In June 2005, 70 members of INFORUM, a division of the Commonwealth Club of California, gathered at Ponzu, the contemporary Asian restaurant in San Francisco's 240-room Serrano Hotel, for a food and sake pairing. "The planner called and said she wanted to create a learning experience to teach the group about sake and how to pair it with food," says Rob Robinson, Ponzu's general manager. The event would be much like a wine and food pairing, only with sake instead of wine.
Sake, a Japanese alcoholic beverage brewed from rice, is one of the oldest beverages in the world (the first written record of it dates back to 300 AD, according to the Sake Association of America). But Americans are only now beginning to embrace it, notes Robinson: "You used to find sake only in sushi places, but now you find it at bars and restaurants that don't necessarily have anything to do with Asian cuisine or cultures."
Robinson began the event with a 15-minute introduction to the world of rice wine. Executive chef Michelle Mah served a special tasting menu of seven courses, each of which was paired with a different type of sake. "As we served each course, I explained why I chose the sake I did," Robinson says. "Sake pairs with food much like wine does. The flavor profiles are very similar, meaning that a sake that is slightly sweeter should be served with a food that has a bit of sweetness to it." Similarly, Robinson says, "A drier sake pairs well with spicier foods."
Chef Mah prepared two of the courses in front of the group, as a sort of educational demonstration. "The crispy chicken rolls were served with a sweet chili pepper sauce which was a good match for the Nigori sake, which has some sweetness," Robinson says. The Nigori sake is unfiltered—giving it a milky-white appearance—and is served cold. For another course, Robinson paired shrimp dumplings with an Asamurasaki sake, a red sake (made from red rice). "The dumplings had shrimp and sweet Chinese sausage in them, which matched the unique flavor and bit of sweetness in the red sake."
In all, Robinson says, 60 types of rice are grown specifically for sake brewing, creating a vast potential for sake tasting and pairing events. Robinson expects the interest in these events to match that potential. "There is a world of sakes out there and people don't know that much about them," he says. "And the popularity is definitely growing." Sake Tasting Menu • Grilled Chicken Satay with Coconut Curry Peanut Sauce, paired with Masumi Junmai Ginjo
• Chicken Spring Rolls with Sweet Chili Pepper Sauce, paired with Sho Chiku Bai Nigori Genshu
• Tiger Prawn & Mango Nam Jeun Salad Rolls with Peanut Chili Dipping Sauce, paired with House Infused Pineapple Sake
• Shrimp Dumplings with Sesame Soy Sauce, paired with Asamurasaki "Red Rice" Sake