News and views
Pairing oysters with sake and other seafood
Shirley Booth explains the different grades of sake and why it goes so well with oysters and other seafood.
Ten years ago, when I started the British Sake Association, my dream was to see sake being served in British bars and restaurants, being drunk by young hip urbanites: by people, and in places, with no relationship to Japan at all.
So when I was invited to a sake and oyster tasting at the newly opened Oystermen Seafood Bar & Kitchen in Covent Garden how could I resist? In Japan it’s a classic combination, as we were about to appreciate.
Oystermen was originally set up as a catering business by Matt Lovell and Rob Hampton back in 2016. The following year they established a permanent home in Covent Garden, which expanded into the adjoining building at the end of last year.
As well as an oyster bar, with oysters from Ireland, Maldon, Whitstable, Jersey and Menai, there is a selection of seafood dishes, prepared in the (tiny) kitchen by the talented Alex Povall and Joel Ryan, both formerly at Murano. And, alongside the great selection of wine in the fridge, there is Japanese sake.
The tasting was part of the Japanese government’s JFoodo initiative, a series of events, called Journey of Sake: Harmony Series, created to introduce sake as a partner to a variety of non-Japanese cuisines and was hosted by Oliver Hilton-Johnson from TenguSake
Ollie, as he is known, began by explaining the polishing rate of sake, and how this determines the categorisation and, of course, the flavour. In brief, the more highly polished the rice grain, the more delicate and elegant the taste.
The different styles of sake
Ginjo is polished down to 60% (i.e. 40% of the rice grain is milled away); together with a long slow fermentation this results in a sake characterised by floral and tropical fruit aromas; a DaiGinjo is polished even more – at least 50%, and sometimes down to 38% or even 19%., resulting in a supremely delicate (and expensive) sake.
These styles often have a little (up to 10%) brewer’s alcohol added - to stabilize and enhance the flavours and aroma. But a further categorization, Junmai, refers to sake with no added alcohol, sometimes described as ‘pure rice sake’. Junmai tends to have a more rice-based umami character.
Another categorization concerns the style of brewing, in particular the starter mash. Yamahai and Kimoto are both made with old fashioned slow methods, producing a style of sake which is more complex, dense, earthy and more full bodied, sometimes with ricey or lactic notes.
Honjozo is polished down to only 70%; and Futsushu is ‘everyday sake’ rather like vin de table, and outside the Premium Sake designation. In futsushu the polishing rate, as well as additives and procedures, are not bound by such strict rules: which means you can get some terrible ones, but also some very decent futsushu.
Sake and Food
The synergy of sake with food was enthusiastically explained by Ollie, who told us the three things that sake can do (that wine can’t).
First: temperature. Unlike wine, sake can be - and is - drunk at varying levels of temperature. The Japanese have poetic names for a range of subtly different temperatures (‘flower cold’ and ‘snow cold’ for example) but the main differences are between chilled, room temperature and warm.
This ability to determine the serving temperature means you have the ability to mask or enhance the characteristics of the sake as you serve it. Warmth will mask acidity and seem to make it taste sweeter: chilling it will enhance acidity, and so on. To me this is one of the most instructive things you can do to learn about sake: try the same sake at three or four different temperatures and see how it changes.
The second difference, Ollie explained, was the acidity in sake. Sake has a fifth of the acidity of wine – it’s significantly low in citric and malic acid - the ones you find in wine. Conversely though, whilst wine is low in glutamic acids (15mg per litre in red wine), sake contains a lot : 250mg glutamic acid per litre.
This glutamic acid component of sake is the key to the third big difference from wine. Amino acids - glutamic acid as well as lactic acid and succinic acid - are the agents responsible for what has been described as the fifth taste, umami. Sometimes described as ‘deliciousness’ or ‘savoury’, umami is one of the reasons why sake is so good with food. Amino acids, especially if present in both food and drink in combination, intensify taste, creating more and more umami – enhancing taste, and making everything more delicious.
Oysters too are high in amino acids (particularly succinic acid and glutamic acid) and this is why sake and oysters ‘do so much for each other’.
Our first dish confirmed it. Maldon Rock Oyster (a large oyster) is high in salinity, so Ollie had paired it with Tatenokawa 50 ‘Stream’ - an aromatic Junmai Daiginjo which stood up to the saltiness. Alongside, the smaller Kumamoto oyster, a Japanese breed, was meatier and was paired with Konishi Gold, a Daiginjo Hiyashibori: this was a less aromatic, creamier and richer sake, paired with an oyster with more depth and richness, the sake bringing out the creaminess and richness of both.
As the bream carpaccio was served Ollie explained how sake can wash away, or minimise, any fishiness and saltiness , thereby allowing other aspects of the dish to shine. The Silent Blossom Junmai DaiGinjo had distinct aniseed notes, something you often find in sake and, as the dish featured aniseed herbs, this was a perfect complement. (I had kept back a bit of my Konishi Gold and thought that worked well too, but the Silent Blossom was sweeter).
Next came Oyster-Stout-Braised Beef Shin and Oyster Pie, with a toasted breadcrumb topping– a take on the classic nineteenth century London dish of steak and oyster pie made with stout brewed in south London. An umami-rich aged Junmai DaiGinjo called Aperitif accompanied it. Ageing breaks down sugars into amino acids, creating an umami-rich sake which is good with cheesecake or biscuits (hence the pairing with the breadcrumb topping). The mushroomy, soy sauce-rich flavours of the sake were perfect with this dish.
But we hadn’t finished: a ‘risotto’ made with orzo and braised cuttlefish from Dorset, with Lyonnaise onion and red butterfly sorrel was placed in front of us. This was a rich dish that needed the robust acidity of Black Face – another Junmai Daiginjo.
Then came tempura served with something quite different: Misty Mountain is a Bodaimoto, named after the temple in which it was first brewed. Bodaimoto is an ancient medieval method which results in a 17% slightly sour sake (from the slowly and naturally created lactic acid used in the mash ). It’s rich, fun and vibrant and, unusually for Japan, made by a woman.
We finished with a dessert of roasted peaches in sugar and butter de-glazed with sake (of course) served with peach puree and caramelized white chocolate: the toffee notes of this dish harmonized with a sweet sake UmeShu – sake infused with plum.
To discover more harmonies of sake and food go to https://foodandsake.com/london/ which lists all the places in London where sake is served - there are many more than you would think – and many of them non-Japanese.
For more information about sake and the British Sake Association, or to become a member, visit www.britishsakeassociation.org
To buy the sakes mentioned here on line visit www.tengusake.com
Shirley Booth is founder and president of the British Sake Association
© Shirley Booth 2018. Images © Nic Crilly-Hargrave / niccrillyhargrave.com
If you found this post helpful and would like to support the website which is free to use it would be great if you'd make a donation towards its running costs or sign up to my regular Substack newsletter Eat This, Drink That for extra benefits.