There’s a lot to love about Japanese sake. It’s much more than a drink. It’s a story of Japanese craftsmanship, of human terroir, of a connection to nature, of understanding the past and looking towards the future. Sake is all of these things and more, constantly evolving, finding new ways to bring people together.
Another great aspect of sake, or nihonshu as its referred to in Japan, is how it harmonizes with just about any type of food you pair it with. Although it would be easy to assume that it goes best with Japanese food, I’d ask that you resist the temptation and think about unconventional food pairings.
What do I mean by unconventional? I’m talking comfort food, dishes that make your soul sing and your belly full. I’m talking meals that make you feel good and that come from cultures all over the world.
So, join me ask I take you through five sake and food pairings that are unique to my own experiences. Each recommendation comes with a different bottle, a bit of backstory on the type of sake and why it goes well with each dish.
1. Katsuyama Ken Junmai Ginjo with Nduja and Mozzarella Pizza
Pizza can be paired with sake? Absolutely! There are a lot of complementary flavours that go together with pizza and certain types of nihonshu. A favourite pairing of mine is to use a junmai sake with one of my favourite pizza combinations in the form of nduja and mozzarella cheese.
The sake of choice is Katsuyama Ken junmai daiginjo from the Katsuyama brewery in Miyagi. Established in 1688, the brewery has a history of serving the feudal lords of the Sendai Domain and there’s so much history in every bottle.
The Ken has an excellent balance of dry and rich, savoury and sweet. The fruity notes are good for cutting through the spiciness of the nduja, while the richness works well with the cheese.
2. Yamato Shizuku Yamahai with Potato Pierogi, Brussel Sprouts and Bacon Lardons
Coming from a family with Polish heritage, pierogis are a comfort food that I’ve come to truly enjoy in recent years, especially when they are served alongside steamed Brussel sprouts and caramelised bacon lardons.
There’s a lot of rustic flavours going on with the dish that are reminiscent of certain types of ramen noodles and a great bottle to match with these gamey flavours is Yamato Shizuku yamahai. Created by the Akita Seishu brewery, this big-boned sake is made in the yamahai style, which lets natural lactic acid occur in the sake production process to achieve wilder flavours.
I love the earthy, rich texture of the sake and how it fuses with the potato pierogi to add some extra umami. There are other notes too, like marzipan and yoghurt that lift the profile of the sprouts and mingle with the bacon.
3. Genbei-San No Onikoroshi Honjozo with Fish and Chips
Having grown up in the UK, fish and chips is a staple part of my diet and one of my all-time favourite kinds of comfort food. Such a simplistic dish has similar characteristics to salmon teriyaki and it deserves sake that elevates its savoury qualities. That’s where Genbei-San No Onikoroshi comes in.
This sake has an awesome name, which translates to demon killer and really does slay in terms of flavour profile. A honjozo sake, the demon killer has potent earthy notes of mushroom and fennel, which transform into sweeter hints of honey, vanilla and toffee when the sake is warmed up.
These complex flavours balance out the acidity in the fish and harmonise with the oil that coats the chips. I’d recommend drinking this sake warm, anywhere between 40 – 45 degrees Celsius to unlock its full potential.
4. Kuncho Nigori with Sernik (Polish Cheesecake)
Nihonshu goes extremely well with Japanese desserts and sweets. There’s also a case to be made that sake goes with western desserts too, such as Kuncho nigori and sernik. Also known as Polish cheesecake, this particular dessert is made with a type of cheese called twarog, which produces a luscious and creamy kind of treat.
Kuncho nigori is an exceptional companion, due to complementary tastes. Nigori (cloudy) sake is a coarsely filtered, meaning that some rice particles have been left over in the brew during the filtration stage.
This sake really sets my sweet tooth on fire. Lemon, cherry, bubble gum and blueberry jam come together. The creamy texture sends the creaminess of the sernik into overdrive and it is amazing stuff!
5. Hyashi Honten Golden Amber Koshu with Tiramisu
Tiramisu is another of my favourite desserts, morish and filling like Japanese dessert soup. A sake I’d recommend to pair with it is Hyashi Hoten golden amber koshu. There’s so many layers to this sake, so let’s start with its category.
Golden amber has been aged for an incredible twelve years, meaning it falls into the koshu (aged sake) grade. The aging process was carried out for eight years in tanks and then the remaining four in ex-bourbon barrels.
This particular sake is an alcoholic kick to the tastebuds. Sour grapes, cinnamon, chocolate, dill and aniseed ice cream. The sourness slices through the richness of tiramisu and the chocolatey, boozy notes pile on top for some added sweetness.
Experiment and Enjoy
At the end of the day, sake and food pairings are all about experimentation. It’s about finding out what works best for you and what goes with your palate.
By constantly experimenting, it may help to deepen your appreciation for nihonshu as a beverage and make you feel more connected to Japanese culture. It definitely did for me.