Japanese sake and cheese sound like an odd combination to hear at first but growing prominence of this phenomenon in Japan has us digging more into the two as a pair.
More and more specialised sake bars are serving slices of pure cheese and not fish cheese string as a regular otsumami (a snack to go with alcohol). Some traditional Japanese snacks that accompany alcohol in Japan are edamame, roasted green peas, dried shredded squid or seaweed.
You will be able to find cheese snacks (e.g. cheese cubes or fish cheese strings) labelled as otsumami in convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, Lawson as well as Seciomart. More so, large supermarkets with a good stock of both international and domestically produced cheese have begun to encourage the pairing of sake and cheese.
This is interesting to see considering that cheese (by itself) is not consumed by a large portion of Japanese people and is not a staple in their diet. In particular, blue cheese with its rather distinct aroma and texture isn’t widely accepted in Japan. On the other hand, Japanese sake is the national alcoholic beverage that is enjoyed daily. Especially during day outs, celebrations and even religious rituals. Seems hard to put the two together.
However, if we follow the popular flavour pairing theory that food which shares similar flavour compounds will harmonise well, then Japanese sake and cheese are truly a match made in heaven. This is because of the lactic acids and umami that is present in both.
The umami flavours in sake can taste earthy, sometimes meaty or even yoghurt-like. Compared to wine, sake has less acidity and gives rounder mouthfeels. In addition, sake has a richer and satin-like texture with a hint of sweetness because of its average alcohol percentage that is around 16% (slightly higher than most white wines).
This sweetness pairs well with cheese. To give you some idea as to why, think of after-dinner cheeses that are often served with fruits, jams and honey.
This theory has often led to unexpected or outright bizarre food combinations. For example, chicken or duck and waffle, chips in sandwiches or pineapple and chilli sauce.
Japanese Sake and Cheese Pairing Examples
That is not to say that all cheese will go well with any sake. A general rule is that drier sakes will go well with sharper tasting cheese meanwhile sweet, fruitier sakes will pair well with goat cheese and blue cheese. Some examples of Japanese sake and cheese pairing include Daigingo sakes (that are usually higher in acidity) with sheep’s milk cheeses, aged sakes with nutty cheeses as well as Nigori sake with blue cheese.
Catered to the Japanese palate, cheese produced in Japan tends to have a subtler flavour than European cheese. This tends to go well with smoother tasting Japanese sakes.
Where Did It All Start?
In most cases, dishes originating from Asia tend not to mix similar flavour compounds while dishes from a western origin have been the opposite. Therefore, Japanese sake and cheese could be seen as an unconventional combination and most definitely a fusion of both worlds.
It is very likely the pair was a creation from the fusion between French Japanese cuisines, but as culinary influence is often hard to trace, we won’t know for sure.
Sake sommeliers and restauranteurs are likely to have brought the combination to its current popularity. One of the first sake and cheese tasting events happened over 10 years ago outside of Japan, in the States.
Recent articles published from Sake Sommelier Associations and Japan Times also allure that sake sommeliers and enthusiasts such as Toshio Ueno, Elliot Faber and Rebekah Wilson-Lye have long enjoyed sake and cheese as a combination.
Although Japanese sake and cheese may still sound weird, at least it is now understandable why the pairing works well and where did it come from. Why not give the unconventional combination a try next time?
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