I was first introduced to sake many years ago when dining out with friends at a Los Angeles restaurant. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant but I do remember that we were in Little Tokyo, it was my first time eating sushi (do California Rolls count?) and the sake I tried was a warm sake. I didn’t enjoy that first experience, tried it again a few years ago (don’t recall the time or the venue) and it didn’t leave a good impression with me. Thinking back, I found it interesting how my “drinking tastes” have evolved. From bar drinks and cocktails (Long Island Iced Teas, Midori Melonballs, Rum & Cokes, Margaritas, Mojitos. Caipirinhas) to wines and lastly sake. It appears that sake has come full circle with me and I’m learning the art and science of sake as well as appreciating the complexities and layers of flavor that sake draws out when paired with certain types of food.
I credit YUJI MATSUMOTO, Master Sake Sommelier and Drink Department Manager for Kabuki Restaurant Corporation for properly introducing me to sake. I couldn’t ask for a better teacher, especially since he is the only individual in North America who currently holds the Master Sake Sommelier certificate issued by the Sake Service Institute (SSI), an industry leader in sake! And if you need even more evidence that Matsumoto-san is serious about sake, he is the President of the Sake Institute of America (SIA). He, along with the Founder of SIA and restaurant owner of Japon Bistro (Pasadena) CLARENCE “KOJI” WONG, both are committed to promoting sake knowledge and sake appreciation through a unique curriculum focused on how to present and pair seasonal menus with sake. While the SIA is geared more for the serious food and beverage professional, he has created sake and food pairing events for sake aficionados such as myself with the same commitment and focus to ensure proper knowledge and appreciation of this under appreciated, yet little known beverage.
I’ve had the pleasure of attending four of Matsumoto-san’s sake seminars as well as sake and food pairing events over the last year. And each time I attend one of his events, I learn something new and exciting about sake. First of all, sake is pronounced “sah-keh” not “sah-key”. The latter is actually the Japanese word for “salmon”. And sake is a derivative of rice just as wine is a derivative of grapes. Unlike wine, which is produced by fermenting the sugar naturally present in the grape, sake is made through a brewing process similar to that of beer. I’m not going to get into the details of sake production but I do know that sake comes in a variety of tastes—citrus, floral, fruity, sour, aged and body types—light, medium and full. It can be enjoyed cold or hot and it can be unfiltered or filtered.
The most current sake and food pairing event that I attended was in early June 2010. “Sake & The City” was hosted by Koji Wong, owner of Japon Bistro in Pasadena and featured Yuji Matusumoto. Representatives from Dassai, Kikusui and Silk Road Wine & Spirits, sponsors of the event, were on hand to introduce their respective brands and provide insightful information as well as answer questions related to sake. A small intimate group of 15 sake enthusiasts were in attendance that evening and after the obligatory introductions which included writers, bloggers, a local food personality and serious foodies, Matsumoto-san set the tone of the evening with a welcome toast of sparkling champagne sake to which we all raised our shot glasses and enthusiastically toasted, “Kampai!”
Matsumoto-san introduced the “Matsumoto Sake Positioning Map”, a map he developed after tasting over 1,000 brands of sake! The map, resembling a flowing river, highlights four seasonal zones—Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter and based on its position on the map, help to determine what types of dishes would be paired best with a particular type of sake. Matsumoto-san introduced four types of sake that were paired with different entrees prepared by the Japon Bistro staff.
First pair to be served was the Dassai-50 Junmai Daiginjo from Yamagushi which was paired with an assortment of early summer seasonal sashimi. The Dassai-50 was clean, crisp and sweet and paired nicely with the freshness of the sashimi.
The second pair to be served was a skewer of chicken yakitori paired with the Kikusui Junmai Ginjo from Niigata. The Kikusui was a bit dry but clean and crisp, with citrus overtones. It was a nice accompaniment to the sweetness of the chicken yakitori.
Black Cod & Sunomono Salad was the next pairing which featured the Mizbasho Ginjo from Gunma. This sake had body to it and I enjoyed its fruity aroma.
Lastly, I was pleasantly surprised by the pairing of the Kenbishi Junmai from Hyogo and the grilled lamb paired with it. The full-bodied, aged taste of the Kenbishi cut through the gaminess of the lamb. Who would have thought to pair lamb with sake? It totally works with this dish—what a clever pairing!
We finished off the meal with an assortment of five nigiri sushi with miso soup and pickles and our choice of any of the sakes featured. I enjoyed all varieties that were featured during the tasting event but my favorite was the Dassai-50. Where can you find a bottle of Dassai-50, you might ask without having to travel all the way to Japan? You can purchase the Dassai-50 or any other type of premium sake through Japon Bistro’s Sake Only Store either onsite at the restaurant or online through SOS’s dedicated website (California sales only). I was also given the scoop that the Dassai brand will also be available to enjoy at all Kabuki restaurants in the Fall 2010.
If you ever get the opportunity to participate in a sake and food pairing event, I would highly encourage you to do so. Go with an open mind and a willing palate and you will be pleasantly surprised. がんばってね!
927 East Colorado Boulevard (between Lake & Mentor)
Pasadena, CA 91106
SAKE ONLY STORE
SAKE INSTITUTE OF AMERICA
Various location in California, Arizona and Nevada