Whether you’re a sushi-lover or new to Japanese cuisine, selecting a sake means venturing into the unknown for the vast majority of us. The topic of Japan’s national drink is rich, dense and very complicated, but understanding the basics can go a long way into matching an authentic drink with your favourite sushi.
In brief, sake is a rice wine, produced by following these steps:
* A selected type of rice is milled and “polished” – a crucial factor that determines the quality and style of sake to be produced – before being washed, soaked and steamed.
* “Koji” (a Japanese fungus) is dusted over and kneaded into the steamed rice to convert starch into sugar.
* A yeast starter culture is made by adding the Koji rice to water and pure yeasts (which trigger the fermentation by converting the sugars into alcohol).
* This mixture (known as “moromi”) is fed with more rice and water and is fermented at controlled temperatures in order to achieve the desired flavour and style.
* Traditionally the moromi is then put in canvas bags allowing the sake to drip through whilst the solids remain inside. While this is still done in certain breweries, modern large-scale manufacturers use a mechanical press to extract the liquid.
* The sake is filtered and, in most cases, pasteurized.
Voilà – Japanese rice wine as we know it!
It is something of an understatement to say that the label on a sake bottle is not easy to read. However, there are a few key terms for which to keep an eye out so at least you can have an educated guess!
Start with Futsushu
If you want to trade up from non-premium “Futsushu” (table sake), this is the time to appreciate the importance of the “polishing” stage of sake making. To understand polishing, picture a grain of rice that gets cleaner as you get closer to the centre of the grain. A high polishing ratio means stripping away a lot of the raw material for rice wine to create a more pure and delicate (and typically more pricey!) finished product.
What is Junmai?
Beyond polishing, there is also the consideration of sake brewed purely from rice, koji, water and yeast, which are labelled ‘Junmai’, or those which see the addition of distilled alcohol after fermentation. Junmais tend to have a more umami, ‘rice-y’, fuller flavour and are less fragrant than those with added alcohol.
To make polishing ratios more digestible, here’s a short cheat-sheet of the terminology:
|Polishing ratio (i.e. % of original grain used for sake)||Alcohol added||No alcohol added|
|50% (Higher quality)||Dai-ginjo||Junmai Dai-ginjo|
|Over 70% (Lower quality)||Futsushu||–|
Whether it’s a hearty Rioja to pair with roast lamb or a crisp sake to match with sashimi, the general rules of matching foods with drink remain the same. Stripping away the technicalities, the simplest way to approach pairing is to match the body of the wine with the body (weight) of the food. So when it comes to sushi, here are some ideas:
For sashimi (raw fish), go for a more delicate Ginjo or Dai-ginjo to match the purity of light fish such as scallop and crab. For fish with more oil and weight such as tuna, salmon or octopus, a Junmai Ginjo or Junmai Dai-ginjo will have more umami and body. Dai-ginjo and Junmai Dai-ginjo also do a nice job of cleaning up the saltiness of soy sauce and pronouncing the fish flavour.
If you prefer more rice and seaweed orientated sushi such as nigiri, maki, uramaki and temaki, opt for a fuller Junmai or Honjozo to match the heavier food. These types of sake are also fare better against sweet and spicy sauces.
Sake – warm or chilled?
Once you’ve selected your sake, the final debate is whether to go traditional and warm it, or chill it for a crisper style. If you’re tempted to try it warm, avoid Dai-ginjo or Ginjo – the light, delicate flavours will be muddled and masked by heat. Instead choose a Junmai for a more heady, rounded drink or a Honjozo for aromatic, floral flavour. Of course, at the end of the day, the best way to find the perfect match is to experiment! Order in the sushi, pin down your polishing preference and taste your sake chilled, at room temperature or warmed – itadakimasu!