Sake 'never fights with food'
Sake has taken off in the US and while the UK is trailing behind, the drink's depth of flavour means experts are now matching it to non-Japanese food.
Strongly salted, fermented internal organs of seafood are one of the nibbles you might be given as a traditional accompaniment to sake in Japan.
Not something you are likely to be handing around at a party this Christmas.
But intense salty flavours match the deep savouriness of this fermented rice-based drink that has been brewed in Japan for thousands of years.
Such characteristics of sake are encouraging British sake experts to match the drink with dishes as diverse as slow-cooked stews, roast beef, prosciutto, cheese and chocolate.
The British Sake Association's founder, Shirley Booth, is keen to point out that sake goes with many foods, not just Japanese food.
She demonstrated this at a dinner held in London restaurant Dorsia, where she matched sake with modern British cuisine.
Ms Booth says: "The Japanese have a saying that 'sake never fights with food' and this is because sake has the ability to bring out the taste of food that it is drunk with. I recommend trying it with cheese and also any mushroom dishes."
Sayaka Watanabe worked as a "sake sommelier" at contemporary Japanese restaurant Zuma in London for eight years and now applies her sake knowledge to Western dishes at Mayfair restaurant and members bar The Arts Club.
She has started introducing sake alongside cheese and chocolate, which are more commonly paired with wine, beer or whisky.
"Being in a non-Japanese environment has given me a new phase of inspiration to introduce (sake) in a more approachable way.
"Like how Marsala (wine) is commonly used in everyday British cooking or port is drunk in British Christmas homes," she says.
What is umami?
- Umami was coined to explain a savoury taste or deliciousness
- It is known as one of our basic tastes alongside sour, sweet, salty, bitter and fat
- It was suggested in 1908 by the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda
- The main taste agent in umami is glutamate
- The most well-known western foods containing umami are Parmesan cheese, Marmite, fish sauces, blue cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes, anchovy paste, soy sauce, cured ham
The key to matching food with sake is umami, the so-called fifth taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Fat has also been named this year as the sixth taste.
"Sake has a ridiculous amount of umami compared with other beverages," says Oliver Hilton-Johnson of sake tasting company Tengu Sake.
"Glutamic acid is one of the main types of amino acids giving the umami flavour. Wine has 10-90g per litre, while sake has 100-250g per litre," he says.
"We choose to compliment or contrast food pairings with wine, but with all that umami in sake, you have an extra option where you can also enhance the flavour of food. So you can get a much rounder taste on the palate."
When matured meat becomes tender, enzymes in the meat break down its proteins to increase the amount of umami-imparting amino acids.
Certain processed meat products such as cured ham also contain higher amounts of glutamate.
Mr Hilton-Johnson says: "Sometimes the amino acids that cause umami are free in foods, but sometimes they are locked up in proteins.
"You can release them in ways like curing, slow-cooking, stewing, making stock. Something like pulled pork, biltong or jus. These things work wonderfully with sake."
Until recently, many young Japanese drinkers had been shunning sake in favour of Western drinks such as beer and whisky.
After the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, which devastated many Japanese sake breweries, there was a rise in sales in support of quake-hit communities.
- Sake is made primarily from rice and is brewed using a microorganism called koji
- Sake is mildly more alcoholic than wine: levels vary from 13% to 16%
- Sake varies by how polished the rice is: daiginjo is the top designation, with at least 50% of the rice milled, ginjo has 40% removed and honjozo has 30% milled
- Confusingly sometimes the percentage quoted on bottles is the reverse of the above (that is how much rice remains after polishing)
- Junmai sake means that the brewer has not added any brewer's alcohol to the mixture
Shops selling products from Tohoku, a region famed for its sake that was hit badly by the disaster, are marketing items to promote their provenance.
In March 2012, special batches marked "revival" started being produced to mark the anniversary of the quake.
Yukari Sakamoto, author of Food Sake Tokyo, says she recently went to her local sake shop to pick up a bottle of freshly brewed sake made from this year's harvest.
"The small shop had hand-written signs on the bottles that were from Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima, all three regions from Tohoku that were hit hard by the tsunami.
"While there was sake from other regions, I couldn't resist but to make our first purchase of sake this autumn from a Tohoku sake brewer."
The Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association's figures show that sake sales are up in Japan. In 2011 there was an overall increase of 1.2% in sales of sake generally, plus a significant rise of around 7% from affected breweries in Tohoku.
As for sake abroad, exports reached a record high in 2011, 99% up in quantity from 2001 and an increase in profits of 175% (87.8bn yen or £670m) according to the Japan External Trading Organisation.
Exports to the US account for a large part of the total. However exports cover only about two percent of all sake produced.
It was partly for this reason that Japan's former economics minister Motohisa Furukawa set up the "Enjoy Japanese Kokushu" (national liqueurs) project in May 2012, with the aim of promoting sake abroad.
The theory is that if sake could be accepted in the West, particularly the US, it may reinvigorate a beverage which has the reputation of being the Japanese salaryman's cheap drink of choice.
Once sake is appreciated and seen as "cool" overseas, perhaps then the Japanese themselves will start to look at it anew.
Ms Booth suggests that although sake is intrinsic to Japanese traditions, "it may be precisely because sake is so closely associated with traditional culture that it doesn't appeal to young Japanese".
However she points out that sake has made significant inroads in the States, akin to the way that sushi has in the UK.
"If you look at the States it is instructive: sake is mainstream there (in metropolitan areas anyway).
"I reckon in the UK we are probably 20 years behind the US. The sushi scene here is what it was like in the US 20 years ago."
She says it remains hard to classify "because it is a unique beverage".
"It's not a wine, and it's not a beer, and it most certainly isn't a spirit. It's a bit like the Japanese themselves."