Surprising Pairing of Sake and Herbs

Saki Kimura

October 30, 2022
Marie Chiba, a pairing specialist who is the head of a sake bar in Tokyo, tells Hakko Hub why herbs and sake go so well together, and gives us a simple recipe that can be made with ingredients close at hand.
There is no need to go all the way to a Japanese supermarket to get your favorite sake to open and have with dinner. While there is a tendency to think that sake only goes with Japanese food, it actually goes well with any recipe that can be made with ingredients close at hand. For example, it goes well with mint, which you can find piled high in the fresh produce section.

Marie Chiba, a pairing specialist who is the head of a sake bar in Tokyo, tells Hakko Hub why herbs and sake go so well together, and gives us a simple recipe that can be made with ingredients close at hand.

Why sake and herbs go together

Marie Chiba at the table

Marie Chiba

“It is said that 80% of sake’s flavor comes from its aroma, and 20% from its taste. If you match herbs according to the aromatic characteristics of sake, they help to bind together the sake and the food,” says Chiba.
A sweet, rich sake called kijoshu, which is made with sake for the part that uses water, has a chocolate-like flavor, and when paired with mint, brings out a compatibility like that of mint chocolate. In addition, some young sake has a lactic acidic aroma like yogurt, which goes well with the Japanese herb sansho (Japanese pepper). This is because sansho is a member of the Rutaceae (citrus family of plants) and has a citrusy aroma.
“The aroma of freshly pressed sake is composed of fruit notes, and the pungent odor that is unique to alcohol. As time passes, the various aromas overlap and change in a multilayered manner, and finally settle into a cohesive aroma typical of aged sake. When paired with herbs, it is possible to express the different layers of the aromas, before they become identical with one another.”

Herbs that work perfect with sake

Marie Chiba at the table

Mint

Mint is an all-round, versatile herb that is easy to pair with a wide range of sake. It has the ability to make light sake crisp and refreshing, and soften the peculiarities of aged sake or the off-flavors of sake.

Dill

It goes well with sake that is characteristically acidic, such as very astringent types or sake made with wine yeast, etc. It also has the effect of masking the nutty aroma of slightly aged sake and the yogurt-like aroma of young sake.

Sansho (Japanese Pepper)

Sansho is a member of the Rutaceae (citrus family of plants), and has a lemon-like aroma called Citronellal. It goes well with all types of sake, and can be paired elegantly with the sake without spoiling its delicacy. Even when used as an ingredient, it can be easily combined with not only Japanese-style foods, but a wide variety of foods, including fruits and cheeses, etc.

Cautions for pairing with herbs

The key to pairing sake with herbs is to “Add fresh herbs”. It is not recommended to make it in such a way as to imbue the ingredients with its aroma, such as infusing meat with rosemary, etc.
There are also some types of sake that do not go well with herbs.
“Sake that is clean and dry, the so-called “Crisp and dry” type, does not go well with herbs. Sake itself has few aromatic components and doesn’t have an aftertaste that lingers, so there is no room for herbal aroma. Sake with a unique character goes better with herbs. This includes, sake with a fruity aroma, sake that is characteristically acidic, aged sake, or sake with off-flavors etc.”
Marie Chiba at the table
Chiba proposed a scallop, peach, and mint salad for Hakkohub this time. The heavily sweet peaches are paired with a generous amount of mint, and the addition of fish sauce creates an accent that is also noteworthy.
When pairing it with wine, just dressing it with olive oil and black pepper is enough. By going further and adding fish sauce, which is a fermented seasoning, it gives it a more sophisticated flavor that goes even better with sake.
To make an analogy with painting, the use of fermented seasonings in this way is like putting a single black drop in a pink picture. If you use only light colors, it would leave a childish impression, but by adding darker colors, the impression is much more intense. If you want to use fermented seasonings, then not only fish sauce, but also soy sauce, miso, and cheese, etc., also all work well together with it.

Scallop and Peach Mint Salad

Scallop and Peach Mint Salad

Servings: 2

Ingredients

  • 2 scallop muscles
  • 1/2 peach
  • 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 lime
  • 3 pinches of salt
  • 1 teaspoon fish sauce (“nam pla” Thai fish sauce, etc.)
  • From 20 mint leaves to as many as you like
12 bettara placed in a green plate

Directions

  1. Cut the scallops into 1/4 size (bite-sized) pieces and place them in a bowl.
  2. Sprinkle 3 pinches of salt over the scallops and rub it into them.
  3. Squeeze 1/2 of a lemon into the same bowl, and mix together.
  4. Cut the peaches into bite-sized pieces and place in the bowl.
  5. Tear the mint with your hands, add it to the bowl and mix together.
  6. Arrange it on a dish. Then drizzle it with fish sauce and squeeze on the lime.

Sake paired with this recipe

Emishiki 612 “INTENSE” Peach Label (Nama), Emishiki Sake Brewery, Shiga

Marie’s comment

“Scallops are best served raw, but it’s okay to cook them too. You can Boil them, or if sautee them until golden brown, they go even better with aged sake. You can also choose fruits other than peaches, according to the season and your own preference. Grapes, etc., taste great!”
12 bettara placed in a green plate

Marie Chiba

Marie Chiba studied Material Engineering of Foods at Yamagata University. After working as a system engineer for three years, she entered the food and beverage industry. She commuted to sake breweries all over Japan, sometimes working on brewing while gaining expertise. In the fall of 2022, she left GEM by moto, a sake pairing specialty restaurant, to open a new restaurant, EUREKA! She is one of only 153 Sake Expert Assessors in Japan (as of March 2022).
Photo by Hiroshi Matsumoto

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