Friday, July 24, 2009

More on sushi, sake and philosophy

My last post, about how sushi and sake are great together, inspired some interesting conversations with Japanese people.

One Japanese chef asked me, bewildered, why I would ever suggest that sushi might not go with sake. I had to explain, in Japanese, that some Americans have written that because they're both made from rice, it seems like a conflict. That just led to more bewilderment. Did they think one serving of rice is too much? Do they think there's a rice shortage? I tried to explain that they see themselves as culinary perfectionists.

"But sushi and sake are perfect together," he said. "Do they dislike rice?" I couldn't answer that.

The more interesting conversation I had was with a former waiter from a Japanese restaurant, who had a pretty good theory. Americans order much more nigori sake than Japanese. Nigori, in many ways, is the white Zinfandel of sake. It's a great entry point, it's a little sweet, and it's easy for beginners to enjoy. It's also not the greatest drink for pairing with some kinds of food. Because of its sweetness and milky texture, nigori sake is good with food with a little spiciness (also like white Zin). But it isn't a great match with the delicate flavors of most sushi (spicy tuna rolls are another story.)

This makes some intuitive sense. So let me modify: Most sake is great with sushi. If you want to be a perfectionist about it, you might seek out a drier, leaner sake. Japanese people drink a lot more honjozo sake than Americans, and honjozos, with a leaner profile, tend to be good with raw fish.

That said, daiginjos can be floral and are rarely very dry, yet they're often served in the finest sushi bars, perhaps because they're considered the most refined sakes. I personally like junmai ginjos best with sushi, because non-ginjo junmais are often a little heavy, and I like having something with more expansive flavor than a honjozo.

Tell you what: Experiment with different sakes, beers, wines (try Pinot Gris) and sushi, and see what you think works best.

I'm still stunned at the idea that any American foodies could proclaim that sushi and sake, which Japanese have been drinking together for centuries, is somehow not a great combo for philosophical reasons. The nigori theory sheds some light on it.

But my own philosophy is so different. I don't believe in telling people, "Don't drink that with that." Would I drink Cabernet Sauvignon with chicken vindaloo? No way. But you go ahead. I might suggest something different with the vindaloo: beer, cider or, hey, nigori sake.

Beyond that, I can't imagine going to Alsace and telling people their wines don't go with choucroute, or telling Italians not to have limoncello as a digestif. Nor would I tell Georgians that their barbecue doesn't go with Coca-Cola. Who am I to pronounce judgment on someone else's culinary culture?

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