Pairing Sake with Cheese
In my previous blog posts about pairing, I started to touch on pairing Sake with cheese. But Sake/Cheese pairing deserves its very own post. This will be the next big trend in the fine-dining world.
Why Haven't I Seen This Already?
There are two hurdles between you and finding Sake/Cheese pairings on a restaurant menu: wine and staff training.
Wine and cheese is only an obvious pairing because until very recently, European cuisine and wine have dominated the fine dining scene. Asian fine dining has finally(!) become recognized broadly, and with so many traditions and styles to explore, including Sake, cheese is not commonly one of them.
So, in some Western restaurants you find wine, cheese, and occasionally some people who know how to select, care for, and explain them, but no Sake program. In Asian restaurants, you may have someone who with the knowledge to recommend and serve a great Sake, but no cheese program. Luckily the hard part - discovering this match made in heaven - has already happened.
Any Sake expert, like my dear colleague Liloa pictured above, has been studying, experimenting, and advocating for pairing it with cheese. Let's talk about why and how you can do it for yourself.
Sharing a Theme
The primary components that Sake and cheese share are Umami and lactic acid. Both are present in Sake and cheese and provide a solid underpinning to build contrasting or complementary flavor pairings on top of. 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 Parmesano Reggiano. 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 complement one another.
Sometimes either umami-rich sake or cheese can have nutty or mushroom-like flavors. Avoid pairing these cheese and Sake together as one will just get lost in the other. Better to highlight these by pairing it with something fruity like a Ginjo Sake or an expensive aged Bleu or more affordable cheese with actual fruit on or in it.
Salt Acid Fat Heat - The excellent book and Netflix show by Samin Nosrat also describes flavors (and temperatures) found in Sake. With pairing, balance is key. If you have a Sake with lots of one flavor, 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, Brie, or sheep's milk cheese.
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. Try to avoid pairing sharp or tart cheese with acidic or dry Sake. The same goes for round, heavy, or earthy Sake with fatty or salty cheese.
Bright Sweet and Fruity - These flavors can all be found in certain Sake and Cheese. As before, avoid pairing things that are both fruity, both sweet, or both bright/citric, but a pairing that brings two of these flavors together will complement each other nicely. Because all cheese and Sake have some umami and lactic acid, this should engage your whole palate. If it falls short, try serving it with some olives or pistachios on the side, or serve the cheese on a nice whole grain cracker.
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 mild Cheddar, Havarti, or Provolone. 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.
Funk - Like Umami, funky flavors love to get together. Often you will find the funk in the Yamahai, Kimoto, and Junmai styles of Sake. These pair fantastically with a funky Tête de Moine, or pungent bleu cheese like Gorgonzola, Roquefort, or Stilton.
To contrast funk, go with something sweet or fruity. Be careful when choosing a funky cheese not to choose a delicate fruity Sake (like most Junmai Daiginjo), because the subtle flavors can be overpowered and lost. This is where certain styles like Kimoto, Tokubetsu, Muroka, Nama, Genshu, and Aru-ten (Any NON-Junmai) can help lend more body and structure to a fruity Sake.
Don't Like Funky flavors?
With cheese, try using a smaller portion, paired with buttery, earthy, and fruity flavors. This will push the funkiness into the background, making brighter flavors sweeter and buttery and earthy flavors richer.
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 of 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.
Your best option to buy both Sake and cheese in one location will be certain bottle shops or 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 Sake product descriptions, and ask people at the cheese counter for recommendations based on flavors you want to pair with your Sake.
Want to skip going it alone?
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