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Japanese Cuisine

Food, Spices & Wine

Japanese cuisine and wine - for some an oxymoronic concept to be sure. Wine, at least the grape-centric version of it has never really been associated with Japanese cuisine.

japanese-2Rice wine, or sake (right), on the other hand, is the quintessential alcoholic beverage pairing of choice, for Japanese cuisine.  Beer too comes to mind when pairing Japanese food with the spirit world. Ironically, the flavors in sushi actually clash with Japanese cuisine and this leaves the topic of pairing wide open for discussion.

Sushi, meaning 'it is sour' refers to the vinegar flavored rice component. The rice is normally topped with other ingredients such as tofu, seaweed, vegetables and raw fish, also known as sashimi. The mixture of the rice, seaweed and sashimi combine well with earthy wines, particularly those from Alsace.

More than Sake

As with most so-called wine rules, opinion varies regarding pairing wine with raw fish. There is some agreement however that oaky Chardonnays and tannic reds are off the table. Sparkling wines, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir all seem to pair well with most raw fish dishes.

japanese-3Champagne of course is another option that pairs well with a variety of Japanese dishes.

Its light, bubbly texture is refreshing next to the heavier, oily fish, wasabi and complex offerings like spicy gyozas (left).

Some foodies recommend pairing soft red Burgundies with umami - the sixth flavor after sweet, sour, salty, pungent and bitter - which shines through in sushi and raw fish, and is also found in oysters, tomatoes, mushrooms and truffles. Umami is said to cut through the tannins of mature red wines, allowing flavor to shine. Select, non-oaked whites pair well with umami also.

Another red that goes well with fatty raw fish like tuna is Pinot Noir. The softly complex taste of the Pinot Noir combines well with the oily fish, soy sauce and wasabi. An un-oaked Chardonnay is also a solid option for raw tuna. Its buttery texture plays nicely with the oiliness of the fish, exposing a lovely balance of flavor. For something a little lighter try a Pinot Blanc. The lower alcohol content and dryness of the Pinot Blanc match well with the fatty texture of the tuna.

For spicier Japanese fare, including foods containing the popular condiment wasabi, try a Gewurztraminer or a Beaujolais. With most raw fish dishes, look for higher acid wines, that are earthy and un-oaked and won't overpower the flavor of the fish. Dry Rieslings pair extremely well with raw salmon; their acidity levels mix perfectly with the sweet, salty taste of the salmon, bringing it to the forefront of your palette. Dry Rieslings also work well with eel, because its low sugar levels do not detract from the smoky, slightly sweet flavor of the eel.

japanese-1Mix it Up

For a mixed variety of rolls, such as California rolls, kappa maki, or spicy tuna rolls, try a softer red such as Pinot Noir (right) or a fruitier Pinot Blanc. A Pinot Noir will complement the nori, while a Pinot Blanc will cut the taste of wasabi, various spicy sauces and will combine well with a variety of vegetables pressed into the rolls.