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January 23, 2012

Sake & Food Pairings (2): Cheese

Some people still have to get used to the idea, others already know it is a heavenly combination: sake and cheese (something which, being Dutch, makes me really happy!). It is true that Japan in the past did not know dairy products. These were introduced in the Meiji-period, in the late 19th c., and during the last century, gradually have become a normal part of the Japanese diet. That being said, in Japanese supermarkets you will mainly find processed cheese and natural cheese is rare and expensive (and sold in very small pieces as it is meant to be eaten as a snack and not on bread) - although there are some specialized cheese shops in Tokyo as well.

The reason cheese goes so well with sake can be found in one word: umami. Sake is full of umami, thanks to the ingredient rice, and cheese is also umami-based. So that is where both sides meet. But just as you can't plunk down just any piece of cheese and expect it to fit just any glass of wine, so in the case of sake there are also certain pairings which are better than others.

As we are talking about umami, the general rule is that sakes that are higher in umami are best with cheese, in other words, junmai sakes rather than honjozo or ginjo sakes. Also long-matured sakes will do well. Why does junmai sake contain more umami? Well, for one thing no alcohol is added to make the taste lighter, and above all, the rice is polished to a lesser degree than in the case of a (dai-) ginjo; when polishing, proteins are removed, and proteins are changed into amino acids during the brewing process, and amino acids of course provide the umami.

Another very suitable type is a Kimoto or Yamahai sake: thanks to the natural lactic acid with which the yeast is cultivated for these types of sake, some yoghurty taste remains, providing a "bridge" to the cheese. If it is a Kimoto sake, even a Junmai Ginjo or Junmai Daiginjo would be suitable for cheesy combinations - although the rice is polished further than an ordinary Junmai, the Kimoto character (and non-addition of alcohol) fully make up for the polishing away of proteins.

Keeping that in mind, it comes as no surprise that the Sake Service Institute during the Jizake Dai Show of 2011 has selected the Junmai Daiginjo "Minowamon" made with the Kimoto-method by the Fukushima sake house of Daishichi as the No. 1 combination with cheese - they used classic French Comte cheese for the pairing.

Interesting is also the second choice of the S.S.I.: a Kijoshu from the Wakatsuru Brewery. Kijoshu is "sake brewed with sake," like port wine, it is thick and sweet and has usually also been aged for many years (five or longer), so it is not difficult to imagine this would taste good with stronger cheeses.

Here are some other ideas:

- Kimoto or Yamahai sake also fits well with Mozzarella cheeses.
- In general, aged sake such as koshu goes well with aged cheese.
- Also unpasteurized (nama) sake, or even nama genshu (unpasteurized and undiluted sake) generally goes well with cheese - again, especially when this is a junmai.
- Try Camembert cheese with the mild, somewhat fruity taste of a Tokubetsu Junmai (polished to 60%)
- The blue mold Roquefort fits a Junmai Daiginjo admirably (not necessarily only Kimoto).
- Goat's cheese is great with a sparkling sake. But it also goes very well with the Kimoto Umeshu, plum wine on the basis of Junmai sake (and not shochu liquor, as is more common) made by the Daishichi sake house - and winner for three consecutive years of the platinum prize in the liqueur category the Jizake Dai Show (in 2011, it was the Daiginjo-based version of this plum wine, to be exact).

[Daishichi Kimoto Umeshu]

[Some of the final cheese suggestions are based on The Sake Selection, Brands of Distinction, by Akiko Tomoda, 2009]