Sommelier Talk: Episode 7 – Pairing Wine with Japanese Foods

I attended the 14th Annual World of Flavors Conference at the renowned Culinary Institute of America, a program designed for the advancement of professional chefs in their trade and culinary art. This year featured “Japan: Flavors of Culture”, bringing culinary geniuses from Japan who presented their life work to America’s leading chefs. I’d like to share a portion of a presentation by Chef Takuji Takahashi, third-generation chef/owner of the legendary Kinobu Restaurant in Kyoto, titled ”Rueda Region Spanish Wines with Japanese Flavors”.

Chef Takahashi started by establishing his philosophy on what’s at the core of culinary art – that almighty Mother Nature is the heart of all food preparation. “Quality ingredients are not simply manufactured, but are products of our nature working hard”. In the case of Japan, its geographic environment and seasonal conditions bring quite a unique variety. 1.) Japan is an island nation completely surrounded by oceans, with two frigid currents from the north ( Oyashiro And Liman Currents ) and two warm currents from the south ( Kuroshio Black Current, and Tsushima). These colliding currents create one of the world’s greatest fishing grounds. 2.) Japan’s four distinct seasons bring prime ingredients, freshly harvested, in cycles as short as 10 days. Highlighting them at their season’s peak of flavor takes skill and experience. 3.) On the contrary, foods out of season tend to oxidize quickly, especially the fatty acids found in off season fish. Off season ingredients are taboo in Japanese cooking.

Let’s now turn to pairing wines with Japanese cuisine. It’s difficult to capture the delicate flavors of seasonal ingredients without overpowering them with sauces and flavorings. The high acidity of wines brings challenges when paired along delicate tasting Japanese foods. Take seafoods for example, regardless of how fresh the fish, the iron compounds in wines deliver a foul match when it comes in contact with the fatty acids of the fish, amplifying the fishy smell.

With full understanding of how food combinations work in nature, Chef Takahashi offers a solution so that both fish and wine can be enjoyed together. He demonstrated his idea with a serving of shrimp Nigiri Sushi with a twist: After using lemon and vinegar to season the Sushi rice, he lightly brushes the underside of the shrimp Neta with untoasted sesame oil. The oil harmonizes well with the acids ( citric, malic and acetic ), and shields the iron from the fatty acids. In this way, a wine can be enjoyed with Sushi and other seafoods. This wine pairing exercise is a live demonstration of what I spoke about in my last installment of Sommelier Talk. I hope this analogy may encourage new ideas in pairing sake/wine with foods.