The Ultimate Sake & Seafood Pairing Guide

A crash course courtesy of JFOODO.

October 3, 2019 ● 3 min read

Sake: we love it, we drink it, but between you, us, and, the internet, we don’t always know what we’re doing when we order it with dinner. We’ve learned from some of our favorite Experts that we can expect to see sake popping up with greater frequency on wine lists, not just in sushi restaurants, but in establishments whose chefs take great pride in their seafood preparations and whose patrons are looking to escape the ordinary. Who better to speak to about the natural pairing between seafood and sake, and its growing global popularity, than Jessica Joly, an International Kikisake-Shi (Sake Sommelier) WSET Level 3?

Growing up between California and Japan, Joly developed an expansive culinary palette and an innate understanding of how to navigate and bridge cultural divides. Her secret? Sometimes the most beautiful results come from the most unexpected combinations: of people, flavors, music, you name it–– culture happens when things get stirred up a bit. She’s applied this philosophy to her career, including stints at Tokyo Record Bar, Ippudo, and Soba Totto just to name a few, and to her signature events that pair music, sake, and food. We chatted with Joly to learn more about her pairing philosophy, in preparation for World Sake Day, October 1.  

Why does sake and seafood pair so well?

Joly: Sake pairs so well with food and especially seafood, as it is full of amino acids, which results in umami. Umami is the fifth taste, that emphasizes and brings harmony to the flavors of sweet/sour/salty/bitter. By pairing sake with seafood dishes that are already naturally rich in umami, the two emphasize each other, rather than overpower each other. In Western cultures, we think of white wine made from grapes as the traditional drink to pair with seafood, but because of its high levels of acids, tannins, and even iron content, it can sometimes create that undesirably “fishy” or even “not quite right” flavor on the palate. Because sake is wine made from rice, it lacks the tannins, certain types of acids, and iron content of grape wine, so you don’t get that struggle or disharmony that can bring. 

Give us a cheat sheet for some go-to pairings please, let’s start with say, cold seafood, like raw bar or oysters?

Joly: There is a new style of sparkling sake that is made with the champagne method called, "AWA." This type of sake is different than the previously known sparkling sakes. While many people think sparkling sake may be too sweet or dry this new Champagne Method Sake is beautifully balanced with a delicate finish and some acidity. This is great choice for those who usually enjoy Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco.

How about more aromatic seafood dishes? Say I’m ordering a ceviche?

Joly: Go with aromatic types of sake, like Daiginjo/Ginjo. These premium styles of sake–Ginjo means milled more than 60-percent and Daiginjo means milled more than 50-percent– are light on the palate. Daiginjo/Ginjo type sakes pair well with dishes that have characteristics of lime, lemon zest, yuzu kosho, and herbs. With their light and smooth finish, Daiginjo/Ginjo style sakes are also perfect for pairing with raw dishes. 

Ok, what about big flavorful dishes I might even order red wine with, like a cioppino?

Joly: These dishes are full of umami and flavor and can pair wonderfully with rich type sake, such as Junmai style which is also rich in amino acids. Junmai means "pure rice" and no addition of added alcohol. These styles can be robust and rich in flavor and have characteristics of steamed rice. If you want something to cut through the acidity of tomato-based dishes, the Junmai style is ideal. If you want something more aromatic or complex, opt for a Tokubetsu Junmai. 

Alright, one more. What about big rich creamy seafood dishes like seafood alfredo or a bowl of New England clam chowder? 

Joly: These types of dishes go great with rich sake like Kimoto and Yamahai, which have savory and earthy characteristics. These styles of sake are brewed so that natural lactic acid develops and they have characteristics of mushroom or yogurt, which harmonizes with the richness of the flavors of cream-based dishes. Some may say these styles are too full for mild seafood dishes, but in that case, look for a more premium style like "Junmai Daiginjo Kimoto" that still has a lush and smooth finish with bold characteristics from the Kimoto style of brewing. 

Is there anything else we should keep in mind when pairing sake with seafood? 

Joly: Think, “opposites attract!” Sweet and spicy go hand in hand–try something like Sweet and Spicy Shrimp or deep-fried soft shell crab with a type of sake that is generally smooth and refreshing, like Nigori, coarsely filtered sake, or Namazake, unpasteurized sake. If you want to enhance your pairing experience, try different styles of sake chilled, room temperature, warm, or hot to see how the flavors and aroma expand once they change temperatures.

All right, if you’re now hooked like us and want the chance to experience sake and seafood pairings, ChefsFeed has partnered with JFOODO, which has put together a series of pop-up tasting events “Restaurant Paired” prepared by some of the world’s hottest chefs and brightest sake somms in the following cities. All you have to do is show up and ask about the JFOODO “Escape the Ordinary” sake pairing.

NY@Limani 10/18-20 

SF@ Hayes Street Grill 10/31-11/3

LA@ Rappahannock Oyster Bar 11/22-24

This story is sponsored by JFOODO. To learn more about its work and sake research, check out this handy link.