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Sake School: How to Pair Fish with Sake

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Branzino is wonderful paired with a dry, light honjozo sake. [Photo: Robyn Lee]

I've just come back from a week in Spain, eating the best seafood I've ever had in my life. Briny barnacles, giant, creamy Galician oysters, slipper lobsters, razor clams, impossibly fresh sardines—up until this point I always thought Tokyo's Tsukiji market was unparalleled in freshness and variety, but Spain showed me a completely different way to enjoy seafood. And as good as the Spanish wine pairings were, I found my mind drifting to sake, and thinking of the perfect sake for each dish. Here are some basic guidelines for finding the best sake to drink with seafood.

Dark, oil-rich fish like sardines, mackerel, anchovies, and herring:
One of the most successful sake pairings with this type of fish is inspired by the glassic pairing of gin and herring. Try ginjo sakes with herbaceous, botanical aromas, like Chikurin Karoyaka Junmai Ginjo.

Another excellent option for these oily fish is a junmai sake that has a briny, saline quality—this pairing echoes the traditional matchup of amontillado sherry with sardines a la plancha. Try Gekkeikan Black & Gold Junmai.

Firm white fish such as turbot, striped bass, grouper, and haddock:
Of course, it depends on the preparation: this type of fish tends to absorb a great deal of flavor from the sauce or other preparation. If you serve it Spanish-style, grilled and drizzled with pimento oil, try it with a fruity, medium bodied ginjo sake, like Sato no Homare Junmai Ginjo.

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Serious Eats editor Erin Zimmer poses with some salmon. [Photo: Robyn Lee]

Medium color oil-rich fish such as arctic char, salmon, and yellowfin tuna:
Look for sakes that have a rich umami character or a smoky sweetness that complements the flavors of the fish. An overtly fruity sake can cover up the earthy qualities of these types of fish. Kimoto or yamahai sakes are good choices; I recommend Hojo Biden Yamahai Junmai.

Flaky white fish such as branzino, tilapia, and red snapper:
My favorite preparation for this type of fish is to roast it with lots of herbs until the skin is crisp. To drink, I would recommend a non-fruity daiginjo with that has hints of fennel and white pepper or a dry, light honjozo. For the daiginjo, try Try Murai Family Shizuku Daiginjo, for the honjozo, go with Atagonomatsu Honjozo.

Firm, oil-rich white fish like sable, Chilean sea bass, and black cod:
For these buttery, rich styles of fish, you should look for a sake that's equally rich on the palate. Ginjos and daiginjos with a creamy texture, sometimes with a hint of bitterness (like Jokigen Junmai Ginjo), are excellent for this category of fish. Drier styles of nigori sake are also an interesting pairing for these fish—try Daku Nigori Junmai.

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Clams, oysters, and mussels:
A light, dry sake is the safest choice with most raw oysters. But if you're eating creamy west coast oysters or buttery steamed clams, try a sake with a more opulent texture to match the weight of the dish. Dewazakura Omachi Junmai Ginjo will enhance these dishes beautifully.

Caviar, uni, and salmon roe:
Rich sakes can an excellent foil for the saltiness of fish roe, but I actually prefer a dry style of sake with roe to emphasize the salinity. My favorite pick is Harushika's "Cho-karakuchi" Junmai.

Disclosure: The following sakes (mentioned above) are part of the portfolio that I manage for Southern Wine & Spirits of NY and Lauber Imports of NY: Gekkeikan Black & Gold Junmai, Hojo Biden Yamahai Junmai, Murai Family Shizuku Daiginjo, Jokigen Junmai Ginjo, Daku Nigori Junmai.

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