As most our readers know, we enjoy huddling over the shabu-shabu pot on cold California nights or rolling sushi in the more temporate seasons. When dining out, Japanese (and sushi in particular) ranks disproportionately among our preferences. So we’ve learned a few things about sake – what you should look for in buying sake, to be sure, but how to enjoy it, more importantly.
What to get
Sake is, of course, rice wine. Brewing sake involves convert the starch in grains of rice into sugar using a fungus called koji-kin, then convert the sugar into alcohol using yeast. Generally, poorer quality sake is served hot and the finer sake is served cold, though that is not so hard-and-fast a rule as some believe.
The most important characteristic to know about choosing a fine sake is its polishing ratio – that is, a percentage of the rice grain that, by law, must be polished off before the brewing and fermenting begins. The polishing process strips off layers of protein and other compounds that can affect the flavor of the finished wine. Put simply, the more of the grain that’s removed, the more delicately floral and fruity the sake. The corollary to this is that the higher grade, the more rice and effort is required.
Junmaishu and honjozoshu sakes are the most common sakes with the lowest polishing ratios, with a maximum of 70 percent of the grain left intact. Honjozoshu sake, as is true with other sakes, is augmented with a small amount of neutral distilled alcohol. In junmaishu sakes, 100% of the alcohol comes from rice, resulting in a more robust, complex flavor. Laura will only buy junmaishu. Not surprisingly, I’m a little less picky.
Some connoisseurs will go for the ginjō-shu, made from rice polished to 60% or less of its original weight, or the daiginjō-shu, made from rice polished to 50% or lower. These sakes are sometimes augmented with non-rice alcohol to enhance their aroma.
Still some like Nigori, or unfiltered sake. Nigori is cloudy and is generally served cold. I’m not a big fan.
How to pair with food
Our first rule of pairing is to drink whatever you like, especially if it makes the food taste better. Beyond that, there are some basic things to consider. First off, take note of the flavor profile of your sake. Like any wine, sake as a wide-ranging flavor profile and everyone experiences it differently. However, sake is conventionally classified by a dry-to-sweet continuum, depending on its residual acid and sugar content. Sweet sakes are generally paired with rich, creamy dishes, whereas dry sake is more traditionally served with lighter dishes. Sake that has a high acidity content often goes well with fried foods, such as tempura. Sake that is more bitter and less floral goes well with vegetables and yakitori.