It was once thought that we could only taste four flavors: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Umami is a fifth flavor and the term translates roughly as "delicious" or "yummy." It is now considered a legitimate flavor with a scientific basis. It appears that glutamic acid is the key component in food rich in umami such as parmesan cheese, ripe tomatoes, soy sauce and scallops. Saké can also possess umami in varying degrees.
Saké & Food Pairing
What are the appropriate foods to pair with Saké? The Japanese have an apt saying, Nihonshu wa ryori wo erabanai. This basically translates as "Sake does not get into fights with food." This is an indication that they feel Saké pairs well with many different foods, and generally won't overpower anything. With all the different types of Saké, there really is Saké that is appropriate for nearly any type of food.
There are some standard foods that are considered most appropriate for Saké and they are collectively referred to as "sakana." This usually includes slices if raw fish, grilled meats, vegetables (often pickled), edamame and tofu. Almost all Saké really goes well with seafood.
Here are a few general guidelines for Saké and food pairings. Junmai Saké are sometimes considered to be the “red wines” of Saké and thus can pair with stronger foods, including beef, fried foods and rich sauces. Ginjo and Daiginjo Saké are lighter, more subtle, and thus need to be paired with milder foods. Nigori Saké and aged Saké pair well with desserts. As Saké acidity varies, you should pair higher acidic Saké with oilier foods. Lower acidic Saké pairs better with rich or salty foods.
What foods shouldn't you eat with Saké? The primary guideline is that you should not drink Saké with rice dishes, including nigiri sushi and maki rolls. Since Saké is also made of rice, it is thought that pairing rice with rice does not work well. I don't usually follow this guideline though, often drinking Saké at Japanese restaurants with my sushi. I have not really found it to be a problem. But some will look askance at the practice.
Cooking With Saké
Like any wine, Saké can be used in cooking. In most recipes that call for the addition of wine, you could probably substitute Saké instead. There are many benefits to cooking with Saké. It is said that cooking with Saké adds flavor, helps other ingredients absorb other flavors, reduces the strength of some strong odors, reduces the impact of salt and can help tenderize meat.
I have two favorite receipes involving Saké.
First, there is my Garlic Teriyaki recipe. You can make this ahead of time and store it in your refrigerator for when you need it. It is very versatile and can be used on fish, poultry, meat and more.
Second, there is the Saké Miso Glaze. This too is a versatile glaze, though it is more commonly used for fish.
1 cup light miso (shiro-miso)
1/2 cup mirin
1/2 cup Saké
1 tbsp finely chopped ginger
1/2 canola oil
1/4 cup sugar
Combine the miso, mirin, Saké, ginger, oil and sugar in a large bowl and stir until the mixture is smooth and well mixed. Coat your fish, poultry or meat with the mixture. Cover the coated item with Saran wrap and marinate overnight in your refrigerator. The next day, saute or broil your Miso glazed fish, poultry or meat.