Today's guest post is offered by Richard Auffrey, The Passionate Foodie (AKA The Tipsy Sensei). Rich is a certified saké professional and has introduced me to a most wonderful pairing: oysters and saké. Please enjoy and visit him at his blog or find him on Twitter @RichardPF.
Slurping Oysters & Sipping Sake
"An oyster, that marvel of delicacy, that concentration of sapid excellence, that mouthful before all other mouthfuls, who first had faith to believe it, and courage to execute? The exterior is not persuasive."
--Henry Ward Beecher
It irks me. When I visit an oyster bar, the menu will usually have numerous wine options to pair with my raw bivalves, from Sauvignon Blanc to Muscadet, from Champagne to Chablis. But many of these restaurants fail to carry one of the best pairing choices, Japanese Sake.
Let me preface that my comments are primarily for raw oysters, and cooked oysters deserve their own article. Why is Sake such an excellent accompaniment to raw oysters? I think one of the main reasons these oyster bars don’t carry Sake is their lack of understanding of this diverse and intriguing Japanese beverage. In addition, many of their customers don’t understand it either, so they don’t ask for Sake to accompany their dozen bivalves. So let me explain why Sake and oysters work so well together.
First, we should understand that oysters have different flavor profiles, often dependent on their geographical location, the impact of merroir. As a broad generalization, East Coast oysters tend to possess a more briny flavor while West Coast oysters are usually fruitier. So, the same wine may not pair well with different types of oysters. For example, the saltiness of oysters can cause problems for numerous wines, especially red ones. It is similar to the problem that many red wines have with the salty content of many cheeses.
Sake too does not possess a single flavor profile but rather has an incredibly diverse range, from sweet to dry, fruity to floral, bold to elegant, earthy to herbal, and much more. Sake has at least as much complexity as wine, and more in some respects, possessing twice as many aromatic esters as wine. That means Sake has the potential for twice as many aromas than wine, and aroma plays a significant role in flavor.
With all the different flavor profiles and types of Sake, there really is a Sake that is appropriate for nearly any type of food including oysters. The Japanese have an apt saying, Nihonshu wa ryori wo erabanai, which basically translates as "Sake does not get into fights with food." It is an indication that they feel Sake pairs well with many different foods, and generally won't overpower anything or be over powered by some dish.
There is some science behind Sake’s ability to pair well with different foods. There are twenty different amino acids in Sake, a greater variety than found in any other alcohol. Amino acids, at their simplest, are the basic building blocks of proteins and each amino acid has its own specific function. These amino acids play a significant role in the utility and versatility of Sake.
The quantity of each amino acid will vary from Sake to Sake, dependent on several factors. The protein in rice is generally located in the outer layers, which often get polished away, at least in part. That means that a higher quality Sake, like a Daiginjo, with a higher rice polishing rate, will have less protein available for conversion and subsequently a lower level of amino acids. A lengthier fermentation process also tends to produce more amino acids. The more traditional brewing processes, Kimoto and Yamahai, which can take twice as long to ferment, generally have the most amino acids of any Sake.
Five kinds of amino acids are considered to most affect taste: alanine, arginine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid and succinic acid. Alanine is said to produce sweetness, while arginine produces bitterness and aspartic acid can produce acidity and astringency. Glutamic acid and succinic acid may be the most important components though because of their role in creating the taste of umami.
You probably already know the four basic tastes, including salt, sweet, bitter, and sour, but there is a fifth as well. Umami, this fifth taste, is often described as “savoriness” or “meatiness” though it is probably best understood through tasting foods rich in umami, such as soy sauce, ripe tomatoes, parmesan cheese, scallops, and mushrooms.
In 1908, Professor Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist, discovered that glutamic acid gave kombu seaweed a very distinctive taste, which he labeled umami. Later scientists would identify two other sources of umami, inosinate and guanylate, two nucleotides. Inosinate is found mostly in meat and fish while guanylate is most often found in mushrooms.
Umami does more than just make food taste better. It can also serve to suppress our appetite, causing us to eat fewer calories by convincing our stomach that it has had enough protein. In addition, because it tends to round out and deepen flavors, then it can also deter us from adding extra salt and fat to our foods.
On average, Sake contains 100-250 mg/l of glutamic acid while wine contains only 10-90 mg/l and beer even less, only 10-15 mg/l. As Sake possesses a high level of glutamic acid, it possesses plenty of umami taste. So what is the impact of that umami in regards to food pairings? First, you can pair glutamic rich Sake with other glutamic rich foods, which is similar for example as to what is sometimes done in Italian cuisine. Ripe tomatoes, used in red sauce, and Parmigiano Reggiano are both rich in glutamic acid which is partially why they are considered an excellent pairing.
Second, there is also a synergistic effect with umami, which means that when you combine foods with different sources of umami, the overall taste is intensified. So, when considering foods to pair with umami-rich Sakes, which are high in glutamic acid, then you can seek out foods with high levels of inosinate or guanylate to create that intensification effect.
Oysters also possess umami, derived from a high level of glutamic acid, so pairing them with an umami-rich beverage makes sense. It is thought that during the fall and winter, oysters possess their highest umami level.
Sake can also easily handle the briny nature of oysters, just as it handles well the salty aspect of cheese. Also consider that Sake does well with salty, umami-rich soy sauce. If Sake can handle soy sauce, then handling oysters should be quite simple. As for the fruitier oysters, Sake can easily handle those as well. For example, melon is considered a common descriptor for some West Coast oysters, and some Sakes possess similar melon flavors as well as other complementary flavors.
Besides glutamic acid, other amino acids in Sake provide additional benefits. They help to neutralize fishy flavors in seafood, something wine generally cannot do. Thus, Sake may be a better pairing with seafood than wine, especially any seafood that might tend to possess a stronger flavor, like uni or oysters.
We also have to consider any toppings you place on your raw oysters, from a spicy cocktail sauce to a mignonette. Once again, that topping could wreck havoc with a wine pairing. Your wine might not be able to tolerate the vinegar in your mignonette or the horseradish in your cocktail sauce. Yet Sake once again doesn’t have a problem with any of these. For example, Sake stands up to hot wasabi so a spicy cocktail sauce is not an impediment.
Embrace the versatility of Sake the next time you eat a dozen raw oysters. If your local oyster bar does not carry Sake, then recommend that they do. Go to your local fish market, buy some oysters and enjoy them at home with a nice, chilled Sake.
Richard Auffrey writes The Passionate Foodie blog, is a Certified Sake Professional and is also the author of the Tipsy Sensei series, a collection of Sake-related short stories. He consults to restaurants and wine shops and teaches classes on sake appreciation in and around Boston.
I put Rich's advice into action and thoroughly enjoyed this Junmai with the last of my Sunday Oyster Fest.