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  • Greg Beck

Pairing with Food

Updated: Oct 14

This is it: The game-changer.

The way you can elevate any and every meal is by pairing it with complementary and contrasting flavors. Before I dive into the deep end on Sake Pairings, I want to nerd out a bit on the "Why?" The simple answer is one word: Balance. But that doesn't give you much direction, so let's keep going.


Why do some flavors pair with others?

Imagine your tongue as a light board, and certain flavors light up specific areas.

This is NOT how the tongue works, but it does help you to visualize. The five areas would be:

SWEET, SOUR, BITTER, SALTY, and UMAMI (Savoriness).

Each time you taste these, those lights turn on, and the intensity of the flavor makes the lights get brighter. Too much of a flavor will become unpleasant, just like a harsh, bright light. The same way certain colors in an abstract painting might jump out to you, every individual has their favorite combinations and intensity levels. Regardless of this, eating something that lights up all the areas will fully engage your sense of taste. By thinking of each dish you eat as having some of the five lights you want to turn on, you can start to identify what area you want to add, creating your own food pairings. The more you can balance those flavors, the more beautiful and pleasing the sensation. Most food, and even full meals, do not contain all five of these flavors. An easy way to visualize it is to think about pairings you already know work. Take a salad with a spring mix or arugula for the earthy (bitter) aspect. Add to that dried cranberries or cherries for your sweetness, a vinegarette for the sour, and some blue cheese for salty and umami flavors, and bam: you just turned on all the lights!


How do I balance the 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 in chocolate to balance out the bitter cacao, or bitter hops to balance the sweet malt in beer. These contrasting flavors taste great because they make their opposite more noticeable, like how adding salt to a watermelon or a chocolate chip cookie to make it taste sweeter, or a funky, dry Sake can highlight the umami of an oyster or steak. If you cook often, you will start to notice how frequently people are already pairing ingredients to make a dish that "turns on" two, three, or four of these lights. After that, you just need to keep in mind which type of flavor is missing when selecting a beverage and/or side dish to round it out.


Why does texture matter?

Touch is our most important sense. As someone obsessed with taste, you might not expect to hear that coming from me! But when you think about it, our senses are all sort-of different versions of touch. Hearing is ears feeling vibrations. Sight is eyes feeling different frequencies of light. Scents are olfactory neurons feeling physical molecules, and taste works similarly, just with taste buds on the tongue. Unlike a cat or other animals, humans' palates crave variety. For this reason, the texture of food is a crucial aspect of food pairing. Think about your favorite food. How many different textures does it incorporate? Even if you love a creamy, uniform soup, wouldn't you enjoy it more with a sprinkle of something crispy on top? Take a pairing as classic as a sandwich: You have bread: dry, soft, maybe a chewy crust; some protein, fruit, or veggie that can be creamy, crunchy, or some combination with a crispy outside, and finally jam, mustard, mayo, oil, or vinegar - something wet like a sauce, because it balances out the dry ingredients. Texture is the final box left to tick when trying to fully engage your palate.


Where do I start?

The best way to approach pairing is to start by tasting the item you are least familiar with. By starting there, you can rely on your experience and knowledge to choose what flavors you want to add. I really know Sake and craft beer, so when I do pairings, I choose my food first, since I can figure out what will pair with it without opening a bunch of bottles. If you really know your cheese, try choosing a Sake first. If the drink tastes sharp, dry, or crisp, then you can choose a cheese that is creamy and sweet. If your Sake tastes sweet, or light, you can get cheese that tastes nutty or aged.


That is the tip of the Sake Pairing iceberg!

I hope this rings true with what you have experienced in your culinary journeys thus far.

What are some of your all-time favorite pairings?

Have you ever had something totally stump you?

Comment below, or continue the conversation on SAKE SECRET's Instagram or Facebook Page!

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