A beginner’s guide to pairing sake with food at an izakaya

When ordering sake at an Izakaya, what does everyone use as a reference point.
A lot of people no doubt start with the production location or whether the brand is familiar or not.

However, if you are going to go to the trouble of ordering sake in the first place, proper consideration should also be given to food-matching potential. We certainly felt that it wasn’t getting enough attention, so we decided to put together a little quick-start pairing guide of combinations of sake and cuisine that mutually compliment each other.

Some Simple Pointers

Ask for food that matches your sake order.
Match with whatever is in front of you.
・Consult those around you for hints.

*The following is intended as a rough guide only.  

1. Match by Sake Grade / Type

Any respectable menu is going to include the sake grades that are used to classify premium / super premium sake such as junmai and ginjo. This is always a good place to start.

Junmai Type Sake

The key feature of this type of sake is — as the grade name Junmai (LIT: pure rice) suggests — a very strong rice flavour and aroma (although if you do not eat rice as a staple you may interpret it as nutty or herby instead) . Not surprisingly, the best match is going to be a similarly ricey morsel: in the case of Izakaya staples, a rice based dish with plenty of heavy seasoning like chahan (Japanese-style Chinese fried rice); in the case of western cuisine, an Italian risotto topped with lashings of parmesan cheese should get along together swimmingly.

Soy sauce simmered fish dishes, simmered dishes, meat dishes, stir-fried vegetable or meat dishes. A rice bowl of any description makes for an easy no-fuss option. Just as a little knob of butter adds something to a bowl of rice, sauteed and flambeed dishes will give you a melt-in-the-mouth taste experience.


Ginjo / Daiginjo Type Sake

Sake labelled as Ginjo or Daiginjo, has an instantly identifiable fragrant or fruity nose. (Daiginjo is basically the more superior version: an even more refined, sophisticated fragrance and flavour) Although this normally sits it in the aperitif / digestive category, it can also be paired with light, simple dishes. On the other hand, it is probably best to steer clear of super oily, meaty dishes.

White fish sashimi, carpaccio, Ohitashi (boiled greens in bonito flavoured soy sauce), fish broiled with salt, olives, Fatsia Sprouts. Advocado and seafood salad, white fish mouse, chop suey, mountain vegetable tempura. Daiginjos go particularly well with fresh fruit.


Nama (unpasteurised)

Unpasteurised sake, sake which has skipped the heat treatment stages comes with a white-wine-like freshness that enhances the characteristics of whatever it is paired with. Basically pair this sake like you would a white wine and you can’t go far wrong.

Oysters, turbot, sweet shrimp, fish roe, sauteed scallops, goya chanpuru (an dish from Okinawa), cheese etc. Most chicken dishes. Freshly prepared tomato based pasta dishes are also a definite winner.


Aged / Vintage Sake

With its flavour reminiscent of Shaoxing wine or sherry, aged sake is an imbiber’s nectar of the gods. It is characterised by its refined mature aromas and rich, deep, sweet flavours. Thus, the food you pair with it should follow suit. In other words, we are talking about all those dishes that you wouldn’t normally think about pairing with sake. That really opens up the possibilities doesn’t it? Indeed, pretty much anything that errs a bit on the eccentric or inventive is going to be game. If all else fails, or for the easy option, it makes a great after dinner dessert drink.

Eel braised in soy sauce, Mabo Tofu, Buta Kakuni (a super dish of pork braised in its juices and soy sauce), beef stew, spaghetti with a bolognese or ragu sauce, fois gras, Peking Duck, Chinese Dumplings, lamb or steak etc. Also try Korean Kimuchi and even Indian curry.


Honjozo & Futsushu Type

An ‘eatery’ classic, with its more reserved aroma and light dry palate, this is a type of sake to suit all tastes. On a basic level, food pairing options include all kinds of cuisine. It really depends on preference but at a push, simple cuisine is probably going to work the best.

Hiyayako (a cold dish of tofu with onion and soy sauce), salted fish entrails, seafood with a sake marinade, fish cake, pickles, Ohitashi, vinegar seasoned dishes. For sakes that are on the richer side, pair with equally rich dishes.


2. 3 Fundamentals of Food Pairing


Sake making goliath, Hakutsuru Brewery carried out some research on food pairing. Based on this research, we have divided some fundamental flavour combinations into 3 distinct categories.

Aim for Balance

Rich cuisine goes with rich sake. Light cuisine goes with clean, smooth sakes. Salty dishes go with dry sake. Matchings like these achieve an equilibrium between the flavours of the sake and the food.

Sauce type Yakitori = sweet sake <> Salt type Yakitori = dry sake.Tempura + dipping sauce = sweet sake <> Salt + Tempura = Dry sake etc etc.


Aim for Harmony

Believe it or not, harmony among sake and food is possible. It is a bit like when a meat dish gives you a hankering for red wine. So that sake never feels out of place positioned after each bite, pay attention to the sake’s finish. A shorter length or crisp finish makes sure that the sake won’t get in the way of whatever you pair with it.

Pairing a delicate Ginjo fragrance with a no-frills, honest cuisine puts the aroma of the sake centre stage. In the completely opposite way, sweet sake doesn’t argue with dishes that have a strong vinegar flavour.


Exploit the Wash

Not to be confused with the finish. The wash is the refreshing feeling that you get at the end of certain sakes, that if paired correctly, can have the effect of cleansing the palate in between mouthfuls, in the same way that a glass of water does; indeed, it is called the wash because it is effectively a washing action. If a glass of water acts as a full stop, then a sake with the right wash acts as a semicolon or comma. It doesn’t break the flow, it adds to it. It is bit like following a bite of a sausage with a beer: the beer resets the palate so that you can enjoy the next bite. In the case of sake, it does so much more than this because it actually enhances the flavour of whatever comes next.

Deep fried dishes with clean, smooth sakes. Fatty cuisine like steak with simple, uncomplicated sakes.


3. Food Pairing Taboos


Next, we take a step back from the first half of this article to take a look at the sorts of food pairings that should be avoided like the plague.


Considering that sake is often referred to an alcoholic beverage that: “doesn’t get into fights with food”, it seems rather ironic that we should be writing about such a pairing, but sadly even the most demure of creations can bring out a dark side. Sake is no exception.

Bringing out the Dark Side

The fallout of this type of pairing is the enhancement of unfavourable flavourings such as bitterness, fishiness, astringency. In short, the sake and the food amplify each other’s faults.

Erasing Each Other’s Traits

A pairing without balance results in a loss of character for both the sake and the food.

For example, trying to pair an aromatic sake with a stinky, fishy dish. Such a pairing wipes out anything good in either. In the worse cases, the flavour of the ingredients in either are completely wiped out. Another example would be trying to pair a very watery, light sake with strong-flavoured boisterous or super-oily dishes.

Bringing out the best parts of the food is normally one of sake’s strengths. Even so, it might be worth keeping the above less desirable outcomes in mind.


Well that about wraps up another article and our little sermon on sake and food pairing.

Don’t forget that it is just a very rough guide. There are plenty of other combinations we haven’t touched upon. Why not try and find them yourself the next time you pop into KURAND SAKE MARKET.

Source: Hakutsuru’s Research
Source: SSI (Sake Service Institute) Homepage