Jessica Boyd has been working in Japanese restaurants and studying sake for 10 years. She studies Japanese and looks forward to moving to Japan in a few years to live the good life in the countryside. After realizing her passion for sake, she sought out a job at Ozumo. Through many incarnations in her four years there, including server and sushi chef, she now finds herself the in-house sake expert and buyer. She also pours sake (and wine) every Tuesday at Corkage Sake & Wine Bar (next door to Café Abir and Tsunami Sushi Bar in the Western Addition).
Sake and Cheese: A New Frontier
Sake has always been somewhat of an approachable, friendly drink to me. It lends a comfortable (sometimes wild) hand to almost any situation. So when Kenzo Mabuchi of Tamanohikari Brewery in Kyoto, Japan asked me to get some blue cheese to pair with his Yamahai Ginjo, I have to admit the synapses were not firing. My life would never be the same.
Under careful consideration, some sake and cheeses have what is known as umami, the Fifth Flavor. In the West, we taste four states: salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. In the East, there are five tastes: dryness, sweetness, acidity, bitterness, and astringency. And crossing the borders we have the ever-elusive concept known as umami. A Japanese word combining umai (delicious) and mi (essence). So it's the essence of deliciousness? Uh huh.
Well, umami was actually "discovered" in 1908 by a researcher at Tokyo Imperial University named Kikunae Ikeda. After making a highly concentrated batch of dashi (broth) with konbu (seaweed) and katsuo bushi (dried fish flakes), Ikeda singled out the culprit: glutamates. A type of amino acid, these glutamates (when present) in a dish or single ingredient provide a delicious, savory, fullness of flavor or richness.
Perfect example: compare an unripe tomato to that of one vine-ripened, still warm from the sun's lovin' rays (OK, it doesn't have to be still warm). The unripe tomato just doesn't taste complete, whereas the ripe tomato makes you want to eat more, in fact, it makes you want to eat it like you would an apple.
Applying this concept to sake, one would say a very dry, clean sake is lower in umami than say one that is rounder, softer and more complex with a lingering finish. Both of these sakes have been made to taste exactly the way they do--no mistake. Are some of you asking, "How can there be amino acids in sake?" Well, my drink of choice is made from rice (and water, koji and yeast). When the proteins in the rice are breaking down, the amino acids remain. Sometimes, they are entirely eaten up by the hungry yeasts and sometimes they're not (depending on how long fermentation takes). The remaining amino acids then give the sake a robust, gamey, often, succulent flavor profile.
Moving on to cheese, however, generally speaking the more aged the cheese, the more umami. Think two year old Parmigiano Reggiano vs. fresh mozzarella. The parm has more depth of flavor than the mozzarella could ever dream of having. Both of these cheeses are living out their dharma perfectly. Having 1200mg of glutamates per 100g, Parmigiano Reggiano is still only second to Roquefort in technical umami content. This is why you see heaps of freshly grated parm on almost all Italian dishes--it adds that extra "mmmm."
Pairing sake and cheese can be a little tricky. But have fun with it. Taste is all very subjective, if it tastes good to you, go with it. I have provided a few pairings that I thought were great. Kanpai!
Tamanohikari Yamahai Ginjo With Pt. Reyes Original Blue (Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company)
Warming this sake gently allows it to open up and soften on the palate. The gaminess of the sake perfectly combines with the ripeness of the cheese, unfolding into a symphony in your mouth. Unqualified breads need not apply. Serve sake slightly warmed or room temperature.
Kamoizumi Nigori Ginjo With Roquefort and Honey
This sake is quite a treat. It's rich and creamy texture works wonderfully with that of the cheese. The sweetness of the nigori (cloudy) sake complements that of the tanginess in the blue veins. Sweet, smoky and salty, this cheese has it all. Add a touch of honey, and wow. Kamoizumi Nigori's complex structure can stand up to the many sensations of Roquefort. Serve sake well chilled.
Hou Hou Shu Sparkling Sake With Mt. Tam (Cowgirl Creamery)
One of the best sparkling sakes available, a refreshing beverage anytime. Soft, plentiful bubbles envelop the palate, adding just a touch of sweetness. The creaminess of the cheese is offset by the bubbles in a delicate manner. Subtle nuttiness is then welcomed by the sake's exquisite flavor profile including pear, cream, sweet rice, and banana. Serve sake well chilled.
Recommended sakes are available for purchase at Corkage Sake and Wine Shop, 1304 Fulton St. at Divisadero, 415-567-6503.