Pairing Sake with Spicy Food

This year’s summer in Tokyo is an absolute scorcher with record temperatures as high as 41 degrees, and even the sighting of man-umbrellas!

It may seem counterproductive but when it gets this hot, I often turn to spicy food as it seems to keep me cooler but what kind of sake is best paired with spicy dishes?

Apparently, spice (which can cover as much as ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, cumin, fennel, clove, coriander, cinnamon, wasabi and garlic) like chilis such as jalapeno, capsicum (red or green chilis) contain capsaicin and triggers you to sweat which regulates your body temperature. It’s your body’s physiological way of removing heat.

Whether I’m eating Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican or Calabrian cuisine, my default first drink is always a beer as nothing beats that quench. But I often struggle to enjoy it throughout a meal, I get bloated and it got me thinking, what sake is best paired with spicy dishes?

Now, the range of spicy dishes can be wide with other elements coming into play but here are 3 components to consider when choosing a sake to match dishes with that spice that burns.

Firstly, the last thing you want to do is add fuel to the fire; so high alcohol, which also burns (you especially feel it on the back of the throat) is probably not a good idea. Go low alcohol, which coincides with why some ‘summer sakes’ are lower around 12-14%. If they’re not, there’s nothing wrong with experimenting by adding some ice;  some sake holds they’re own but some unfortunately fade away. Going for a low alcohol sake also decreases your chance of dehydration.

The second component to temper that heat; a sake on the sweet end of the spectrum as oppose to a dry sake. This would contrast well; the concept of sweet and spicy dishes has its roots in this. A very dry sake with little residual sugar would simply irritate your palate which is crying out to reduce the heat somehow. Experiment with medium-dry and even medium sweet.

But how do you know which sake is dry and which is sweet? The Nihonshu-do or SMV is an index that represents the sweetness or dryness of a sake. It’s sometimes labelled on the back of a bottle. Most sake falls between -10 (very sweet or luscious) and +10 (super dry with very little residual sugar). The index is the specific gravity of sugar relative to water but is fairly useless in isolation. There are other components that come into play, namely acidity, which can either increase or reduce your perception of sugar. Compare a lemon and Coca cola, they actually have the same acidity levels but the sugar in Coca Cola masks the acidity. So I don’t recommend using the SMV, if it’s even shown. Some bottles will have the word 甘口, meaning sweet and 辛口 meaning dry, which is obviously way more useful as they’re done the work for you. If you don’t see either of these words, speak to your server who can guide you.

The final component is probably the most apparent, a chilled sake, right out of the fridge to reduce that heat on your palate. Although warming sake increases the sweetness, I recommend enjoying it chilled with spicy food. Between 7 and 12 degrees is fridge cold and this should do the job.

So to recap, when pairing with piquant or spicy dishes, go for low alcohol, chilled and a sake with some residual sugar so medium-dry or even medium-sweet.




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