You Should Think Twice Before Pairing Sake With Sushi In Japan

Sake and sushi: it's a match made in Heaven. Or maybe not. Sushi and sake might be a logical pairing in America, but up until recent years, it was actually seen as a strange combination in Japan.

Sake is a rice-based beverage and is brewed in a similar way to beer. In Japan, pairing a rice-based drink with a rice dish was seen as a strange practice until the mid-1900s. This is because a rice-heavy combination is very indulgent and makes people full too fast. Instead, people in Japan traditionally paired sake with other dishes like sashimi and sushi with drinks like fruit wines or tea. Today, many people in Japan still believe that the only beverage you should have with sushi are palate cleansers so that the sushi's individual flavors can shine, but those rules are a little more relaxed. People are starting to see that the rice present in both of these indulgences means they can complement each other well. But the idea that you should not indulge in sake alongside sushi still applies in traditional Japanese restaurants, so it's something to keep in mind. 

If you want to try sake the traditional way, let's talk about how to pair it. Sake works the same way as wine in that it can pair better with different foods. But because of the uniqueness of sake, there's room to get a lot more creative than with other beverages.

How to pair sake the right way

As one Japanese beverage portfolio manager, Jamie Graves, shared with Vinepair, sake is unique because it can pair well with almost anything. "There's a saying in Japan that sake wa ryori o erabenai, loosely, 'sake isn't choosy about food. That's to say how generally versatile it is in pairing," he said. Because sake is brewed with rice, the beverage will go especially well with anything you can serve in a bowl of rice, like grilled meat and vegetables. 

Sashimi is a popular dish to pair sake with too. If you take this route, you should try to pair your sake based on the oils of the fish. If you opt for salmon sashimi, the buttery, creamy oils here might pair best with a clean and smooth sake. If you have a high-protein fish like sea bass, you might want something with a little more punch, like a high-acidity sake, to refresh your palette between bites. 

For more flavorful meals, like savory chicken ramen or curry, the owner of Cascadian-food, Josh Dorcak, suggests going for stronger options like a yamahai genshu-style sake that can match the meal's intensity (via Forbes). Dorcak also suggests pairing any sake with cheese, nuts, and fried foods. And when in doubt, Dorack claims that Junmai Ginjo sake typically goes with almost any dish.

Our advice for pairing sushi with sake

With sake, there are many things to know, like whether you should drink it hot or cold. There are tons to try too, from Nigori to Junmai, and flavors profiles to learn. So just like wine or beer, you should experiment with the many different iterations of sake to find what suits you best. You can truly figure out how to pair the beverage from there.

Americans have especially become fans of sake in the last few years and are currently Japan's largest export market for the beverage. If you're one of the many fans and your heart is still set on pairing sake with sushi, take our advice. If you decide to indulge, be diligent about what you choose to pair so you don't overpower key flavors. For this reason, it's often recommended to pair sushi with more basic sakes. As Jamie Graves shared with Vinepair, this would be a "clean, dry sake with restrained aromatics." But at the end of the day, the choice is up to you. Kanpai.