traditional and classic combinations, such as sake with sashimi. (Although sake is also served with sushi (vinegared rice) some traditionalists maintain that, once rice is brought to table the sake should go, as it&rsquos considered that rice with rice is too much of a good thing.)

Philip Harper says that sake is the preferred partner for raw fish, because fishy odours can be amplified by beer and some wines. Lighter sakes are best here &ndash a DaiGinjo (Chikuha is a good one) a fruity Ginjo, or even a crisp dry Honjozo &ndash served chilled at 5-10°C.

Later on in the meal when grilled or fried dishes appear, an umami-rich sake with high acidity, such as a yamahai or junmai, is what you want to help oily dishes such as tempura or grilled eel, or rich spicy meat dishes, such as Korean barbecue.

Sake is especially good with fermented foods &ndash and this includes a great number of the staples of Japanese cuisine &ndash soy sauce and miso in particular. Indeed sake itself is an important part of Japanese cooking &ndash it reduces odour and lessens bitterness, so it&rsquos commonly used to poach fish. So any dish with miso or soy sauce is enhanced by sake.

Sake is also good with traditional pickled foods, as the pickling process (using salt, rice bran or sake kasu &ndash the lees or solids left when sake is pressed) increases the amino acid content.

The presence of koji mould in sake means that sake can marry surprisingly well with cheeses, especially creamy, aromatic and mild types. (The Kyodogakusha Shintoku Co-operative in Hokkaido have developed a cheese whose rind is washed in sake &ndash a particularly good pairing).

Temperature and food

When we talk about matching sake with food we have to think about temperature, and at which stage of the meal to serve it.

Chilled: reishu 5-10°C, suitable for crisp light and fragrant sake, such as top grade Dai Ginjo. Serve early on in the meal with lighter foods.

Room temperature: jo-on 15 -25°C, suitable for sake with body and flavour &ndash junmai are especially good here, as are aged sakes. Serve with richer, soy sauce-based and grilled dishes. Less flowery Ginjos with earthy and rice notes and Honjozo are all suited to room temperature.

Warm: kanzake &ndash ranges from atsukan (50°C) to nuru kan (40C) &ndash NOT suitable for lighter Ginjos and Dai Ginjos, but supremely comforting in a Honjozo (Akashi tai&rsquos for example)served with unpretentious izakaya food (such as edamame, grilled aubergine or yakitori).

On the rocks: Genshu is undiluted sake with an alcohol content of 20%, (after pressing all sake is 20%, but usually water is added to reduce the strength to around 15-17% alcohol) and the only one suitable for drinking on the rocks &ndash perfect in summer or as an aperitif.

If you feel that a chilled sake is too bland with the food you are serving, then warming it up enriches the flavours &ndash and you can do this by just letting it stand at room temperature. In fact it&rsquos always informative and fun to try the same sake at different temperatures, as different elements appear and recede.

Shirley Booth is President and Founder of the British Sake Association, a writer and a director.

In 2006 Shirley was the first UK recipient of the newly-created Japanese Agriculture Minister&rsquos Award For Overseas Promotion of Japanese Food, which she has been involved in for over two decades.Apart from her role as President of the British Sake Association Shirley helps to promote sake by organising sake-themed events and tastings for Corporate clients, and writing about it.

Shirley also uses her film-making skills to produce DVDs on sake-making, and other food and drink related subjects, both for broadcast and corporate clients.

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Fun fact: Gari or pickled ginger is not a side dish, but it&rsquos often served with sushi to serve as a palate cleanser in between bites.

And do you know why it has that bright pink hue? Authentic pickled ginger makes use of baby ginger for its milder flavor and softer consistency. And it happens to have a pink tip, hence the color.

Baby ginger is difficult to find, though, so a lot of Japanese restaurants use regular ginger and add food coloring instead.

The Expert Guide To Pairing Sake With Japanese Food

Is there anything better than fresh, well-made sushi? I pretty much want to eat it whenever possible. Ramen is also one of the most satisfying foods—a hot bowl of soft noodles in pork broth, yes please! But I’ve only been exposed to these foods here in the U.S. I’ve never been to Japan. When it comes to pairing a drink with my sushi or ramen, I’m completely stumped as to which sake to pick. Sake is an incredibly unique, enigmatic, and versatile beverage that can compliment food just as wonderfully as wine. There are a myriad of factors that determine sake’s flavor—and it can be intimidating to think about it all.

To get a grasp on understanding sake from a beginner’s perspective (and Japanese food lover’s perspective), I enlisted the help of a few sake professionals: Chance Johnston and Philip Gilmour, co-owners of the Brooklyn izakaya Moku Moku, and their general manager Josh Neiderer, as well as Andrew Richardson, who works in sales at World Sake Imports. In Japan, an izakaya is a casual bar where you snack on grilled meats and drink beer or sake with friends. Gilmour and Johnston are serious sake enthusiasts, and they were eager to share their passion with people who want to get into drinking sake. Here is some of the wisdom these sake lovers imparted, plus a few bottles they recommend.

Basic Facts About Sake:

It’s actually a myth that sake is a rice wine it’s not considered a wine because there isn’t the same process of yeasts converting sugar to alcohol—instead, starch is what must be converted via fermentation. “Sake is really in it’s own category, and if anything, it’s closer to beer,” says Andrew Richardson of World Sake Imports. There’s a complex process involved in making sake, including a “parallel fermentation.” First, the polished rice is fermented with the addition of a mold spore called koji following that, it is inoculated with yeast for a second fermentation. For more about the sake making process, check out the illustrated guide on the website of Masumi, a premium sake producer.

Every Beer Lover Needs This Hop Aroma Poster

Most sake is dry, Richardson explained. There’s something called the SMV that is often displayed on the back label of a sake bottle, with numbers ranging from -4 to +4. The SMV measures “the buoyancy of sugar,” as well as amino acids, Richardson says. In other words, expect sake to be dry, although the strong floral notes may produce a sensation of sweetness on your palate.

Sake’s Three Main Styles:

Sake’s complexity, elegance, and price point all have to do with how polished the grains of rice are that go into it. “The more polished the sake, generally speaking, the cleaner the starch and therefore the cleaner the taste,” is how Gilmour explains it. In addition to these main categories, there are numerous other factors that affect how sake tastes: pasteurization, filtering, the addition of alcohol, and dilution. These are all techniques that vary according to the sake master’s approach.

There are three levels of rice polishing, which also correspond to a sake’s price:

  • Junmai: 70 percent (or less) remains unpolished typically display a robust rice flavor and tend to be light and refreshing on the palate this is “entry-level” sake
  • Ginjo: 60 percent (or less) remains unpolished fruity and floral notes, more nuanced than Junmai but still light and refreshing
  • Daiginjo: 50 percent (or less) remains unpolished made in smaller quantities with more traditional methods richer flavor and aroma profiles displaying complexity and finesse

Serving And Pairing Sake:

“Sake is so versatile as a food wine,” says Chance Johnston. “It pairs with a lot of things that can be difficult for wine—like asparagus, for example.” It typically comes in bottles slightly smaller than wine—720mL as opposed to 750mL. Your sake pours don’t need to be as large as a glass of wine. Also, per Japanese custom, it is polite to pour for your dining companions before filling your own glass.

Temperature is important when it comes to sake. Generally, Johnston and Gilmour prefer serving sake at room temperature, as opposed to straight from a cold fridge. If you are going to serve sake warmed up, try making a double-boiler with a glass carafe in a pot—and don’t bring it all the way to boiling. Too-hot sake will lose flavor. Instead, aim for about 110 degrees.

“A lot of sake connoisseurs say that hot sake isn’t good because it eradicates the flavor,” says Gilmour. “So you should really only heat up cheap sake. Then again, there’s a time and a place for hot sake from a machine.”

Bottles To Try:

Asabakiri “Suijin,” Junmai $25

Bone dry and slightly astringent. A fantastic entry-level sake.

Pair With: Fatty meats like pork belly and fish, like toro miso black hog rib-eye steak

Miyasaka “Yawaraka” Junmai $22

This sake is slightly lower in alcohol than most—12 percent ABV as opposed to 15—so you could have it for lunch, with sushi. Room temperature, it’s soft, floral, and very light. When warm, it displays profound umami notes, and is very comforting, with even more subtle flavors.

Pair With: Sushi, Banh Mi, Ramen

Akitabare “Shunsetsu” Honjozo $27

A “hanjozo” sake is made with the addition of brewer’s alcohol, so the taste is a bit more robust and it will be a touch higher in ABV. Gilmour says that adding alcohol to sake is a technique akin to “dusting salt over a piece of fine meat—it just adds the right amount of flavor.” This one is crisp and dry yet very floral.

Pair With: Ramen

Kokuryu Kuzuryu Junmai $32

A very aromatic sake, with loads of stonefruits on the nose, followed by creaminess, umami on the palate, and a boost of acidity.

Pair With: Vegetable dishes and salads as first course of a meal

Tedorigawa “Kinka” Daiginjo, $45

This is an unpasteurized sake, which gives it an overall smokiness and umami flavor, as well as notes of ripe cantaloupe. Fantastic example of the complexity and quality to be found in Daiginjo sake.

Food and Sake Pairings that aren’t Traditional Japanese Dishes

Ask 10 people about what they would pair with sake and, unless you’ve got someone who has spent a good deal of time drinking the stuff, it’s almost a sure bet that they’re all going to same the same thing: Japanese food. To be even more specific, they’ll probably all say what you’re also thinking right now: sushi.

There’s nothing wrong with that — most of us have only had sake when it has been served alongside sushi. This sake pairing is delicious, but we wanted to know if there was anything else we could marry with this Japanese wine to make a tasty meal. In order to find out, we sat down with Paul Englert, director of marketing for SakéOne, an Oregon-based sake brewery that has been creating premium sakes for over 20 years.

“Sake is really all about collaboration with food,” says Englert. Because of the low acidity and lack of tannins (compared to wine), Englert says, sake “tends to allow the food to be the food.”

This is beneficial overall because it helps to create harmony between drink and meal. “It’s really hard to make a mistake with sake,” he says.

With that in mind, we asked him what he thought would make some great sake and food pairings.

Futsu (Table Sake) with Mushroom Risotto

Photo by Katrin Gilger Photo by Katrin Gilger

“There’s an earthiness in the sake that goes really well with a mushroom risotto,” he says. “The table sake doesn’t fight with umami it tends to complement it. Other Italian meals that also have those umami flavors going on also go really well with table sake.”

Junmai Ginjo Sake with Burritos

Photo by Sodanie Chea Photo by Sodanie Chea

“There is a little more elegance in Junmai Ginjo (compared to the table sake), but it still retains freshness and texture,” he says. “This makes it go really well with foods with a little bit of spice, as you’ll see in some Mexican dishes.”

Nama-Chozo (Draft Sake) with Hot Dogs

“This may sound like an unconventional pairing, but because draft sake is only pasteurized once (compared to twice with other sakes), it has refreshing quality that can easily replace an amber lager or another type of beer that you’d have at a cookout.”

Junmai Ginjo with Fried Chicken

“You want a Junmai Gingo for this pairing because of the umami and the richness and saltiness in the fried chicken. If you go too delicate in your sake (such as a Daiginjo), it would be overwhelmed.

Sparkling Sake with Popcorn

“The light, refreshing bubbles in a sparkling sake go really well with popcorn, as they complement the light butter and salt flavors. The carbonation, too, helps this pairing excel.”

Nigori Sake with Chocolate Bundt Cake

“All sake tends to have a slightly sweet taste, but Nigori sake, because of process through which is made and the eventual texture, there tends to be a perception of sweetness. This means it works really well as a dessert pairing. You just want to make sure your cake is not frosted — instead pour the Nigori over the cake!”

Sake Isn’t Just For Sushi: Here’s How To Pair It With Food, According To An Expert

The popularity of sake has been growing for years in the United States, which should come as no surprise for those who have gravitated to rice wine for both sipping and pairing with food.

The range of styles and fantastic food-friendliness of sake make it the perfect beverage for the increasingly broad ways in which so many Americans eat and drink. Vermouth is finally having its proverbial day in the sun and pét-nat sparklers have been on a tear for some time now. It only makes sense, then, that sake should have a similar moment of growing awareness and popularity.

As a consequence of this, sake is an increasingly important option for pairing with meals…and not just Japanese foods. Which makes sense: Just like Amarone is a great pairing partner for a hamburger, and Champagne sings alongside fried chicken, sake is a rewarding, delicious option alongside a range of foods that have nothing to do with Japanese culinary traditions.

In other words, just because a particular bottle of wine is from a specific country, that doesn’t mean that it can pair only with foods from the same place. What a boring world it would be if that were the case!

It’s the same with sake. And while it is most familiarly seen in the United States alongside sushi, ramen, and other widely familiar Japanese dishes, sake’s ability to pair with food is far broader than that.

In order to understand more about pairing sake, I enlisted the help of one of the country’s foremost sake experts, Eduardo Dingler, vice president of Wine for Wine Access, Sake Ambassador, and an International Judge in Wine, Sake, and Spirits. In other words, he knows his stuff. And he firmly believes that more of us should be enjoying sake in a wider variety of contexts.

“Sake is extremely versatile with several global cuisines,” he explains. “Some of my favorite pairings include Italian food — cheese and tomato are some of sake’s best friends because of the natural umami factor.”

That sense of umami, or savoriness, is one of the key factors that allow sake to be so versatile at the table. It also makes it uniquely well-suited to standing up to the richness of foods that aren’t traditionally considered alongside sake. “I love to experiment often,” he continues, “and I have some ideal bacon-cheeseburger sake pairings, and even BBQ.”

Indeed, sake is produced in a wide range of styles and in regions throughout Japan…and, these days, by a number of notable producers in the United States, too. This variety means that there’s an increasingly diverse selection of sake for consumers to enjoy.

“Depending on the rice strain, water, and yeast combinations due to regionality, it can be fresh and fruity or deep and oxidative,” Dingler notes. It’s those characteristics, along with a sake’s weight, texture, and acidity, that should be considered with pairing sake with food.

“Some of the key points to a successful pairing include regionality, which is driven by the mineral composition of the water source. Also, aging and producer preferences are most vital for the style,” he says.

For instance, Dingler notes, “the trend with avant-garde producers is to raise the acidity levels to make it ideal to go with food.” In this regard, there is a distinct parallel between forward-looking sake and wine, with a focus on acidity — which is a key aspect in terms of food-friendliness — as opposed to sheer power or richness.

The similarities don’t end there, he says. “There are a number of parallel characteristics between sake and wine. Some [sakes], for instance, maintain a similarity on acidity levels, although not very common. Also, a mineral component found in certain sakes produced from Omachi rice coming from Southern prefectures tends to mimic Sancerre in some ways.”

Dingler elaborates: “There are many things I love about sake, but some of the most relevant include the rich history behind it and the wide range of styles that is connected to regions [of its production]. In some ways,” he added, “it reminds [me] of Italy, where each area has staple wines that pair with their cuisine, and historical background driven by climatic and geographical features.”

If you’re not familiar with pairing sake and food, Dingler has advice on where to start. “When encountering sake for the first time, it is important to lean on Junmai Ginjo sakes, which can be more versatile and ‘cleaner’ in some ways. As you gain experience, start looking for the terms Yamahai, Kimoto, and Koshu [on sake labels], which tend to be richer and more impactful due to production methods.” He continues, “One of my all-time favorites to introduce to novices is Minenohakubai King of Modern Light Junmai Ginjo from Niigata. This sake offers an excellent window to the premium sake world, with the right amount of fruit vs. acid balance.” It is, he notes, “simply delicious.”

As are so many great sake and food pairings. The key is to expand the range of sakes you drink, and be open to pairing them with foods that you might not have considered alongside them before. The rewards have the potential to be game-changers.

How to pair Japanese sake with food

I&rsquom a big fan of Japanese artisan sake and wanted to post an article about sake and food pairing. But I&rsquom not the expert, so when author, instructor and publisher of one of the most comprehensive websites about Japanese sake (, John Gauntner, offered to write a post, I practically did a back-flip! And then, to top it all off, Morgan of Vine Connections (a former client of mine) came over and brought a caseful of sake for me to try. So, I invited friends Michael, Debbie and Barry to come by and party. Our meal was non-Japanese, which was perfect because we really got a chance to experience how clean, crisp Japanese sake plays so well with other foods, especially cheese, manicotti, smoked wild boar and home made bread

I&rsquoll just come right out and say it: sake holds as much potential for pairing with food as wine. It&rsquos true. And the rules and principles are the same.

Sure, it has its limitations. Sake is subtle it has a much smaller presence or &ldquofootprint&rdquo than wine. It&rsquos generally more demure, more delicate. And it has a lower overall acidity and no tannins. All this limits it in some ways, but helps its pairing potential in others.

But know this: sake is NOT limited to Japanese food, nor even to Asian food. Perish the thought! Sure, sake has limitations. Food that is too strong in any facet &ndash spicy, rich, hot &ndash will overpower sake. But take away those obvious mismatches, and what remains in western cuisine works very well indeed with sake.

Sake and food is hardly rocket science. It works just like wine does. You want to compare and contrast. So you look for similarities or contrasts that bring out the best of both the food and the sake. If you&rsquore lucky, you get a synergy that makes both food and drink better than they would have been alone.

Interestingly, though, traditionally in Japan sake and food have not been paired as precisely as wine and food in the west. Sure, they have always enjoyed sake with food in Japan. But sake was used to support the food, taking a supporting role. &ldquoRyori ni jama shinai,&rdquo they say. &ldquoSake that does not interfere with the food.&rdquo Sure this is changing. But historically, and often today as well, this was the thinking.

So what do you look for? What do you latch on to when pairing? Lots of things. Sweetness or dryness, fruity aromas or earthy ones, flavors that can run from rice-like to herbal or nutty. Structure, volume, acidity, texture, and length of finish are valid too.

One more biggie with sake and food is umami &ndash that elusive savoriness that some call a fifth flavor element. Without it, sake is too simple. Too much umami and it&rsquos cloying. But matching umami in sake and food is a great pairing principle.

There are a number of situations where wine doesn&rsquot quite work, but sake is near perfect. Vinegar-laden food is one example, including leafy green salads. Soy-tinged food is another, which is important as that important flavor element finds its way into more and more dishes. And sake asks no quarter of wine when oysters are on the table.

One thing you can&rsquot do is pair a sake to a dish based on the label alone. That works for wine quite often not so with sake. Why not? Flavors and aromas are not consistent enough across regions, nor across grades of sake. The label alone will not tell you enough. You have to taste it to know how to pair it.

Fortunately, it is hard to have a real mismatch with sake: even if the pairing is not perfect, you have leeway. So feel free to experiment.

See the chart for a few suggested pairing strategies, starting with either the sake profile or the food. These are just examples the principles will take you off on your own. Try appealing pairings for yourself and discover just how food-friendly sake truly is.

A native of Asakusa, Tokyo, Taka Minagawa is a professional chef with 20+ years of experience in Washoku (Japanese cuisine). Early in his career, he honed his cooking skills at various Japanese restaurants throughout Japan including a Michelin star establishment in Kyoto. In September 2012, he joined the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV), a program aimed at providing technical assistance in developing countries, as a Washoku instructor at a trade school in Zimbabwe for three years. Embracing his passion for travel, in 2016 Mr. Minagawa was selected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan to be the Personal Chef to the Consul General of Japan in Boston. Following this post of more than three years, Chef Minagawa came to Atlanta in November 2019 to begin his current position as the Personal Chef to Consul General Kazuyuki Takeuchi.

The Science of Sake & Food Pairings

Umami is the flavor god before which we sake types bow down and worship.”
--Philip Harper, the first non-Japanese toji, (Sake Master Brewer)

Many people still consider Sake as something to pair only with sushi, tempura and other Japanese cuisine. Few non-Japanese restaurants carry Sake, which further perpetuates the mistaken belief that Sake is only for Japanese food. In actuality, Sake makes a fine accompaniment to many different cuisines and sometimes is even a better pairing than wine. You can enjoy Sake with dishes such as mushroom risotto, pork tenderloin, roast chicken, barbecued ribs or even pizza.

It is important to understand that Sake does not possess a single flavor profile but rather has an incredibly diverse range, from sweet to dry, fruity to floral, bold to elegant, earthy to herbal, and much more. There are many different types of Sake, such as Junmai, Nigori, Koshu, Honjozo, Ginjo and more. Sake has at least as much complexity as wine, and more in some respects, possessing twice as many aromatic esters as wine. That means Sake has the potential for twice as many aromas than wine, and aroma plays a significant role in flavor.

With all the different flavor profiles and types of Sake, there really is a Sake that is appropriate for nearly any type of food. The Japanese have an apt saying, Nihonshu wa ryori wo erabanai, which basically translates as "Sake does not get into fights with food." It is an indication that they feel Sake pairs well with many different foods, and generally won't overpower anything or be overpowered by some dish.

There are some standard foods that are considered a traditional pairing for sake and they are collectively referred to as sakana. This usually includes edamame, raw fish, grilled meats, dried squid, tofu and vegetables (often pickled). But Sake is not restricted to these traditional items and it is time people started realizing the potential.

When it comes to wine and food pairing, there are really no set rules. But, even though there are no absolute rules, there are scientific and logical reasons why some wines and foods pair better together than others. Elements like acidity, tannins and aromatic compounds all play a significant role in food pairing. The same is applicable to Sake, and you can basically pair it as you would pair wine with food. You can compare or contrast the elements of the Sake to the food, just as you would with wine.

Junmai Sake, which often has a rich, heavy body, is sometimes considered the “red wine” of Sake and thus can pair with stronger flavors including beef, fried foods and rich sauces. Ginjo and Daiginjo Sakes are often lighter and more subtle, comparable to many quality white wines. They should be paired with lighter, milder foods, such as seafood and chicken. As Sake acidity varies, you should pair higher acidic Sake with oilier foods while lower acidic Sake pairs better with rich or salty foods.

Like Riesling, Sake can range from sweet to bone-dry, and a sweet Sake can pair very well with spicy dishes, such as Thai or Indian curry. A fine Burgundy may have an earthy or mushroom component, and the Kimoto or YamahaiSakes can have a similar profile, so they will pair well with foods appropriate for such wines. Try an earthy Kimoto with duck or lamb. Rather than pair Champagne with caviar, you could try a Sparkling Sake instead. Note that most sparkling Sake tends to be on the sweeter side, though there are dry varieties as well. For a dessert pairing, try a sweet Nigori, a cloudy Sake, or even a rich Koshu, an aged Sake.

Beyond this simple advice, a little science lesson will help you make better pairings, an examination of some of the special components of Sake, namely amino acids. Amino acids, at their simplest, are the basic building blocks of proteins and each amino acid has its own specific function. These amino acids play a significant role in the utility and versatility of Sake.

There are over twenty different amino acids in Sake, a greater variety than found in any other alcohol. As an example, Sake contains seven times more amino acids than red wine. During fermentation, more than half the protein in the rice gets broken down and converted into nitrogen compounds, nearly half which are amino acids. The protein in rice is generally located in the outer layers, which often get polished away, at least in part. That means that a higher quality Sake, like a Daiginjo, with a higher rice polishing rate, will have less protein available for conversion and subsequently a lower level of amino acids.

A lengthier fermentation process also tends to produce more amino acids. As Sake is generally fermented longer than that of most wines, it also tends to produce more amino acids. In addition, the more traditional brewing processes, Kimoto and Yamahai, which can take twice as long to ferment, generally have the most amino acids of any Sake.

The degree of amino acids in a Sake is known as the amino sando, and you may even see that number listed on a Sake label or in the sales materials. Amino sando levels tend to average between about 0.7 and 1.5. Each specific style of Sake has an average amino acid level, though obviously there will be variation. For example, Futsu-shu, Ginjo and Honjozo have an average level of 1.3 while a Junmai has a 1.5.

In general, higher levels indicate a more full-bodied, rounder, and richer tasting Sake. Thus, you are more likely to have a higher level with a Junmai. Lower levels indicate a lighter, cleaner, and more mellow Sake so the more elegant Sakes like Ginjo and Daiginjo will have lower levels. But there is much more to amino acids than these basics.

Five kinds of amino acids are considered to most affect taste: alanine, arginine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid and succinic acid. Alanine is said to produce sweetness, while arginine produces bitterness and aspartic acid can produce acidity and astringency. Glutamic acid and succinic acid may be the most important components though because of their role in creating the taste of umami.

You probably already know the four basic tastes, including salt, sweet, bitter, and sour, but there is a fifth as well. Umami, this fifth taste, is often described as “savoriness” or “meatiness” though it is probably best understood through tasting foods rich in umami, such as soy sauce, ripe tomatoes, parmesan cheese, scallops, and mushrooms.

In 1908, Professor Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist, discovered that glutamic acid gave kombu seaweed a very distinctive taste, which he labeled umami. Kombu may possess more umami than any other food. Later scientists would identify two other sources of umami, inosinate and guanylate, two nucleotides. Inosinate is found mostly in meat and fish while guanylate is most often found in mushrooms. Currently, at least 39 substances, including succinic acid, have been discovered to contribute to the taste of umami.

It still took time for umami to gain credibility as it was not until 1985 that umami was officially accepted by the scientific community as the fifth taste. In 2000 and 2002, a couple scientific studies then determined that humans possess taste buds specially dedicated to glumatic acid, to the taste of umami.

Please also note that glutamic acid is an amino acid while glutamate is a compound largely composed of glutamic. You are probably most familiar with the glutamate known as MSG, monosodium glutamate, which is a salt used to enhance flavor. Sake does not contain monosodium glutamate.

Our first exposure to the taste of umami is actually before we are even born as amniotic fluid in the womb possesses glutamic acid, about 2.2mg/100ml. After we are born and if we are breast fed, then our exposure to umami continues, and to a greater degree as breast milk is much higher in glumatic acid, about 18.7 mg/100ml.

Umami does more than just make food taste better. It can also serve to suppress our appetite, causing us to eat fewer calories by convincing our stomach that it has had enough protein. In addition, because it tends to round out and deepen flavors, then it can also deter us from adding extra salt and fat to our foods.

For a long time, food and wine pairing advice ignored the involvement of umami. But recently, that has begun to change and Tim Hanni, a Master of Wine, has been leading a crusade to correct that omission. In fact, the Wine & Spirits Education Trust has recently revised their primary textbook to include a discussion of umami, wine and food pairings. Though wine possesses some glutamic acid, it contains much less than Sake.

On average, Sake contains 100-250 mg/l of glumatic acid while wine contains only 10-90 mg/l and beer even less, only 10-15 mg/l. Generally, older, earthier wines tend to possess more glutamic acid. Sherry, Port, and Madeira tend to possess some of highest levels of glutamic acid of any types of wine. But, if considering umami in your food pairing recommendations, maybe you should consider Sake instead because of its greater amount of glutamic acid..

Now, as Sake possesses a high level of glumatic acid, it possesses plenty of umami taste. So what is the impact of that umami in regards to food pairings? First, you can pair glutamic rich Sake with other glumatic rich foods, which is similar to what is sometimes done in Italian cuisine. Ripe tomatoes, used in red sauce, are rich in glutamic acid, 246 mg/100g, while Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated atop red sauce, contains a whopping 1680 mg/100g. That is considered an excellent pairing so why not consider adding some Sake to that equation?

Second, there is also a synergistic effect with umami, which means that when you combine foods with different sources of umami, the overall taste is intensified. So, when considering foods to pair with umami-rich Sakes, which are high in glutamic acid, then you can seek out foods with high levels of inosinate or guanylate to create that intensification effect.

Tuna, chicken and pork have relatively high amounts of inosinate (respectively 286 mg/100g, 283 mg/100g, and 260 mg/100g) though shrimp and beef have a fair amount as well (respectively 92 mg/100g and 90 mg/100g). So an umami-rich Sake would enhance the savory taste of these foods, from barbecued chicken to a filet mignon.

Mushrooms are the key possessors of guanylate, though some types have much more than others. For example, Shiitake mushrooms have a high amount of guanylate, 150 mg/100g. Thus, something like a mushroom risotto would pair very well with Sake. It is also interesting to note that truffles are one of the few foods containing all three sources of umami in a significant amount. Talk about an umami explosion!

Cheese often is rich in umami and pairs well with different Sakes. Pairing cheese with wine can sometimes be a challenge as cheese can be high in fat, salty and possess strong flavors. With red wine, the saltiness can sometimes cause issues because of the tannins. The strong flavors can also sometimes overpower wine. Sake though has no issues with saltiness, as it does not possess tannins, and can stand up to those strong flavors, even blue cheese. Sake’s ability to stand up to strong flavors also makes it an excellent pairing for bitter vegetables, like asparagus, thought to be a difficult food to pair with wine. Just think how Sake is able to cope with strong wasabi flavors in sushi.

Besides glumatic acid, other amino acids in Sake provide additional benefits. They help to neutralize fishy flavors in seafood, something wine generally cannot do. Thus, Sake may be a better pairing with seafood than wine, especially any seafood that might tend to possess a more fishy flavor, like uni. In addition, some red wines contain minute amounts of iron that cause seafood to leave a fishy taste in your mouth. That does not happen with Sake.

So expand your horizons and experiment with Sake with food pairings. Try some Italian, barbecue, burgers, pizza, Spanish tapas, or seafood with a delicious Sake. Enhance the umami of your dish, and revel in the savoriness that envelops your mouth. And if you find you love a certain Sake pairing, please come back and share your discovery with me.


Food pairing is such an important part of enjoying wine that many labels suggest pairings, and almost anyone handling the bottle between producer and customer will have something intelligent to say about it. That same vibe has come to be a part of sake enjoyment as well, and a very valid vibe it is.

Often I like to let the sake speak for itself, keep the food simple, and not worry about the pairing too much. This can be done with sake quite easily—it asks little of food and goes fairly well with a very wide range of choices. Sake rarely clashes with anything. Still, it holds endless promise for pairing properly and enjoyably, and it’s fun to experiment with sake and cuisine from all over the world.

When sake and food comes up, people often want to know how they do it in Japan. Are there any “red with meat, white with fish” generalities used with sake? How far do they take it? How do they pair sake and food in Japan?

The truth is, very commonly, they don’t. At least not traditionally.

I think even a hundred years ago in Paris a good restaurant would have a whole list of wines, rather than just one or two. But even today, although in recent years the situation is changing, if you go into a fine Japanese restaurant in Tokyo serving traditional food, you will find only one or two sake—one earmarked for hot, one for cold.

This is not the sake’s fault! Sake certainly has the potential for precise, well-thought-out pairings that enhance both the food and the sake. It’s just that this isn’t the way things were done for most of sake’s history. The food—the raw materials, the preparation, and oh, the presentation—were the star of the show, with sake relegated to a supporting role. It needn’t have been this way, but the truth is that it has been.

The thinking is, “We’ve got your back. Enjoy the food we will take care of the sake for you.” And it seems to have worked well enough. I recall once going into a sushi shop in Tokyo at which I was a regular, or at least enough of one to tease the guy behind the counter. I inquired as to why he only had one sake on hand.

“Listen, smart-ass,” he said in not quite those words, “I was up at four in the morning today to go to Tsukiji to buy twenty-six different kinds of fish. For you. Do you think I want you paying attention to the sake? Pay attention to the fish I will handle the sake for you!” When put that way, it does sort of make sense!

So, pairing sake and food has not been nearly as active a sport in Japan as pairing wine and food has been in the Western world. Moreover, while it is more and more common to create wonderful food and sake pairings, there is no proper or authentic way of doing it. Nor is there any consensus throughout the industry on how it should be done.

There are, of course, various philosophies and systems that have been developed many are solid and practical. They can be quite helpful, but as good as they might be, none has been around for very long, and none has been universally agreed upon or adopted by the industry as a whole. It’s kind of hard to call something just invented last year a “traditional” approach. In that sense, there really is no authentic or traditional approach to pairing sake and food in Japan.

What is good about this is that there are no rules to break, no traditions to violate, no generalizations to which we must adhere.

It’s not as if everyone was lazy all these centuries, never bothering to develop practices and approaches to pairing sake and food. If we look at how most sake was enjoyed in Japan for so long, we can see that sake was serving its purpose just fine. People (in particular, men, who drank the biggest share of sake) enjoyed sake with small nibbles, most commonly salty and packed with umami. These varied from region to region, and the sake was more or less made to accompany them. So, small, salty dishes with local brew went quite well.

Freshly shucked oysters for the Four Seasons Maui. Yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno, black cod saikyo miso, and Jyunmai Daiginjo sake at Nobu at the Four Seasons Lanai at Manele Bay. Photography by Marco Garcia for The Wall Street Journal.

After the sake part of the evening, the men would move on to finishing up with rice, miso soup, and pickles, at which point the sake was commonly cleared from the table. The entire Japanese way of enjoying sake and food was a bit different from the West’s, and thus, pairing developed differently. There are many other reasons, but this is an important one.

Things in Japan are changing for the better, and quickly. More and more modern Japanese restaurants offer a sizable list of sake with their food and are developing some conventions of active pairing and recommendations. While there is still some catching up to do, matching sake with food can be enjoyable and interesting, done with precision and with great success.

So, how does one go about it? What are at least some rules or principles? What are the goals? It’s not rocket science. You look for flavors, aromas, and other aspects of the sake and the food that are a little bit similar so they dovetail nicely, or that contrast well so as to bring out particular aspects. The goal is simple: make the sake and the food taste better together through similarities or contrasts in flavor, and elevate the overall experience of enjoying them together. That’s it.

One thing that holds people back is the idea that sake needs to be paired with Japanese food. “Well, we’re not having sushi tonight, so why would we have sake?” Even if they do pair sake with something other than sushi, if they go so far as to leave the realm of Japanese food and foray into pairing sake with Western cuisine, people are often overly concerned about doing it right. Folks want to know “how they do it in Japan.” But there is no one right way, so there are no traditions to violate. It’s liberating, really.

On a more practical level, sake truly does go well with a wide range of food. It may be the most versatile beverage on the planet in that regard. Sake has comparatively low acidity and zero tannins, making clashes very avertable. Obviously there will be some things that will not work, some foods that will clash with sake or simply drown it out with overwhelming flavors. Heavy, rich sauces or seasonings are tough with sake, as is really spicy food (although you should try nigori sake with Thai food!). But depending on how it is prepared, sake shows potential affinity with everything from vegetables and fish to chicken and pork, and even beef can work well if done right. It really is hard to have a total mismatch.

A handful of ideas off the cuff include namazake with raw vegetables with a bit of bitterness to them a rich, dry junmai with bolstering, fat-cutting acidity paired with a cream-based sauce sprinkled with bacon over pasta and a sweeter sake with salty, grilled salmon. Grilled lamb and yamahai is a match made in heaven, thanks to the slight gaminess they share. Simple, clean, slightly aromatic ginjo with white-flesh sashimi would qualify as a last meal on this planet for me.

Left: Warm chocolate cake with passion fruit mochi, served alongside Hanahato Kijoshu aged sake. Right: Strawberry anmitsu with Hana Hou Hou Shu sparkling rose sake. Photography by Monica Samuels, courtesy of Serious Eats.

Dessert sake are harder to come by, partly because most traditional Japanese desserts are not nearly as intense in their sweetness as their Western counterparts, and they were often created with green tea in mind. It is said in Japan that those who like sake do not generally like sweet things perhaps this thinking is part of it. But kijoshu (sake made using already completed sake in place of some water) is a style that has the sweetness for that task.

Sake with Canadian washed-rind, Aged Cheddar and Blue Cheese

Cheese can be quite fun to experiment with, and often aged sake offers great potential, as does earthy sake or sake with prominent acidity. Although not very common, sake made with white or black strains of koji (rather than the usual yellow koji) present types of acid that are more dark and intense, and these often go well with aged cheese.

The possibilities are truly endless. It is just a matter of experimentation.

There are, however, some noticeable differences in how you might select a sake for pairing from how you might select a wine—some methods that might work occasionally with wine are best avoided when choosing sake. It is hard to pair a sake just from the information on the label.

Let’s look at region, for example. While sake does have some regionality, it is not nearly as clearly delineated as it is in the wine world. Choosing sake by region leaves too much potential error for comfort. The same is true when selecting a sake by the rice variety. While different rice types do have particular characteristics that can be associated with them, two toji can take the same rice milled down to the same degree and make two totally different sake. Rice variety alone is not enough information to safely make a pairing.

Nor is grade. While pairing by grade is probably the safest of these three, there is so much overlap between the various grades of sake in terms of style and typical aromas and flavors that this system has its major shortcomings too.

In the end, the most reliable way to know how to pair a sake is to taste it. Forget the label smell it and taste it, look at aromas, flavors, acidity, intensity, texture, breadth, weight, and more. Then consider which aspects will dovetail or contrast in mutually complementary ways with your food.

Most important, do not be afraid to violate perceived authenticity. Do not limit yourself by saying, “I want to do it the way they do it in Japan.” Violate away! And enjoy sake’s incredible pairing potential with food.

Mizbasho “Early Bloom” Ginjo –nagai shuzo kk, gunma

Peach, apple, and banana in the alluring aromas and flavors, with a soft overall profile that leans slightly on the sweet side but with lots and lots of depth.

Mizbasho (aka Mizubasho) is incredibly versatile with a wide range of both Western and Japanese food. Grilled white fish or scallops bring out umami in the sake, slightly sweet sauces encourage a similar sweetness to develop, and the light softness helps it pair with a melon-like dessert or amuse-bouche. Carpaccio to yakitori, lemon-drizzled grilled pork to baked salmon, and even lime sherbet all invite this ginjo to companionship.

Excerpted from Sake Confidential: A Beyond-the-Basics Guide to Understanding, Tasting, Selection & Enjoyment with permission from Stone Bridge Press. Sake Confidential was published by Stone Bridge Press, of Berkeley, California, specializing in works about Japan and Japanese culture. Sake Confidential can be purchased as part of a special Japan Holiday Book Bundle, and is available at your local bookseller, Indiebound or

“Demystifying Sake” lecture John Gauntner at Japan Society. John dispels some of the myths surrounding sake, guiding attendees through the finer distinctions between varieties.

John Gauntner is recognized as the world’s leading non-Japanese sake expert and educator. He has lived in Japan since 1988, and has worked in the sake industry promoting and educating since 1994. He has written seven books, including two ebooks, across two languages and hundreds of articles on the topic, and is known for his uniquely concise and passionate way of conveying all aspects of sake, sake enjoyment, sake culture, sake history, and brewing technology. John also conducts several Sake Professional Courses each year for sake professionals and aficionados.

Known as “The Sake Guy,” John is the only non-Japanese certified Master of Sake Tasting in the world, and has also achieved the very difficult Sake Expert Assessor certification from Japan’s National Research Institute of Brewing. No other non-Japanese in the world has both of these certifications. He also received the Sake Samurai award in 2006, the first year it was awarded.

John has been quoted and/or mentioned in sake-related articles in countless publications including The New York Times, Newsweek, Forbes, Business Week, and Rolling Stone. He has spoken at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Universities, Wharton School of Business, and countless other venues across the US and Japan.

Much of each winter he is traveling around Japan, visiting breweries regularly and constantly learning. Other efforts at educating and edifying about sake include a free monthly sake newsletter ( and various digital products and e-books. “The Truth About Warm Sake, and Kamoizumi ‘Shusen’ Junmai Ginjo” by John Gauntner appeared in EatDrinkFilms previously.

“To say that sake is a poorly understood beverage in the U.S. is an understatement. Never mind understanding the various grades and styles of sake, how to drink it (hot or cold?), and what kind of food to drink it with, there’s the not-so-little matter that most imported sakes don’t have anything written in English on the label.

John Gauntner’s Sake Confidential can’t teach you Japanese, but it can give you everything you really need to know about sake in one slim tome. Just 175 spare pages in length, the book breaks sake down by topic each chapter is a myth about sake that Gantner is prepared to debunk. Is cheap sake supposed to be drank warm and good sake cold? (Not necessarily.) Is non-junmai sake garbage? (Not necessarily.) Should you only drink sake out of one of those little ceramic cups? (Not necessarily.)

Gauntner’s world of sake is a complex and decidedly confusing place, and even in the end the writer confesses that there are no clear answers to anything in this industry. At the same time, the book works well as a primer for both novices and intermediate sake drinkers who want to know more about this unique rice product. While the book’s design — slim and tall like a pocket travel guide — makes little sense for a topic like this (and, in fact, makes it unfortunately difficult to comfortably read), Gauntner nonetheless does us all a much-needed service by digesting all of this material into one place — and inexpensively, too.” Christopher Null, Drinkhacker

Read interviews with John Gauntner in JQ Magazine and Delicious Japan.

There have been two recent feature-length movies about Sake. John Gauntner appears in

Kampai! For the Love of Sake– website

Also check out The Birth of Sake – website

The Story of Japanese Rice: The Amazing Grain used in Sake

Sake Gourmet Pairings at Chef Nobu's Umami Dinner

Served at Matsuhisa restaurant in Athens, this special “Umami and sake” menu was prepared by chef Nobu: a perfect example of how food, sake and mineral water can create an utterly harmonious mix.

Appetizers (Dover sole kombujime Dasci jelly with scallop Sardine jalapeno with soy salt) and sake Nobu Junmai Daiginjo
Medium intensity of taste with spicy sensations and acidity, as it should be for an entry dish. Junmai Daiginjo is soft, full and round with an excellent persistence and with spicy notes in the finale which recall the dish. The pairing with Acqua Panna still mineral water completes the tasting experience and make the perceptions on palate last longer.

Baby spinach salad with lobster and dry miso and sake Nobu Daiginjo TK 40
Very tasty match. The sweet sensation of the lobster and the juicy flavour of parmesan cheese get along extremely well with the structured sake, with a long lasting taste (the famous Umami one) and a light spicy note. S.Pellegrino sparkling mineral water enhances the richness of this excellent sake.

Chilean sea boss tomato den-miso jalapeno and sake Onikoroshi
Quite delicate at the first sips this sake seems to be light but then it evolves and shows its structure keeping the elegance on the palate. These 2 characteristics make it an appropriate match with the bass delicate perception. Acqua Panna still mineral water gives balance and helps creating a sensation of harmony of tastes.

Grilled Wagyu Beef, Dry shiitake infused in teriyaki sauce and sake YK 35
Rich and structured dish, which long persistent flavour combines to this outstanding sake, produced only using 35% of a rice grain. Balsamic, slightly smoked and fruity at the nose, on the palate the YK 35 sake is very rich, clearly underlining the Umami taste and with a intense finale with melon and cucumber notes. S.Pellegrino natural mineral water creates a complete balance enhancing the tasty sensation of both dish and sake.

Sushi selection and sake Junmai
Very delicate and elegant sushi. Sake Junmai has good intense olfactory notes reminding melon and citron. Very delicate, soft and pleasing on the palate. The perfect matching is given by S.Pellegrino sparkling natural mineral water which completes the balance on the palate.

Mushroom clear soup

Soya milk flan and honey toffee and sake Rock by Nobu
Very rich desert that needs to be combined with an equal intensity beverage. This unusual sake at 28% alcohol degree was created by Fumio Hazu for Nobu to be combined with this kind of dishes where traditional sake would not be able to play the same role. Acqua Panna still natural mineral water combines very well the 2 elements, notwithstanding the structure of both dishes and sake is quite strong.

Watch the video: Sushi tutorial (January 2022).