Sake Moment - Yes Sake Goes With Cajun Food!
In the middle of July I ventured to New Orleans for a massive cocktail event known as "Tales of the Cocktail." This alcohol fandangoaccumulated top mixologists, bartenders, authors, and sauce lovers for 5 days of discussing, educating, and celebrating booze (mostly distilled beverages). I was flown down to speak at a seminar called "Sake To Me" (God I cannot wait for this name for sake events to die off like the word "radical") which was sponsored by my friends from Sake One in Oregon. (Sake One makes sake as well as imports Momokawa sake from Japan - we carry several of their imported Momokawa products at the store.)
We did a basic Sake 101 and paired Sake One brews with oysters, gumbo, and chocolate. Sake One also flew down the uber-cool mixologist and restaurant owner Lucy Brennan (Mint) to make a sake cocktail. Lucy is a fellow Chronicle Books author with a great book called "Hip Sips." At another function I was charged with making one of the cocktails from my book - The Orange Blossom - that was pre-made before the event and tasted like dung. But Dewey Weddington from Sake One saved the day by introducing me to "Simple Sauce," which is basically yummy syrup - liquid sugar.
But none of these excursions were my pure desire to venture to NOLA. My real ulterior motive was to take sake out into the bayou. To throw rice and water against HUGE creol flavors such as gumbo, jumbalaya, etoufee, and all other forms of Cajun madness. Many Cajun dishes use the "Big 3" stumbling blocks for pairing sake with food - saturated oils, spice, and tomatoes. So I thought it would be best to venture to the heart of darkness and take the best of Japan and stack it up against the best melting pot of unique dishes in America.
All roads in this grinding life should lead toCoop's Place on Decatur Street in New Orleans. Why? Flavor - Feeling - Freedom! This -what some would call a "dive"- is secretly home to amazingly flavored food and extremely spicy conversation. A feel good destination that makes you relax. There is no other way. Just relax and take in the food, feeling and freedom. The moment started when I called Coop's and asked if I could bring some "wine" to drink at their place. I don't usually say sake in these sort of instances, because the explanation is longer! The manager - Adam - said quite frankly that they like selling their wines. I then said it was sake and I was a freak doing an experiment. After a chuckle he said, "Come'on down, we'll set you up!"
I didn't want to go without another palate so I asked Dewey Weddington to join, and what transpired has changed my energy for the future of sake ten-fold! Going through the doors of Coop's I sort of gulped with pleasure because it is "divey." So we took a small table and Adam gave us a couple of plastic cups. I smiled. This was perfect - sake out of plastic cups in the French Quarter in New Orleans. After reading the menu on the wall I decided to get a sampler plate - Dewey did the same. I am certain that by now you are wondering what sakes I brought. As I didn't know the people at Coop's I only brought two bottles - Hakkaisan Honjozo and Kikuhime Dai Ginjo. Why? Well one is a really food friendly affordable brew and the other is a masterpiece Dai Ginjo ($125) and I wanted to show the range of sake. (The sakes were semi- chilled out of plastic cups)
Herewith in bullet point are the results of this Cajun-Sake Spectacle:
- 1st Dish - Seafood Gumbo
The full sizzle of the gumbo gets "muted" by the Honjozo. The flavor is relaxed and the combination has more of a "smoothing" effect. This was good but the Dai Ginjo was better. The Kikuhime brought out the peppery flavor of the soup, rather than muting it. The viscosity of the brew coats the spiciness and brings out the sweetness of the sake. I wrote that it was like a "Mouth Handshake of Flavor and Feeling." A beautiful sweet heat flavor. We both preferred the Dai Ginjo with the Gumbo.
- 2nd Dish - Jumbalaya with Rabbit Sausage
This was perhaps one of the best pairings of the night as the Honjozo embraced the tomato of this dish and created a round and roasted flavor that had so much smooth feeling and dexterity. The acidity of the tomatoes blended perfectly with the dryness of the Honjozo to create a "well-melded" flavor. On the other hand the Dai Ginjo, which has a higher acidity than the Honjozo didn't go as well. There was immediate conflict. The balance wasn't as sound. That said the Dai Ginjo did great with the rabbit sausage.
- 3rd Dish - Shrimp Creol
This dish is sauced with tomatoes and green peppers, which you would think would go better with the Honjozo as mentioned above with the Jumbalaya. But nooooooooo! The Honjozo became almost neutral. It disappeared. I wrote that the pairing became sort of bland. Whereas the Dai Ginjo sucked in all the hot pepper flavors and pushed back with a rich fruitiness that highlighted the spice. Another example of a sweet heat play. We both agreed that the Dai Ginjo made the dish more exciting and the Honjozo worked as a fire stopper - it cut the flavor to the quick.
- 4th Dish - Cajun Fried Chicken
Firstly a huge "Oh My Gawd!" Probably the best tasting bird that has ever nested in my mouth. What a salty-oily-crispy blend of flavors. And to think it was right there between my greasy fingers. I am hungry as I type this! Well, one would expect that something oily and salty would go with the Honjozo, and yes siree the Honjozo "rocked" with the slickness of this dish. The clean and smooth sake danced with the oiliness of the bird and the edgy flavors all balanced out into one blissful mouth pairing. The Dai Ginjo also went very well on a different level. The sweetness of the brew pulled even more saltiness - yum - and the slickness filled the mouth as the fatness of the Dai Ginjo left residual flavors in the mouth for the oils to attach themselves to. Also a good pairing but we leaned towards the Honjozo.
- 5th Dish - Crayfish Etoufee
Also with tomatoes and green peppers so we didn't know which sake would work on this cat! Lo and behold the Dai Ginjo conflicted and became "chippy." The hot and spicy character didn't bring forth the sweet heat yumminess. The acidity tossed the Dai Ginjo to the mat. That said, the Honjozo came roaring back with a smoothness that mellowed the madness and produced a smooth and confident collection of flavors. Round and delicious. We both preferred the Honjozo with the Etoufee.
- 6th Dish - Red Beans and Rice
These spicy and smoky little monsters are usually served as a side dish, but as they are so prevalent I wanted to hit them straight up. Yes rice against rice! The Honjozo got a little dizzy with the texture of the beans and the spice went over this brew's head. I wrote "unbalanced" on my now greasy notepad in writing that tells me that I was enjoying myself. The Dai Ginjo did much better - go figure! A $125 bottle of sake out of plastic paired with rice and beans - because the viscosity of the brew took the texture of the beans and melded them together. I wrote the pairing was "strong" and that the sweetness of the sake (it's not that sweet) pulled the smokiness of the beans and created a solid pairing. We both preferred the Dai Ginjo.
- 7th Dish - Creol Softshell Crab
This dish came compliments of Coop himself who finally joined this weird experiment. He sat with us and tasted each of the sakes and paired it with bites from our plates (good man), and I could tell that he was impressed. MY JOB WAS DONE - THE MAN HIMSELF SMILED WITH EACH SIP AND BITE - THE POTENTIAL WAS NOW A REALITY. The crab was sweet and oily and the Honjozo went well, but not as well as the Dai Ginjo. What was funny was the fried shell went better with the Honjozo and the meat went better with the Dai Ginjo as the sweeter brew pulled more of the sweetness of the meat. At this point there were so many flavors doing the jig inside of my mouth and I was focusing on speaking with Coop that I didn't pick a favorite pairing for this dish - Doh! But they both went well enough that I didn't write imbalanced or something like that.
All in all this was one of the coolest sake adventures that I ever been privy to. It just worked on so many levels. So when you next go to NOLA bring a bottle of brew and take it to the street. Oh, and since I was with Dewey from Sake One you can be certain that they will try to get their brews on Coop's menu. He is game and I will bow and say thank you for breaking through yet again by taking sake to the frontiers and showing that we belong! We Belong!