From the tables of Hong Kong to Europe, North America and beyond, the traditional Japanese rice wine is increasingly being accepted as an enjoyable and versatile accompaniment to food, and not simply for dishes from the beverage’s Asian homeland

It was a titanic clash of beverage giants—with diners as the ultimate judges. A pairing dinner held at Mr & Mrs Fox restaurant in Hong Kong late last year saw Elliot Faber, beverage director at popular Yardbird restaurant, and a certified sake samurai, pitted against sommelier Yvonne Cheung, who is Swire hotels and restaurants’ director of wine. For each dish, Faber had chosen a sake and Cheung had picked a wine. After every course, diners at the sold-out event voted on which fared—and paired—the best. 

Most guests had come along believing that underdog sake would have little chance against the clear favourite of wine, especially with the food served being more European than Asian, and yet sake came out on top. Although Faber wasn’t expecting that result, he was not completely surprised. “I think that we opened up a lot of eyes,” he says. “People didn’t realise that sake is not limited to Japanese food. If you can pair wine with anything, why can’t you pair sake with anything? You can pair wine with sushi, so why not the other way around?”

Faber is a strong proponent of sake, with extensive knowledge of his subject. As well as working with Yardbird, he heads up beverage supply company Sunday’s Distribution, which brings sake to Hong Kong and other markets around the world. And in 2014, alongside Japanese master of sake Hayato Hishinuma, Faber co-authored the hefty, 420-page tome Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries

To understand the growing interest in sake globally, Hishinuma points to the growing acceptance of the taste category long known in Japan as umami, but now also embraced internationally. “Umami has become popular worldwide,” Hishinuma says. “Japanese cuisine has umami, because we have dashi, kombu, mushroom. But Western cuisine has it, too, with dried tomatoes and cheese. It pairs with the amino acids in sake. It’s a more gentle pairing than wine, but a good pairing.” 

"Sake is not limited to Japanese food. If you can pair wine with anything, why not sake?"—Elliot Faber

Faber, who hails from Toronto in Canada, agrees with his Yokohama-born friend. “Sake has a high level of amino acids, which is basically umami,” Faber says, “so it sits on the savoury part on the middle of your tongue and is really stimulated with other foods that have umami, so anything with tomatoes, beef, cheese, mushrooms or tofu. A lot of natural ingredients pair really well with sake.” 

To demonstrate how such culinary marriages works, Faber recently worked on a pop-up dining experience in Singapore that saw the pairing of sake with burgers and poutine (a Canadian dish comprised of French fries, cheese curds and gravy). “That worked because of the texture of the sake,” he says. “We poured Sunday’s nigori sake, which is a cloudy sake, so the starch and sake lees matched with the potatoes. The gravy was emphasising the umami richness in the sake, and the cheese brought texture. It was really beautiful and delicious.”

As sake’s pairing attributes become better known, restaurants around the world are increasingly adding it to their beverage lists. Highline restaurant in Shanghai serves modern Californian cuisine and has an extensive sake menu, while El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, which currently ranks third on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, also pours the Japanese rice wine. Sommelier Guillermo Cruz – at two-Michelin-starred restaurant Mugaritz, also in Spain – holds the WSET Level Three award in sake, and has worked with beverage expert Natsuki Kikuya on an extensive sake menu for the restaurant.

“Sake is one of the most versatile beverages in the world,” enthuses Cruz. “It can pair with many combinations and styles of food. That’s quite important for us because we do a 28-dish menu. It’s not powerful. It’s not going to overwhelm the delicate flavours of a dish. It’s delicate and fun, and the combination is always very good. My best combinations are always with sake.”

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Above In 2014, Elliot Faber co-authored Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries with Japanese master of sake Hayato Hishinuma (Photo: Sake Central)

Sake also features in some Mugaritz dishes, such as the cryptically named “7th Hake in White, Doburoku”. Here, the fish is prepared with doburoku sake (a rustic type of sake usually produced in small volumes for consumption by those who make it, and not normally for sale). The dish is then served with a more modern type of sake. “That’s a way to let people understand that sake can combine perfectly with food,” says Cruz. “Sake needs to be ‘culturised’ here in Spain and in Europe. It’s a big tradition in Japan, but not here, so our work is to make it closer to people. We now have 60 or 70 references on the list, from many different prefectures and producers in different styles, which use different types of rice.”

In Hong Kong, sake is already well established and drinkers increasingly value more sophisticated examples. “People care more about the quality of the sake they are drinking,” says Faber, who recently opened Sake Central, a multifunctional retail and educational space in Hong Kong that showcases Japanese culture through sake and food. “They are asking questions and trying a lot of different styles. Hong Kong is the best place in the world, I think, to promote sake, arguably better than Japan because it’s so international.”

See also: Where To Find The Best Sake In Hong Kong

Impressive sake lists feature at a number of Japanese restaurants across Hong Kong, not least at chef-owner Max Levy’s Okra restaurant, where a number of unusual expressions are on offer. Okra was recently named one of Hong Kong and Macau’s top 20 restaurants by T.Dining by Hong Kong Tatler, as was Godenya restaurant, where owner Shinya Goshima showcases how sake can be rewardingly paired with everything from Cantonese delicacies and Japanese specialities to contemporary international fare. 

“For a long time, sake was simple, Japanese food is simple food; it was a good match,” says Goshima. “But now there is so much variety in the food from other countries: spicy, oily, fragrant – so many types of food. And now, also so many talents in sake and many types of sake. Sake is a good collaboration.” 

And there is growing interest in sake from other Hong Kong restaurants, indicating a trend. French restaurant Le Bistro Winebeast, for example, recently took part in a special sake evening featuring examples from Japan’s Niigata prefecture. “The sake was very interesting with seafood,” says Winebeast’s sommelier, Cristina Ducroquet, who hopes to explore the role of sake further. “Niigata sake is extremely light and easy to understand. Sake has the same kind of complexity as wine. Some from Niigata are so light – you could compare them with a fresh white wine.” 

While wine may still be the more common accompaniment to food, a growing interest in sake pairing with a wider range of culinary traditions is giving the grape some serious competition – in Hong Kong and across the world.   

This story originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Ambrosia, the official magazine of the International Culinary Institute

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