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Sake Challenge - Sake vs. Southern Indian Cuisine

sake challenge may 2009I am on a spiritual sake quest that will finally put a nail in the coffin of "sake can only be consumed at a sushi restaurant" mantra. Wake up people! Food and sake go together - always have and always will. If it has a tail, roots, feathers, leaves or a damn beak sake will go with it - anytime and any place. And that is my quest - the place or origin of the cuisine does not matter. It can be Spanish, Italian, Brazilian or ughhhh British chow and sake will walk the walk. Japan has chickens! Japan has salad! Japan has beef! Japan has spicy and savory dishes! Japan has sweet and salty fare, so why not think about having sake with these "tones" from other countries?

The Sake Challenge is my way for you great consumers to see outside of the sushi paradigm, and to achieve this "new view on brew" I will usually select two different sake styles and price-points and bring them to a non-Japanese restaurant with a celebrity, sake-sleuth or hell even a friend in tow. Read about past challenges:

When reviewing restaurants and their specific cuisines paired with sake I use the following criteria:

  • Works World Class (WWC)
  • Works Well (WW)
  • Works (W)
  • Does Not Work (DNW)

This criterion is more true to the mission of bringing a beverage to a restaurant not knowing what you will pair with. The point is to make the general pairings "work." Rare is the day that you bring a specific wine or sake to pair with a specific dish - we look for generalities and the entire eating/drinking experience. Think of fishing with a net as opposed to a hook and line - a pairing is supposed to reach out and catch more flavors as opposed to just hitting one match.

This month the Sake Challenge went to the Southern States of India to a restaurant called Dosa. South India has hot, humid climate and all its states are coastal. Thus the food matches the climate in most capacities! Big flavors galore - chutnays and sauces - are mixed with subtle and complex elements such as mustard seeds and curry leaves and oils. Let's just say that if you wanted to find heat in your dish you could!

My fellow flame fighter for the evening was Kazu Yamazaki from the Japan Prestige Sake Association - the single largest importer of premium jizake sake into the US. And in all due respect to Kazu I selected two of his brews for the Challenge. My methodology for selecting the sakes was simple - I needed ballsy sakes with huge presence and a very solid acidity play that could stand up to all of the fabulous flavors that bombard the palate.

The two brews were:

  1. Gokyo Arabashiri (see the new store arrivals section below.)
  2. Sawanoi Kioke Kimoto Junmai

You will quickly notice the higher acidity levels on both of these unique sakes. I brought them very chilled in a thermal pack but they both warmed up pretty quickly! And we used regular white wine glasses!

Let The Games Begin:

1st Course: Mung Sprouts Salad (Lentils, tomatoes, cucumber, coconut, chillies and mustard seeds)

Sawanoi - The combination brought out the sweetness in the sake and created a long finish. The acidity is bumpy here but it makes the overall pairing light and bright.
BT - W
KY - W

Gokyo - The arabashiri did the opposite and really brought forth the sweetness in the dish! The sprouts tasted more lively and bright - fresher and crisper. Basically this pairing brought forth a new flavor of almost ginger! Really nice!

2nd Course: Chennai Chicken ( Fried spicey chicken with a yogurt sauce)

Sawanoi - Spicey meets spicey. The brew stands up to the spice, but perhaps too much as "the heat" rules the pairing. When the yogurt is added a sense of creamy balance comes out of the sake - there is a lot lactic acid in this sake so some harmony on this front comes out. The finish is long and the brew does not do a great job of cleaning the grease from the fried chicken. Kazu loved this pairing - said that the flavors all worked and that the yogurt made the difference.
BT - W

Gokyo - Now you're talking! The bright sweetness of the nama-zake pops with the heat - creating the ever so delicious sweat heat pairing! Good spice meets good fruit tingle and the wash on this pairing is superb! The yogurt doesn't come into play as much as with the Sawanoi - but who cares as that chicken and that raw brew dance the hoodu voodu dance! Very tasty!!
KY - W

3rd Course: Cilantro and Chile Cod (Corriander, shallots, cumin, and chilies)

Sawanoi - The sakes started to come closer to room temperature and this pairing was superb from the first sip and taste! The creaminess of the sauce rolled with the creaminess of the savory sake - the feeling of the pairing was really great. The flavor of the pairing was even better - creamy and gentle spice washed perfect with the solid brew - the lactic acids ruled the day in a very good way!

Gokyo - The fruitiness of the brew brought out more heat in the sauce, making this pairing more lively than subdued. It worked - did not distract from the flavors, just made this dish a little more tingly with the heat coming up front.
BT - W

4th Course: Dosa Masala (typical street fare of pancake filled with creamy spiced potatoes, onions, and cashew nuts.)

Sawanoi - A very nice creamy and savory and starchy pairing! All I could think about was potato and rice together in my mouth - a starch fest! But alas it worked very well for a smooth and savory and gentle pairing. This dish came with several sauces and each one did well with the sake. The richness came forth for both the sake and the dosa.
KY - W

Gokyo - The brisk fruitiness and acidity of the brew did not dance with the smooth and starchy elements. It created a long and acidic that was not a distraction but also didn't do much for the pairing. Maybe if the sake was more chilled it would have been in more control. The brew did go well with each of the spicy sauces.


In a word I was amazed at the flexibility and strength of the sakes in a very "heated" environment. I watched as a couple to the right of us drank red wine and another couple to the left of us drank white wine. I asked both how the pairings went with each wine and both sets were underwhelmed. One guy said that he would do beer next time. And I think in a sense that is why the sakes did very well. They aren't grape juice - they are starch strong! So lactic acid and backbone ruled the pairings, and more often then not the sakes washed the flavors very well. To only get one DNW is pretty amazing! I am ecstatic how well both sakes not only held their own, but really enhanced several of the dishes. That is crazy! A Japanese rice "wine" jiving with a Southern Indian dish. Go figure!


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