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Pairing with Food

I call this topic "The Game-Changer". Sake tastes great by itself, but the beverage has evolved to be enjoyed with food. Figuring out which Sake pairs with which food has transformed my interest in Sake into a passion and a profession!

The two ways to pair Sake with food are by identifying complementary or contrasting flavors. "Why?" The simple answer is one word: Balance. Before I dive into the deep end of Sake Pairings, I can give you more than just the one word to get started.

Why Do Some Flavors Pair with Others?

Imagine your tongue as an equalizer with green lights filling up bars that indicate various levels. Instead of sound levels like bass and treble, flavor levels light up specific areas. This is NOT how the tongue works, but it does help you to visualize.

The five levels on your equalizer are SWEET, SOUR, BITTER, SALTY, and UMAMI (Savory).

Each time you taste these, the lights start to turn on and fill up their bar. The intensity of the flavor turns on more lights and pushes the bar higher until you reach your limit, the red lines at the top indicating a critical level. Too much of a flavor becomes unpleasant, like speakers popping from too much bass.

Just as some people love sweet and spicy or salty and tangy food, each person has their own favorite combinations and tolerances for intensity. Regardless, most everyone enjoys eating something that lights up all of the bars in proper amounts. This is what culinary experts call "fully engaging your palate". By thinking about which lights your food and beverage will turn on, you can start to identify what flavors you need in order to light up and balance all five levels and create your own pairings.

The more deftly you can balance those flavors, the more beautiful and pleasing the sensation. Most popular dishes and meals contain these five flavors. A fancy salad has earthy (bitter) greens, dried (sweet) cherries, a (sour) vinaigrette, rich (umami) blue cheese crumbles, and salted nuts, lighting up all five levels. So does a Thanksgiving dinner with savory, brined (salted) turkey. sweet and sour cranberry sauce, and stuffing, well-seasoned with grounding herbs.

How Do I Balance Different Flavors?

Balancing requires an understanding of the ingredients or dishes you choose. The goal when pairing any two (or more) is to add flavors that compliment or contrast. What does that mean?

Two flavors that blend seamlessly into one another are complementary, like the salt in peanut butter, or lemon in cheesecake. Other flavors that are too strong require an opposing flavor to balance, like sugar's sweetness combined with bitter cacao to make chocolate, or the bitter hops and sweet fermented malt in beer.

Contrasting flavors taste great because they make their opposite more noticeable. Adding salt to watermelon or chocolate chip cookies makes them taste sweeter. A funky, earthy Sake can highlight the umami of oysters or a steak. You don't need to be a cook to notice how frequently people are already pairing ingredients. Just keep in mind which type of flavor is missing or could use a boost, and select a Sake to round that out.

Where Do I Start?

To approach pairing, start by tasting whichever (food or Sake) you are least familiar with. By starting there, you can rely on your experience and knowledge with the rest to choose what flavors you want to add. I know Sake best, so when I do pairings, I choose food first, since I can rely on my knowledge to choose a Sake without opening a bunch of bottles. If you know your way around food, try choosing a Sake first. If the drink tastes sharp, dry, or crisp, choose a creamy or sweet dish. If your Sake tastes sweet or light, you can choose something nutty or bitter.

That is the tip of the Sake Pairing iceberg! Next month's Sensei Says posts will both be dedicated to more on this topic. I didn't even get into mouthfeel and texture! If you can't wait or want to skip the learning and get doing, SAKESECRET can help: will continue to grow as a resource and a space for inspiration. Check back frequently for new offerings, such as updates to this blog, or better yet:

Get involved! What are some of your all-time favorite pairings? Have you ever had something totally stump you? Feel free to comment below, or continue the conversation on


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