March 2011

Sake Challenge - Sake vs. Moroccan Cuisine

Posted by Beau Timken in 2011, March, Newsletter, Sake Challenge
El Mansour I 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's Sake Challenge found our favorite rice-based libation paired with Moroccan cuisine. And for a Sake Challenge first we were also entertained during our tasting by a belly-dancer. Our tent of choice was the El Mansour restaurant out on Clement. I was once again joined by Kazu Yamazaki, and we paired the tasty and simple Moroccan flavors with two of Kazu's sakes. The Urakasumi Zen has always been a favorite of mine, and I also thought this year's nama nigori from Ichinokura would have some fun with the Moroccan spices.
  1. Urakasumi "Zen" Junmai Ginjo
    Read More »
  2. Ichinokura Tokubetsu Junmai Nama Genshu Nigori
I must state that I was not feeling great at the time and eventually fell into the depths of the flu, so my palate was a bit skewed and screwed!! And away we go!

El Mansour 1st Course: Harira Soup - Spicy lentil bean soup served with homemade warm bread.

Zen - First we went all in on the tasting as they provided us with no utensils for the meal, and as such we used our hands for all dishes, including the soup. The soup itself was rich and salty, and then Zen became a little lost in the robustness. The Zen did not distract from the dish, and in fact drank a little sweeter than rich. Kazu said the food and the sake both stayed the same - did not compete nor enhance.
BT - W

Ichinokura - The nama sake by itself is sort of spritzy. It drinks as if slightly carbonated, and this lightness elevated over the richness of the dish. It cut the soup in half, and more acidity came out. A bright rich pairing that both cleaned and snapped up the flavor of the soup. Kazu was impressed with the texture play of the grainy soup and the grainy nigori.
BT - W

El Mansour 2nd Course: Salade Mohammed V - combination of tomatoes, eggplant, carrots, and cucumber served with bread as the dipping vehicle.

Zen - The "salad" was really a collection of dips made with the above ingredients. The Zen really did well with the rich eggplant and the smooth cucumber. A very nice feeling and richness pairing. Kazu did not care for the carrots and Zen or the tomatoes, but with the other flavors the Zen performed well.
BT - W
KY - W

Ichinokura - What a surprise! A zesty nama nigori going well with a rich and flavorful series of dips. You bet! The Ichinokura danced so well with the eggplant, making the eggplant eat with a gentle sweetness. It acted as a very good flavor enhancer that made the tomatoes and cucumber pop with brightness! Kazu agreed and said the "sweet flavor exploded mildly."

El Mansour 3rd Course: Bastela du Chef - Pastry filled with chicken, almonds, and assortment of spices covered in powdered sugar.

Zen - This dish looked and tasted almost like dessert. Sweet and savory and sweet! Lots of flavors all over the place but the core flavor was a rich sweetness. And I was stunned that the Zen just powered through this collection of flavors. Talk about a balanced sake if it could stand toe to toe with this sweet dish. The Zen pulled the savory qualities of the pastry and softened with the powder sugar blow making a very good pairing that just proves sake is amazing! Kazu said the food elevates the flavor of the sake - elegant.

Ichinokura - The sweetness of the dish and the sweetness of the sake meet head to head. A bright and savory flavor is created that highlights the rich and savory components without getting too sweet. Kazu was impressed that the nigori blended with the dish and toned down the sweetness.
BT - W

El Mansour 4th Course: Chicken Kabobs with cous cous.

Zen - The Zen had climbed to room temperature at about this point, and enveloped the chicken creating a rich and salty flavor. Smooth, even and balanced it did what a companion libation is supposed to do - be felt and not heard! The Zen acted like a good wash bringing out the flavor of the bird. It's pretty difficult eating cous cous with your hands but the Zen stayed steady with the grains. Kazu said the sake highlighted the grilled aspect of the chicken.
BT - W
KY - W

Ichinokura - The nama was now close to room temp as well and drank even more frisky. It did bring forth the saltiness of the kabobs and went grainy with the cous cous. I think it washed too much flavor off of the pairing. Kazu said the cous cous made the sake drink more sweet.
BT - W
KY - W


By the end of the Sake Challenge more of the guests were watching us doing our pairing than they were watching the belly dancer. This irked the belly dancer who kept darting me looks, "Watch me and stop working pal!" But work needed to be done and I was so truly impressed with how balanced the Zen worked and how unique the Nama nigori performed. Zen is a very well balanced sake, and throwing it at all of these unusual flavors was a true inspiration in how well a sake can accompany a flavorful non-traditional Japanese meal. Zen worked! Sake worked! It made the meal better and did exactly what a wine should do, but it did it better! The Nigori was so unique and bright that I would take it to a Moroccan restaurant any day. I love learning from these Challenges, how else would I know that the Ichinokura is a great salad pairing sake?

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