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Sake Challenge - Sake vs. Vietnamese Food

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.

I'd like to try a new format for the Sake Challenge this month - a more condensed version, as some folks have expressed that the original format is pretty long. So I propose mentioning some of the pairings - not all - without a sake by sake blow by blow, and a summary. Please by all means comment on this effort or say something about the old format if you so desire.

This month's Sake Challenge pits Japanese sake versus an Asian counterpart in the form of Vietnamese cuisine. And if you are in SF then the logical destination would be the Slanted Door. "The Phan family opened the original Slanted Door in 1995 on Valencia Street with a vision to blend Vietnamese cooking technique with local ingredients." My tasting partner from NYC was the well-versed Kazu Yamazaki, who is an importer of sake for the Japan Prestige Sake International, and a veteran of the Sake Challenge.

I decided to bring two unique sakes that Kazu imports and they were:
  1. Shirataki Jozen Junmai Ginjo "White"
    More info »
  2. Otokoyama Junmai Genshu
    See photo of this to the right:
Here was the menu for the evening:
  • Crispy Imperial Rolls - with shrimp, pork, glass noodles and peanuts.
  • Wood Oven Roasted Manilla Clams - with Thai basil, crispy pork belly and fresh chilies.
  • Soup - sweet Maine shrimp, pineapple, bean sprouts, taramind, toasted garlic.
  • Hodo Soy Beanery Yuba - with glass noodles, parsnips, and maitake mushrooms.
  • Stir Fried Organic Chicken - with ginko nuts, raisins, walnuts, and cashews.

The Crispy Imperial Rolls went extremely well with both sakes earning Jozen White two sets of WW's and Otokoyama a WWC and a W's.

The Clams and the Otokoyama Genshu did a great WW dance as the sweetness of the sake blended with the savory clams and the dash of green chilies.

Likewise the Otokoyama did very well with soup. In fact it pulled a WW and a WWC, and that was on account of the fact that the acidity of the sake matched the acidity of the soup and the sweetness of the pineapple and the shrimp jumped well with the profound sweetness of the sake.

The stir fried chicken was a tremendous success with both sakes. The Jozen White acted like a tone-downer on the big flavors and cut them very well making the dish and sake harmonize. It scored a W and a WW. The Otokoyama excelled as well, especially with the sweet and savory flavors of the raisins and nuts. It scored a WW and a WWC because it rounded out the whole flavor game of the dish.


Well in a word the next time you go Vietnamese take a bottle of sake! What a special tasting as both sakes, one full bodied and sweet with huge acidity and the other light, dry and clean worked very well with all the exotic flavors. There where 3 DNW's but that was offset by 7 WW's (Which could be a record) and 4 WWC's (which also could be a record). The food itself was delicious and that made the pairings all the better, as entire dishes worked as well as specific special flavor pairings like the Otokoyama and raisins or the Jozen White with sweet vinegar. I try to imagine what wine would work with this collection of exotic flavors and I am at a loss, whereas both sakes did extremely well as both dish complements and flavor washers. Good stuff!
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