IMBIBE: Eastern Accomplices

By on May 24, 2016

Sake, wine and other pairings for a perfect sushi meal.


JACKSON HOLE, WY – When pondering the question of what to drink with sushi it’s helpful first to chuck a few myths overboard.

First, sushi is not raw fish. Fish, raw or cooked, may be a component of sushi, but sushi actually refers to the rice, which is short-grain Japanese rice seasoned with sugar and vinegar. And so, a veggie roll that doesn’t contain fish is still sushi. Likewise, nigiri—thumb-size mounds of sushi with a single topping—can feature raw fish (and usually does) but doesn’t have to. Sashimi is raw fish, typically served with condiments such as soy sauce, wasabi and ginger. Since sashimi flavors are so delicate, it’s usually the first course served in Japanese restaurants.

Second, somehow the myth that sake isn’t sipped with sushi has taken hold among the food intelligentsia of this country. The theory is that, since sake is rice-based, one shouldn’t drink it with rice. Huh? It is true that in Japan, sushi is most often accompanied by beer. But sake is also consumed with sushi. The reason that beer is more commonplace with sushi than sake is simply that the Japanese drink about eight times more beer than sake.

Warm or cold? I’ve heard people insist that one should only drink chilled sake with sushi, and I’ve also heard the exact opposite. My suggestion: Have it your way. But here is something to note: Heating sake intensifies both its flavor and its dryness. For that reason, warm or hot sake is a good accompaniment for sashimi and delicately flavored sushi. As with pairing wines with food, acidity in the wine and fat content of the food are important to consider.

Let’s take, for example, sake with sake. As well as referring to the fermented rice beverage, sake is also the Japanese word for salmon. Since salmon is a somewhat oily fish—that is, has a significant fat content—I’d opt for Ginjo sake, which is fairly light, and dry enough to help cut through the oily salmon. For the same reason, I would also recommend it with tuna. For California rolls or other sushi involving crab, I’d try to mimic the crab’s rich sweetness with a sake to match, such as a Junmai Ginjo, which typically has a touch of sweetness.

Having hopefully made the case for sake and sushi, I’ll admit that I prefer to sip wine with my sushi. It’s not a matter of right or wrong; it’s simply that I prefer wine. And, since dining in a sushi restaurant isn’t just about raw fish, I try to find a wine on the list that is versatile. After all, in addition to sashimi, nigiri and sushi rolls, most sushi restaurants also serve things like Kobe beef, tempura and various cooked foods that might even call for a robust red wine. A barbecued eel roll or a dish like Tona’s Asian-style baby back ribs could even suggest a big, brawny wine like Bucklin Bald Mountain Syrah.

Thanks to its crispness and acidity, Sauvignon Blanc is a wine that can cross a lot of sushi boundaries. Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc 2013 has just enough oak to impart lusty creaminess and silkiness that is sure to sex up your sushi.

I also drink dry rosé wines with sushi, again since they are quite versatile, and range across various types of dishes and ingredients. One of my current favorites is Matthiasson 2015 Rosé, brimming with citrus notes that partner beautifully with ponzu and other citrusy sauces and sushi accoutrements.

Now, go out and make (or break) some sushi-sipping rules of your own! PJH

About Ted Scheffler

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