The first rule of pairing sake with Japanese food is there really aren’t that many rules. “It’s hard to have a total miss,” says Steve Cooper, manager of Shuhei in Beachwood. Often referred to as a “rice wine,” sake is actually brewed like beer from a mix of rice, water, koji (rich starch converted to sugar) and yeast. But just because it sounds simple doesn’t mean there aren’t choices. And if you’ve ever felt a tsunami of confusion reading a sake list, here is what you need to know.
The Basics: • Sake designations are based on how much the rice is “polished” (meaning what percentage of the fats and proteins from the outer layers of each grain has been milled away prior to brewing), and whether the brewer added extra alcohol beyond what was created during fermentation. • The terms ginjo (sake in which at least 40 percent of each rice grain has been milled away) and dai-ginjo (sake in which at least 50 percent of each rice grain has been milled away) are used for premium sake in either the junmai or honjozo style. • Only lower quality sakes (none of the ones discussed here) are served hot. The best sake is consumed chilled or at room temperature.
Junmai What it is: Polished to at least 75 percent of its original size (25 percent milled) with no additional alcohol Food pairing: “It’s a more fragrant, sweeter style,” Cooper says. “If you are eating something fullerbodied that can stand up to a bolder style, then you would go with the junmai.” On the menu: Kaori Junmai Ginjo ($8.50/glass)
Honjozo What it is: Rice has been polished to at least 75 percent of its original size (25 percent milled) and brewer’s alcohol added Food pairing: “It has a cleaner, dry taste, usually good for sashimi and lighter seafood preparations.” On the menu: Ozeki Karatamba ($7.50/glass; $14.50 300-ml bottle)
Nigori Sake What it is: The rice is polished to at least 75 percent of its original size and the sake is not filtered like the others (meaning rice particles remain in the bottle) giving the drink a cloudy appearance. Food pairing: Save this one for a dessert drink. “I compare it to coconut milk,” Cooper says. “It’s not high-grade sake, but a lot of people love it. I don’t think it matches well with any food. It’s a little bit overpowering.” On the menu: Nigori Unfiltered (5.75/glass)