August 2012

Sake Challenge - 5th Anniversary of the Sake Challenge

Posted by Beau Timken in 2012, August, Newsletter, Sake Challenge
True Sake Wow! Seriously wow! Time really flies when you are drinking sake with international cuisines! In writing this month's Sake Challenge I decided to look back a little to see how the process has evolved, and boy has it evolved.

I guess in a sense I should feel sort of proud for extolling the virtues of pairing sake with something other than sushi! (pat pat pat - the sound of me patting my back) But I did so because of my firm belief in sake and how well it does pair with almost all foods. Sake works! (I am actually also very proud of my Sake Challenge Criteria as well - WWC, WW, W, DNW)

What next? Well, I would be stoked if readers start doing their own Sake Challenges and sending us the results!

Okay - back to our regularly scheduled Sake Challenge:

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.

True Sake I'd like to continue the 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 is a first as we pit sake versus Thai food for the first time, and I was super stoked with the outcome. I was joined by one of my regular "Challengers" in the form of Kazu Yamazaki, who imports more sake into the US than anybody. Kazu has a great palate and describes food pairings well. And the new Hayes Valley restaurant called Lers Ros was also a good match as the food was fantastic. Now I know what all of the buzz is about. That place rocks!

Thai cuisine is usually described as spicy fare, so in this context we selected two sakes that would fit this bill - so I thought!
  • Tsukinokatsura "Kohaku-ko" "The Luster of Amber"
    Nama Junmai Ginjo (Summer 2012)
  • Ichinokura Himezen "Princess Food"
    Lower Alcohol Sweeter Junmai

    Additional Information »
Menu for the evening:
  • Fish Cake in a sweet chili sauce
  • Garlic frog with hot sauce
  • Koong Chae Nam Pla - Raw prawns with chili lemon grass and lime
  • Tom Yum Koong - Traditional spicy and sour soup
  • Pad Kra Prow Mookros - Stir fried pork belly with basil leaves

True Sake Firstly the two sakes were pretty unique and risky to take on a challenge because the Himezen is amazingly sweet and the Nama is beefy and solid, but the thought was to have them attack the spice of the food. Guess what? They did! Both sakes excelled beyond belief, and my jaw is still on that table.

We did not have one DNW in the whole pairing! The average grade was a WW and that rarely happens. With the spicy fish cake both sakes did well. Kazu gave the nama a WWC as it brought a new flavor to the dish. I gave the Himezen a WW because it cleaned the spice and the citrus flavor of the sake made a more harmonious pairing. The fried frog did W with the nama, which toned down the spice well, but the Himezen rocked a WWC and WW from us for being so effective and bright with the pairing. There was a serious trend for the lower-alcohol and sweeter Junmai and it was all good.

The raw prawns and the sakes did very well together as you would assume. But they were very spicy, and that made the nama drink a little too acidic for Kazu -W- and I found a ricey flavor came out of the brew -WW. The Himezen smothered the excessive spice and brought forth a sweet shrimp flavor and I gave it a WWC. Kazu also scored it well with a WW and said the flavor of the sake created a new flavor with the shrimp.

Okay now to the hallmark of Thai chow - the Tom Yum Koong spicy soup. Basically both sakes did exceptionally well and both got WW easily. Soup and cold sake - really? The lemon accents of the Himezen danced with the lemongrass and the Nama pulled all of the flavors of the soup together in one tasty sip. A truly classic pairing. Lastly, and perhaps the poorest of the pairings was the pork belly. Nothing really happened with the nama which is okay and received two Ws. Kazu gave the Himezen a WW because he said the sake cut the rich favor of the dish and sweetened it up. I gave the Himezen a W because it did cut the grease of the pork, but just sort of sat there. Again, not bad at all, just not as amazing as with the earlier spice factor.


We now have a stone cold "lock" in the food pairing world! The Ichinokura Himezen is made for Thai food. It is a perfect pairing partner. I will now bring this sake to all of my Thai visits, and I dare anybody to tell me what wine would work as well on so many levels. The big rich nama known as Kohaku-ko also does well in the Thai world as it brings out a consistency to the spice. It is also a good partner and like a lot of nama sakes it does well with international spicy fare. Both of these sakes gives me great hope for people who enjoy taking sake to a restaurant. Go for it with confidence.

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