The elegant balance of sake and Japanese food

Izumibashi Tonbo Sparkling paired with an array of seafood appetisers.
PHOTO: The Star/Asia News Network

Japanese sake was made to go with food. So when the food is good, then it stands to reason that the sake needs to be good too.

Fortunately, at Kampachi, they take their food AND their sake seriously as well.

The Kampai! Sake Dinner series is a regular event held by the Japanese restaurant chain to not only showcase their food and their range of premium sakes, but also to highlight just how well sake and food go together.

The latest dinner in the series was held at the Kampachi outlet at Plaza 33, Petaling Jaya, and hosted by Yuchi Hashiba, the master brewer and 6th generation owner of Izumibashi brewery, who paired his unique sakes with a special Autumn menu by Kampachi's chef Yusuke Ishigami.

Yuchi Hashiba, 6th generation owner of Izumibashi brewery.
Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

Founded in 1857, Izumibashi Brewery is located in the Kanagawa prefecture.

The brewery not only specialises in producing high-quality sakes during the winter season, but in the summer, also cultivates its own rice through sustainable and organic farming.

"We do everything ourselves, from the growing of the rice, to the bottling of the sake," said Yuchi.

According to him, the red dragonfly that is the brewery's logo symbolises their commitment towards sustainable farming.

"If we use chemicals in the farming, we will be killing the dragonflies in our fields," he explained.

But before beginning the dinner, Yuchi had a special treat for us - a new, unaged shinshu (new sake) that was just made a week before his trip to Malaysia.

The range of sakes featured at the Kampai dinner (from left): Yamada Juro, Junmai Yamahai Shinriki Junmai Ginjo Megumi Blue Label, Junmai Akane Kamenoo Yamahai, and Tonbo Sparkling.
Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

Regular sake is usually aged for at least six months before it is bottled, but breweries tend to release a limited amount of shinshu so that sake lovers can have a taste of what's to come in the actual bottlings.

"The first sake is very important because it determines what is to come for the rest of the year," said Yuchi.

For the dinner proper, five sakes from Izumibashi were paired with a six-course kaiseki (traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) menu.

First up, was the Izumi-bashi Tonbo Sparkling, a sparkling cloudy sake that undergoes a secondary fermentation within the bottle, a process that is similar to that of Champagne.

It was paired with an array of appetisers comprising sake lees, cream cheese, and salmon rillettes; cucumber and seared scallop dip with white miso; and sake lees boiled potato tossed with fermented squid.

The Tonbo Sparkling was a refreshing and lively tipple, and the bubbles from the sake carry a fragrant rice aroma that really gets your taste buds tingling.

I'd imagine that a sake like this would pair well with any sort of food, but it goes exceptionally well with the seafood-based appetisers, especially the more refreshing notes of the cucumber and seared scallop.

Next, was the suimono, or soup dish - a turnip consomme and prawn dumpling, paired with Izumibashi Junmai Ginjo Megumi Blue Label.

"The Blue Label was made especially to go with food," said Yuchi, adding that the sake is made from the most superior rice for sake - the Yamadanishiki rice strain.

The sake itself is clean and bright, with a very dry finish that somehow makes you want more.

Together with the soup, the dryness of the sake made the savouriness of the prawn and turnip sweeter somehow.

The Junmai Yamahai Shinriki, paired with simmered duck with soy sauce and ginger.
Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

The next sake, however, was very different from the Blue Label.

The Izumibashi Junmai Akane Kamenoo Yamahai, or just 'Akane', is brewed using one of the oldest rice strains in Japan, Kameno-O, which gives this sake a very distinctive characteristic.

"This is a sweet but also very creamy sake. We grow our own Kameno-O rice, but it is very hard to grow - we can't grow it on a large scale," said Juichi.

The sake was paired with a red snapper carpaccio served with vinegared jelly, and the sweetness of the sake complemented the raw fish perfectly, giving it a creamier texture and more tantalisingly sweet aftertaste.

New sake bars in Singapore

  • At Japanese restaurant Boruto, sister outlet to Tamashii Robataya at North Canal Road, highlights include Tatsuriki Komeno Sasayaki Kamimikusa from Honda Shoten brewery in Hyogo; Amanoto 45 Junmai Daiginjo from Asamai Brewery in Akita; and Jozan Jikagumi Muroka Nama Genshu from the Jozan Sake Brewery in Fukui. The sake is brought in by Boruto's chef-owner Patrick Tan.
  • The selection ranges from the pricey Juyondai Soko Junmai Daiginjo ($2,280 for a 1.8 litre bottle) from Yamagata to the unusual Amabuki Junmai Daiginjo Banana from Saga, which is fermented with banana yeast instead of the usual rice yeast. Prices range from $10 for a 100ml glass of sake to premium sake at $58.
  • Japanese restaurant Ki-sho has opened a sake bar on level 2 of its premises in Scotts Road. More than 50 labels of sake from various regions in Japan are available.
  • Served exclusively at Kakure is the Tatenokawa Junmai Daiginjo, Nakadori Kisho Label, from Tatenokawa brewery in Yamagata. Other highlights on the sake list include Kinshi Masamune brewery's Matsuya Kyuubei Junmai Daiginjo from Kyoto; and Aramasa Junmai Viridian from Aramasa brewery in Akita.
  • You may have heard of wine dispensers; now there are sake dispensers too. t Japanese restaurant Sumiya, a circular dispenser serves 20ml, 60ml and 120ml of sake.
  • It is priced at $2.20 a glass for a 20ml tasting portion. Just buy a stored value sake card, insert it into the dispenser and pick your preferred sake and quantity. Exclusive to Sumiya and its sister outlet Kuriya Dining are Gyokusendo Shuzou Brewery's Reisen range, and premium junmai daiginjo sake from Okinawa.
  • Mr Keisuke Takada, founder of the Ramen Keisuke chain, opened his first sake bar two months ago in Tras Link, just a few doors from his popular ramen shop, as well as gyoza and tendon outlets.
  • Sake options include Gasanryu Junmai Fuka from Shindo Sake Brewery in Yamagata; Dassai Junmai Daiginjyo 50 from Asahi Shuzo brewery; and Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmai Daiginjyo from Kamoshibito Kuheiji Brewery in Nagoya.
  • Popular ramen chain Ippudo launched its 12-seat bar three months ago as a one-stop shop for sake lovers.
  • It carries about 80 sake labels from more than 20 sake breweries, such as Komagura - Gen Enjuku Junmai Ginjo from Mori No Kura in Fukuoka; Nishinoseki Tezukuri Junmai from Kayashima Sake Brewery in Oita; and Jozan Mizunogotoshi Junmai Ginjo from Shirataki Sake Brewery in Niigata.
  • The 42-seat restaurant carries more than 50 types of sake available for retail and to drink in the restaurant.
  • The menu includes Dassai 23 Junmai Daiginjyo from Asahi Shuzou in Yamaguchi; Kagatsuru Maeda Tosshiie Daiginjou from Yachiya brewery in Ishikawa; and Gazanryuu Daiginjou Kisaragi from Shindo Shuzuo brewery in Yamagata.

After that, it was on to the nimono (cooked foods) course - simmered duck with soy sauce and ginger.

For this dish, we got perhaps my favourite sake of the night - Izumibashi Junmai Yamahai Shinriki.

"Yamahai" refers to a labour-intensive sake-making process that is meant to produce richer, and more pronounced umami (savoury) flavours.

The result is a robust, almost masculine sake with a streak of acidity that makes for a pleasantly rich umami palate that is slightly sharp on the tongue but with a drier finish.

For me, the complexity of this sake (as well as the higher acidity) helped to cut through the fat of the duck meat, giving a great contrast of sweet and savoury flavours.

After following the duck with a rice and salmon dish, dessert was served.

We were poured the Yamada Juro plum liqueur, a sake-based liqueur infused with Japanese ume plums, and it was paired with a simple air-flown Japanese apple.

"Just an apple?", you say? Well, this was an apple that was already deliciously sweet on its own, but when paired with the Yamada Juro, you got a combination of fruity nectar-sweetness with a savoury plum sourness that made sure the meal ended on a sweetly subtle note.

It also drove home the fact that while sake complements food, when the pairing is done well, there is a subtle and elegant balance that ensures you won't be forgetting either the food, or the drink in a hurry.