Japanese food is all about the balance of flavours. It’s delicate, sweet, salty and delicious, all at once. And although sake is a great accompaniment, pairing your favourite wines with it can turn a good meal into a great one.
Every year, millions of people from all around the world visit Japan to enjoy its fascinating cities, beautiful landscape and, of course, to sample their famous food. Compared with food from further south in Asia, Japanese food is actually easier to pair with wine. You just need to understand the balance of flavours in both your dish and the wine.
Wine matching for Japanese food
One of the reasons why Japanese food is so delicious is the so-called fifth flavour – umami. It’s a strong, very savoury flavour that will always make you think of Japanese food.
It’s quite difficult to describe the taste as it isn’t directly one of the four flavours: salty, sour, bitter or sweet. Umami translates as delicious (umai) and essence (mi). Many Japanese dishes are driven by this flavour sensation, thanks to the seasonings that include miso, soy sauce and yuzu pepper.
Dishes like miso soup, katsuobushi (dried, fermented and smoked tuna), and accompaniments such as wasabi and soy sauce are great examples of umami rich foods. Enjoy them with a minerally Riesling or a tart and fresh Soave Classico – these are the wines that pick out and enhance the underlying flavour.
Wine matching for sashimi and sushi
Probably the first dishes most people think of when think about Japanese food are sashimi and sushi. Sashimi is specifically raw fish, sliced into very thin fillets. It’s served when it’s as fresh as possible along with shoyu (soy sauce) and wasabi. Sushi are the rolls of seasoned, vinegary rice wrapped with seaweed (nori). They are packed with savoury and salty fillings, which range from crab meat (kani), sea-urchin (uni), raw fish, freshwater eel (unagi) and egg omelette (tamago).
As they are both similar flavour-wise, these dishes can be matched with the same wines. Two good choices are the dry Alsace Riesling and Gruner Veltliner. They can really pull out the flavour of the fish itself and the seasonings that include pickled ginger and wasabi. Riesling also goes well with tuna sushi, known as maguro.
Another good choice to go with sushi and sashimi is Pinot Blanc, as it cuts through the flavours and complements the sweetness of the raw fish. If you prefer something less dry, then go with a creamy Chardonnay, preferably oaked to bring out the flavours.
Which wines go with tempura?
Tempura is also a very popular Japanese dish in the UK, thanks to its crispy, tasty flavour profile. It goes really well with lots of different wines, ranging from Chablis to Sauvignon Blanc and Champagne to Gruner Veltliner. Or you can try a light Rose to go with a big plate of mixed tempura for a delicious match.
For deep fried prawn (ebi), then a Chablis or Sancerre works best. For eel (anago), squid (ika) or scallops, you could try a drier Riesling or Chenin Blanc. Veggie tempura goes really well with a dry Muscat.
The next time you’re ordering in some Japanese food, or heading to a restaurant, leave the sake on the side and go for one of your favourite cellar wines instead.