Last updated on February 9th, 2015
Returning today as a guest contributor is JD Wilson, who follows up on his sushi primer with an equally mouthwatering introduction to sake.
My first experience with sake was at the tender age of 19, with a steaming shot of hot sake chasing my very first piece of sushi. I recall thinking it tasted like boiling gasoline strained through a filthy sock. Fortunately time, experience and ever-adventurous taste buds have expanded that initial impression. These days, sake is, without a doubt, one of my favorite libations. Even the hot stuff.
And I’m not alone. Japanese restaurants, and specifically sushi joints, have become so popular over the last 20 years that it was inevitable for sake’s appeal to grow in tandem. According to Yoshi Tome, owner of Sushi Ran in Sausalito, these days Japanese restaurants in the U.S. have a much broader selection of sake available than in Japan itself.
Despite sake’s growing popularity, there’s still confusion over its different styles, and oftentimes a misguided impression that one is not too different than the next. In reality, sake varies as much as fine wine; from clear to cloudy to crisp and light to creamy and full-bodied. With a little background, diners can choose a glass or bottle of sake to replace a glass of wine, beer, or cocktail.
Sake is broken into a number of categories, both qualitatively and stylistically. Each style and characteristic of a given sake attributed to:
- the percent of polish (or milling) of the rice grain
- the amount of filtration
- the water (clarity, minerality, etc.)
- yeast, and
- length of fermentation
Those elements, delicately balanced according to traditional practices, result in a number of types that pair beautifully not just with sushi, but with essentially any cuisine you can throw out there.
During a recent meal at Sushi Ran with Yoshi, we tasted a number of varieties as a hands-on immersion to the wide world of sake. Here are a few of Yoshi’s favorites for you to seek out and taste for yourself.
The Oka sake we began with carried a 50 percent polish and was highly filtered. This is a daiginjo sake, a style that typically has sharp, fragrant nose that’s reflected in the clean, pretty quality on the palate—perfumed and floral with hints of candied cherry. Think of daiginjo as a parallel to more crisp white wines, such as Sancerre, and pair accordingly. It’s great with a seaweed salad, sashimi, and I imagine steamed seafoods and ripe fruits.
Second, a ginjo sake sampled was titled Omachi, named for the type of rice used in production. With slightly more polish, this sake held a more earthen quality on the nose and palate, a heavier mouthfeel similar to hot caramel, and a long, complex finish of dessert spices and what I mistakenly described to Yoshi as “terroir.”
In sake culture there is no real translation to that common wine, tea or coffee term—only more general references to the earth-laden qualities that certain rice varieties deliver through levels of polish and fermentation. Yoshi loves this sake as an all-around, everyday, “hail mary” option for indecisive diners (and himself). The Omachi was quietly approachable, not too alcoholic, and a broadly adaptable pairing sake.
Another style well worth trying is nigori, an unfiltered, sweet, milky sake that holds a lot of the rice flavors often filtered out in other varities. In Japan it’s considered the Pabst Blue Ribbon of sake, but in the U.S., nigori has found a soft spot with diners. It’s a more approachable “starter” sake and does well alongside most dishes, with higher residual sugars and a coconut milk weight. Takara is a widely available brand.
We next went to a Shichida sake with a 75 percent polish. This is junmai sake, a higher quality, and notably more smooth on the palate, which you could easily guess by the deep, rich, but gentle nose. The mouthfeel is quite heavy with a forward smack of minerality and deep earth tones, with a stronger heat from the alcohol. Think of junmai as sort of the red wine of sake.
Paired with decadent Vietnamese shaking beef, the junmai held up just fine to the rich, dark flavors and gravies. More and more it was clear to me that with a little education on this drink, you can use it successfully to pair with any dish imaginable. What was even more fun to see was adding a taste of a California Bordeaux-style blend as a pairing. The junmai still held up better as a compliment to the beef dish. Who knew?
Another Shichida sake, a Yamahai karakuchi style that we tasted cold, was then heated at Yoshi’s suggestion and paired alongside a miso-glazed black cod. The difference that the change in temperature created was quite surprising. Served cold, this slightly more acidic sake complemented the sweet, creamy flavor of the marinated cod. Served hot, it tasted nearly candylike, pairing wonderfully with the caramelized, smoky broil atop the fish.
I highly recommend experimenting similarly with the array of sakes available at your favorite sushi haunt. All too often most of us experience hot sake for the first time as a somewhat singular tasting, steamy shot (and what I once felt was a caustic substance.) And it’s true that many places offer a lesser grade of sake as their “house” hot sake that for first-timers doesn’t always sit well. This can all too often scare folks away from the product. Fortunately that is no longer necessary with the growing options out there, though you might want to request a finer quality sake be heated tableside.
When sipping and experimenting (perhaps even making your own cod with the recipe below), try this tip from Yoshi: serve your sake at home or request it be poured at a restaurant in a wine glass, preferably a Bordeaux bowl for larger pours or heavier sake, a dessert wine glass for smaller pours or more crisp sake. The little shot-glass type glasses many establishments serve from simply don’t allow the sake to develop in the glass or release a nose.
If you’re in the Bay Area and want to grab some sake to bring home, Yoshi recommends True Sake in San Francisco.
Miso-Glazed Black Cod
Prep time: 15 minutes plus marinating
Cook time: 7 minutes
Makes 4 servings
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup (2 oz.) yellow miso paste
- 2 tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)
- 2 tablespoons sake
- 4 black cod fillets, about 3 oz. each
Combine the sugar with 3 tablespoons water in a small pan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
Stir in the miso paste, mirin, and sake.
Place the cod fillets in a small container that holds them comfortably. Pour the marinade over the fish and turn the fillets to coat both sides. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or up to 24 hours.
Place the marinated cod on a baking sheet or pan and broil on high heat for 5 to 7 minutes, turning once so both sides are lightly brown and the fish is just cooked through.