Sake, a traditional Japanese fermented rice alcohol, is a versatile drink that pairs well with many foods from around the world.
Before pairing sake with food, it's a good idea to know about a few basic types and the concept of rice polishing.
Junmai: pure rice sake, with no additives like additional sugar or alcohol.
Honjozo: sake brewed with a small amount of distilled alcohol to bring out flavours and aromas. The rice used must have been polished so that 70% or less of the rice grain remains. More polishing = generally a lighter, fresher, and more delicate sake.
Ginjo: sake polished so that 60% or less of the rice grain remains. Even more minimum polishing.
Daiginjo: sake polished so that 50% or less of the rice grain remains. Most minimum polishing.
Pairing Sake with Food
There are a few easy strategies to use when pairing sake with food.
One sure-fire easy pairing idea is to consider sake with Japanese or other Asian dishes. However, don't be afraid to consider pairing sake with North American dishes too!
Complement vs Contrast
Light, delicate sake would pair well with light simple dishes. Look for labels that say "Ginjo" and "Daiginjo" to start. Richer, full-bodied sake might pair well with richer, full-flavoured dishes. On the other hand, fresh, bright sake can sparkle when paired against a creamy or savoury dish.
Acid in sake can help cut through the fats and oils in heavy dishes and provide a satisfying sensation of flavour diffusion in your mouth. Sake acidity can often be found on the producer's website and ranges from around 0.5 to 2.5.
A note about umami
Umami is a Japanese word that is used more and more in Western cultlure to describe a certain quality of richness, savoriness or earthiness. Think soy sauce, broth, cooked meat, or parmesan. It is considered one of the five basic tastes along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness. Sake has more umami flavours than most other alcohol beverages. It's not uncommon to find sake with notes of "mushrooms" and "beans"! A good food option for umami-laden sake is...more umami! Pair it with cheesy dishes, heavier meat dishes, rich sauces, etc.
But as with anything, let your preference be your guide! For more information, Sake World has an excellent article that dives deep into sake pairing: https://sake-world.com/about-sake/sake-and-food/