How to Pair Sake With Your Dinner

The Urban Sake founder explores new cuisines to couple with the Japanese beverage

During a recent dinner at Shibumi in Los Angeles, sake expert Timothy Sullivan enthusiastically poured Hakkaisan sake. He noted that he likely had a part in brewing the bottle.

Sullivan, the 46-year-old founder of Urban Sake, an online sake dictionary, returned from a year-long internship as a brewer at Hakkaisan’s sake brewery in Niigata, Japan, where he took his passion for sake to the next level. Now, as a Hakkaisan brand ambassador, he recently hosted a dinner series, which paired the Japanese beverage with some unexpected cuisine, such as Chinese food and pizza. Yes, you read that right — pizza.

But Sullivan said those pairings shouldn’t be that surprising at all because sake goes very well with many cuisines.

“There's a dirty little secret in the sake world that pairing sake with food is really not difficult,” Sullivan said. “Sake is super forgiving. There's a saying in Japanese that sake and food do not fight.”

His main tip: Match the intensity of your sake with the intensity of the dish.

“If you have a light, clean, dry sake, that might go well with sashimi or a salad,” Sullivan recommended. “If you have a full-bodied, hearty very ricey sake, or a cloudy sake, that might go well with a heartier dish. If you have a non-diluted sake that's 19 percent alcohol, you can look to spicy dishes to pair with that.”

At the Shibumi dinner, chef David Schlosser created a menu that used some Hakkaisan’s unique sake ingredients, such as sake kasu (the solids left over from production), shio koji, and amazake. The night started with the refreshing Hakkaisan’s Sparkling Nigori. The first course was a uni, crab, ikura, and warm tofu bowl paired with smooth Junmai Ginjo. Three-year Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo was coupled with monkfish liver and Hokkaido scallop, cured three minutes and three months in shio koji.

The hearty Tokubetsu Honjozo was matched with a black cod in sake lees, served with lotus root pickle, rice, and house-made miso soup. For dessert, amazake cheesecake with grilled hoshigaki (grilled persimmons) paired with the Hakkaisan’s sweet aged dessert sake.

Sullivan first became interested in sake a decade ago, when he was working in e-commerce in New York City. He went out for sushi one night, tried Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo, and realized a new passion. “It really caught my attention,” Sullivan said. “I was thinking, ‘Gosh, I should have known about this.’ No one told me this awesome thing was out there.”

Soon after, Sullivan started Urban Sake, which has grown from being a sake blog to a database of over 900 sakes and an education source for those who want to learn more about the beverage.

And Sullivan said he hopes to help people realize you can pair sake with more than just Japanese food — because, yes, pizza and sake are a good match.

“It’s the umami that's in the tomatoes and we had a mushroom pizza,” he explains. “Shiitake mushrooms are a staple of umami. It is out of left field, it's not something that people do every day but we really are trying to expand the role of sake in the world.” There are more surprising food pairings that are beyond wine.

We were hosted for the dinner.