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Taste with KJ – “Koshu Sake Takes On Pâté and Ankimo”

Taste with KJ – “Koshu Sake Takes On Pâté and Ankimo”

For some reason, the emergence of summer is especially inspiring this year. There are barbecues, county fairs and camping on the horizon, but what better way to kick off the season than going on a gourmet tour with enthusiastic foodie friends. Our founder Beau-san created an unusual challenge this month. He asked me to find the best pairing in the store that would work with both ankimo (monkfish liver) and liver pâté. With this hefty endeavor at my fingertips, choosing to bring the most advanced palates for my research was a no brainer. With my nihonshu crew in tow, we traversed to the most delightful secret gem destinations to crack the code on sake pairing with pâté and ankimo!

Koshu is a category of sake where the sake has gone through extensive aging and has developed a dark golden to almost brown color depending on its age. True Sake has a wide array of koshu options, but for this specific challenge, Kiuchi Kikusakari "Zen Koji" seemed like the perfect fit. This sake is unique in that it is made entirely of koji. Koji is steamed rice that has been inoculated with a mold called aspergillus oryzae, which converts starch to sugar and protein to amino acid. Normally, koji takes up around 1/5th of a batch of sake, but in Kiuchi Kikusakari, 100% of the steamed rice has been inoculated. More simply, this means that this particular sake will have a high degree of sweetness and umami character. 

In addition to being an ‘all koji’ style of koshu, Zen Koji also provides elevated acidity. The body of this sake is surprisingly lean and waterlike, with bright aromas of citrus and golden raisin that add dimension. 

To find the appropriate food pairings, the first stop was AN Sushi, a spectacular Japanese restaurant on the second floor of the Japantown Mall’s east wing. Blink an eye when passing and you will miss it! They are known for the outstanding quality of their fish and other dishes, including delicacies such as ankimo. Ankimo is monkfish liver prepared by rubbing with salt, rinsing with sake and then steaming. It is usually topped with scallion and ponzu sauce. It is the Japanese equivalent to foie gras or French pâté.
It was great to have Mei and Jackie, my super informed foodie friends along for the ride. Besides catching up and having fun, we made sure to stay serious and focused while pairing the ankimo with Zen Koji. The ankimo was prepared in two forms. Both were steamed, but served with different sauces. One was dressed in a housemade ponzu (a sauce with citrus, vinegar, soy sauce, katsuobushi and a few secret ingredients) then topped with scallion and chili daikon; the other was lightly soaked in soy sauce and a hint of sugar. 

When pairing Zen Koji with these two dishes, we noticed that the bright citric and amino acids of the sake were more complementary to the ankimo with soy sauce. The sake was able to temper the ankimo’s fishy character as well. Jackie particularly liked this pairing over the ponzu preparation, mentioning that the fresh acidity of the sake cut right through the slightly sweet soy sauce base. Mei thought the ponzu ankimo also worked due to the fresh acidity of the ponzu sauce helping to balance the sweetness of the sake. She felt the soy sauce preparation accentuated the sweetness of the koshu. 
A surprising treat of the evening was a bottle of 1988 Hanatomoe koshu by Miyoshino Jozo from Nara Prefecture. Unavailable in the states and recently bottled, this brewery has stored this sake for as long as I’ve been alive, then bottled it at the most ideal moment. While we did not try this sake with ankimo, we were happy to explore its magic with other dishes of the evening. Jackie brought this special sake all the way from Japan and it added inspiration to our koshu pairing adventure.
While trying not to be overshadowed by the vintage koshu, one dish that worked incredibly well with both Zen Koji and the aged Hanatome was the Miyazaki Beef A5 Wagyu Nigiri. The impeccable tenderness of the wagyu and elegant beef character held up to both the brightly toned and sweet Zen Koji, as well as the deeper, more nutty profile of the 1988 koshu.
We had an insightful time at AN researching aged sake with ankimo, but to finish the assignment, another excursion was in order. To find the best pâté in the city, I looked no further than San Francisco Wine and Cheese, a tiny hole-in-the-wall with a garden dining oasis hiding in the back of the shop. The owner Shirley, specializes in cheeses, charcuterie, wine and tea. I knew this was the best place to try the Zen Koji with some superb pâté.

This time I had my good friend Jollan come along. He is also a cartoonist and does amazing work (check out @jotozoto on Instagram). He surprised me with a 3-D printed figurine earlier that day, which made an appearance during our sake pairing experiment. Since Shirley specializes in tea and Jollan is vegetarian, we decided to try some tea pairing with cheese as well. The Zen Koji was now getting a full workout between pâté and cheese pairings, as well as some competition in the tea department.  

To begin, Jollan had the brilliant idea to try both of our hot teas with the Zen Koji koshu. As a beverage professional, I have to admit that pairing two opposing beverages side by side would have never occurred to me. This is why bringing connoisseurs to dinner is always a good idea! Jollan ordered chamomile tea while I had my favorite, mugicha (barley tea). We noticed that the chamomile flowers, which always remind me of saffron, vanilla and Fruity Pebbles cereal, completely mellowed the sake. Some of this was due to the temperature difference in the sake and tea, but the powerful, yet soothing aromatics of the chamomile also tempered the Zen Koji effectively. My mugicha paired with Zen Koji tasted like caramel and toasted barley. They made perfect sense together, almost like adding brown sugar or honey to the tea. 

We dove into Bellavitano, a hard cow’s milk cheese washed in merlot that had a fruity, nutty and slightly sharp taste. The Zen Koji worked okay with this cheese, but was an absolute revelation with double crème brie! I was happy to segue into tea and cheese pairing because this excellent quality brie was my favorite pairing for the Zen Koji. The koshu brought out all of the brie’s savory mushroom notes and made the cheese remarkably creamy.  It also had the ability to minimize the brie’s funky earthy quality, making eating the rind enjoyable.
I finally had a moment to try the pâté pairing by choosing a pork and chicken liver mousse with truffles. As predicted, the subtle umami of the mousse pulled out some of the sake’s savory character, while also exuding new notes of pecans and caramelized carrots. With the pâté’s expression being much more smooth and integrated than ankimo, the sake didn’t have as much work to do. Overall, that resulted in Zen Koji and liver pâté being the more successful pairing of the two.

At last, we were lucky enough to chat with Shirley while she offered us her housemade bread pudding and delicate cheesecake. The bread pudding tasted like the best french toast ever made, without being overly filling or heavy. It paired very well with the sweet and high-toned Zen Koji, proving that this sake is versatile and has the ability to jump from savory to sweet dishes at the drop of a hat.

Other Contenders:


Yuki no Bosha Yamahai Junmai - While this option may not work with the intense character of ankimo or very sweet desserts, Yuki no Bosha Yamahai from Akita is a master at creating a sense of lactic roundness. This dry sake is reminiscent of all things sweet, just without the sugar itself. Notes of Belgian chocolate, cream cheese and cashew complement the sake’s full body and meld seamlessly with the richness of pâté and high-fat creamy cheeses. While pairing this sake, try serving it lightly chilled, at room temperature and warmed to discover even more nuance. 

Wakaze Junmai ‘Whisky Barrel’ Aged Kijoshu - Brewed in Paris, France, this powerfully sweet and fully satisfying sake breaks barriers by incorporating aging in whisky barrels. Only a whiff of whisky lives here; with barrels providing an overall roundness and a hint of maple and spice. With an SMV of -50, very high acidity and the influence of hard French water, this sake has the structure to hold itself against strongly flavored foods. This groundbreaking sake will work perfectly with pâté, aged cheeses and sweet desserts. It could also be interesting with ankimo, where the whisky essence will complement the firm, fishy quality of the liver and the tart ponzu sauce will balance the sake’s potent sweetness. 

Lastly, Steve N. from San Anselmo tried Okunomatsu Ginjo from last month’s article. He paired the ginjo with Hog Island Sweets and said he enjoyed it more than his go-to oyster pairing of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc! Thanks for reaching out, Steve! 

What are your favorite koshu pairings? If you would like to share your thoughts, email me at and you could be featured in our next article. Kanpai for now!
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