Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sake with sushi: dispelling a myth

A food blogger recently told me there's a belief among culinary types that sushi doesn't go with sake. The idea is that because sake is made from rice, it isn't served with rice-based dishes like sushi.

I found evidence of this meme in a book called The Connoisseur's Guide to Sushi, which recommends having tea or beer.

Both of those beverages are perfectly fine sushi partners. But let me assure you, in Japan people drink plenty of sake with sushi.

Beer is common, to be sure, but that's because Japanese drink more than 8 times as much beer as sake. Sake made up only 8 percent of Japan's liquor consumption in 2006, according to Japan's national tax agency.

However, sake is consumed at a much higher rate in sushi bars than in the izakayas that are supposedly designed for sake -- in fact, beer is the dominant beverage in Japan's izakayas. The reason is both style and substance. Sake is seen as a refined beverage, matching the upscale image of sushi. And rice-on-rice be damned, sake and sushi are great together.

One thing I hate about this misnomer is its negative, prescriptive nature. It's not a meme that says, "try green tea with sake, it's great." Instead, it's "don't have this combination that people have been enjoying for centuries, 'cause I'm a culinary expert and I say it's wrong."

Another thing I hate about it is its cultural ignorance.

As someone who spent more than 8 years in Japan, and holds a fluency certificate from the Japanese government (and also sometimes holds my Japanese wife), I'm both amused and annoyed by this sort of meme promulgated by Americans who maybe visited for a week, ran their silly theory by a Japanese person and misinterpreted the "hai" they got in response as "yes" instead of "I'm listening." Japanese culture strongly forbids open disagreement, so Japanese people will almost never correct your mistakes.

Example: When the Orioles signed Koji Uehara last winter, the Baltimore Sun ran incorrect pronunciation guides of his name for a whole week. Japanese grammar is challenging, but it's a very easy language to pronounce. Any Japanese reader could have corrected it, but apparently none did (and it took the paper a week to listen to me and a few other non-Japanese).

During that same week, Americans who had been assistant English teachers in Japan posted a variety of signs they recommended fans hold up for Uehara, such as an attempted translation of "Go Orioles" which really meant either "Orioles leave town" or "Orioles have an orgasm." Sorry, but Uehara's not that good.

Sushi and sake together just might be, though. Go sake!


Amy Sherman said...

Happy to have you clear this up, because there are plenty of sites that repeat the directive--"don't pair sushi and sake", and it had me perplexed. I guess what they say is true, don't believe everything you read on the internet!

Unknown said...

I will not eat sushi without sake.

PunkRockChica said...

In the foreword of Japanese Cooking by Shizuo Tsuji, Ruth Reichl emphatically states that ig is a Japanese Culinary Rule to abstain from sake while eating rice. This went against the meals I had enjoyed with a Japanese friend so I quested for answers. Thank you for providing a different point of view.