Pairing Sake with Cheese
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
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If you already read my previous blog posts about pairing, you heard mention of pairing Sake and cheese. But this one in particular deserves its very own post.
If you haven't already experienced it for yourself, you need to know that this is the next big thing in the world of fine dining. There are just two hurdles between you and finding it on a restaurant menu: wine and staff training.
Wine and cheese are an obvious pairning because of European cuisine and wine dominating the fine dining scene in America. Asian fine dining has come into its own, finally, but while there are so many traditions and styles to explore, including Sake, cheese is not commonly one of them. So you have Western restaurants with wine, and occasionally cheese and some people who know how to select, care for, and explain it, but no Sake program. In Asian restaurants, you may have someone who has the knowledge to recommend and serve you a great Sake, but no cheese program.
Luckily the hard part - discovering this match made in heaven - has already happened. Now anyone who knows Sake well enough, like my dear colleague Liloa pictured above, has been studying, experimenting, and advocating for pairing it with cheese.
Now that you have heard Sake and cheese are one of the most amazing flavor combinations, let's talk about why and how you can do it for yourself. The primary components that make Sake and cheese pair so well together are Umami and lactic acid. Both are present in Sake and cheese and provide a solid underpinning to build contrasting or complimentary flavor pairings on top of. Now, on to the "How".
Here are the basic flavors to consider in your own Sake and cheese pairing:
Umami - especially present in less-polished Sake, such as Junmai and aged cheese, like parmesan. Keep that in mind if you want to add one to contrast something with less depth, but more fruity, floral, or citric flavors. Umami loves more umami if want to use it in both food and drink to compliment one another. Sometimes umami-rich sake or cheese can have nutty or mushroom-like flavors. Avoid pairing these as one will just get lost in the other. Better to highlight that in one by pairing it with something fruity like a Ginjo Sake or cheese with fruity-flavors or actual pieces of fruit in it.
Salt Acid Fat Heat - The excellent book and Netflix show by Samin Nosrat also describes flavors (and temperatures) found in Sake. Like any pairing, balance is key, so if you have a Sake with lots of one, you want a cheese with lots of the others. For that reason, extra dry (highly acidic) Sake LOVES being paired with salty, fatty cheeses like Triple Creme or Brie. For pairing cheese with a hot Sake, see my post about how to choose and heat Sake the right way. To reiterate the point about balance, too much of a good thing will overpower your palate so try to avoid pairing sharp or tart cheese with acidic or dry Sake, as well as round, heavy, or earthy Sake with fatty or salty cheese.
Bright Sweet and Fruity - These flavors can all be found in some Sake and Cheese. As before, avoid pairing things that are both fruity, both sweet, or both bright/citric, but a pairing that combines two of these flavors will compliment each other nicely, and because all cheese and Sake have some umami and lactic acid, it should light up your whole palate. If it doesn't, try serving it with some olives or pistachios on the side, or put the cheese on a nice whole grain cracker.
Funk - If you don't like funky flavors, you just have to accept that about yourself and let others go ahead and enjoy it. (More for us? We'll thank you for it!) Like Umami, Funky flavors love to get together. Often funky Sake will be found in the Yamahai, Kimoto, and Junmai section of Sake styles and pair fantastically with the funkiest and stinkiest blue cheeses like Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton, Limburger, etc. In the contrasting option, don't forget that just like fruits and nuts (e.g. PB&J), a funky flavor can also go with something sweet or fruity. The only caution here is with choosing a funky cheese, don't choose a fruity Sake that is so delicate (like most Daiginjo) that the flavor is overpowered and lost.
Subtle - there are so many excellent Sake and cheese with subtle flavors and deep Umami that can coax out your appetite. These pairings are ideal for hors d'oeuvres. Start with a clean, light Ginjo or Daiginjo and a medium/firm cheese like cheddar, provolone, or Gouda. You may find a swiss or smoked cheese that pairs with the spicy or botanical flavors in some Tokubetsu Junmai or Sake made with heirloom rice, such as Omachi or Hattanso.
With Sake and Cheese you have two categories that each contain multitudes of diverse flavors, textures, and combinations within one product, so there will always be room for more exploration, making pairing itself an exciting, dynamic, and fun exercise in discovery. Wine and cheese will always be there for you if you get nostalgic, and if you want to break up the Sake and cheese pairings, you can throw in a cheese and Craft Beer pairing - another ancient rabbit hole waiting to be rediscovered.
Currently, your best option to buy both Sake and cheese will be certain bottle shops and Whole Foods (some carry a decent lineup of Sake albeit disorganized and poorly cared for). Don't expect to find anyone able to help pair the two for you. Instead, remember what you learned here, read or look up the Sake product descriptions, and ask the people at the cheese counter for recommendations based on what flavors you want to pair with your Sake.
Last but not least: PLEASE share your failures or successes in the comments or on the Sake Secret Facebook Page. Arigatou!