Matching Japanese Food with Natural Wines
–by Luiz Hara aka The London Foodie
About Luiz: Born in Brazil to Japanese and Italian parents, educated in the UK, a true Londoner. Former investment banker now a Le Cordon Bleu’s Grand Diplome student, wine lover, host of monthly London Cooking Club & The London Foodie Supper Club in Islington.
I am often asked in my Japanese supper clubs which wines diners should bring to match the food I serve. Traditionally, and to a large extent to this day, food in Japan is served with sake or beer. In recent years however, wine (along with other typically Western products such as cheese and butter) has gained a substantial share of the market especially among the younger generation.
When I lived in Tokyo, I drank my fair share of sake, with or without food, and really enjoyed it. Old habits die hard though, and I found it difficult to manage without wine. I was able to enjoy every local dish I cooked with a glass of wine, confirming my belief that almost any Japanese food can be matched with a quality wine.
One of the rules of thumb when matching food and wine is to match locally produced wine and food. What to do though, when some of the primary flavours of the cuisine come from soy sauce, fermented soya beans and air dried fish with no locally produced wine to match? It can be tricky. Partnering Japanese food and western wines requires some careful thought because of the differences in flavour combination between Europe and Japan. A little understanding of Japanese cuisine goes a long way here.
Japanese cooking pays great respect to the seasonality and freshness of its ingredients, nature, and foods that are local to the region. Linking with the philosophy of Japanese cooking, natural and biodynamic wines are a fitting choice. With top quality natural wines now being available in the UK, the time is ripe to explore further.
Japanese food is low in acidity, but high in sugar content. This is derived from two of its key ingredients: sweetened sake known as mirin and sugar itself. These are widely used in most savoury dishes, including sushi, whose rice is seasoned with a mixture of rice vinegar and sugar. So off-dry wines with a high fruit content like Alsatian Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer go well with sushi. Pickled ginger and Gewurztraminer are a revelation together.
One of my favourite Gewurztraminers is the Kitterlé Grand Cru AC 2007 from Domain Dirler-Cadé, available from Vine Trail for £17.21 excluding VAT. However, if budgets allow, my personal recommendation with sushi would be a good quality vintage Champagne – the extra depth and richness that come from the ageing of vintage bubbly make it a perfect combination with the slight sweetness of the sushi rice, raw fish, wasabi and soy sauce. The 2004 vintage Champagne by Chartogne-Taillet (60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay) at £28.13 exc. VAT, also available from Vine Trail, is in my opinion an excellent match.
One common misconception in wine matching is that red meats should only be served with red wine, while fish and other white meats call for white wines. Colour has a role to play (reds are generally heavier than whites), but is the “weight” or “body” of a wine that should be considered against the food it will be served with. So, Buta Kakuni, a fabulous dish of slow-braised pork belly caramelised in brown sugar, soy sauce and ginger would go as well with a fruity, highly acidic white wine with a touch of residual sugar such as a Riesling as with an aged dry Madeira made from red grapes.
Dashi is the Japanese stock, widely used in soups and in a variety of Japanese sauces, made from sea kelp and air-dried bonito fish flakes, ingredients with very high levels of umami. Umami, or the fifth taste, indicates the presence of natural glutamates in the food which help to support other flavours, add body and enhance them. Foodstuffs that are fermented or aged like miso (fermented soy bean) or soy sauce are also high in umami-ness. It is not surprising, therefore, that a simple miso soup (dashi stock and miso) is packed with so much flavour. An Amontillado, a dry, aged sherry, browny-yellow in colour with intense nutty flavours from oxidative ageing, is a great match for such umami rich dishes.
If aged sherry is not a style of wine you normally go for, I also find that a Pinot Noir, from Burgundy or Central Otago (New Zealand), is a good partner to a teppanyaki of miso-marinated rib eye steak, another umami-rich dish I am currently serving at my Japanese Supper Club.
Perhaps surprisingly, unlike its savoury cuisine, Japanese desserts are not particularly sweet. Traditionally made from rice, red beans and vegetables like sweet potatoes and algae, they should be matched with a similarly not too sweet wine (or else the dessert flavours would be swamped). Brown Brother’s Late Harvest Muscat 2010/2011 (available from Majestic Wines at £7.99 for 75cl) has a lovely golden colour and a nose of oranges and apricot. Its medium sweetness is balanced by acidity and is a good pairing for many traditional Japanese desserts.
In summary, Japanese food is low in acidity and fat, but high in sugar and umami content, and any wine choice has to take this into account. For example, bone dry minerally white wines like Chablis can taste unattractive, whereas richer, fruity, slightly off-dry wines like Alsatian Rieslings, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminers, as well as Loire Chenin Blancs make more sympathetic partners. Champagne is a great match to sushi, while aged sherry like an Amontillado or Pinot Noir will go well with umami rich dishes.
Just as bad wine can completely ruin a good meal, good wine can make an otherwise fairly ordinary one into something memorable. I hope these recommendations will give you a few pointers towards an enjoyable exploration of the best combinations of Japanese food and wine.
*Check out Luiz’s site, The London Foodie HERE.