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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 18, 2001

With some kinds of food, sake is better than Riesling

By Randal Caparoso

Some thoughts concerning why certain foods, and food and wine combinations, always seem to be so "right" for us came to me when I was recently reading about the period of Shojin Ryori in late 19th- century Japan.

Influenced by the austere lifestyle of samurai and Zen Buddhists, Shojin Ryori was basically a vegetarian temple approach to cooking that placed emphasis on food of five colors (green, red, yellow, white and black-purple) and no fewer than six different tastes (hot, sour, salty, sweet, bitter and delicate).

Still profoundly influential in Japanese cooking today, Shojin Ryori probably amounts to the most successful formalization of a specific cooking style ever achieved.Think of it: The French had Escoffier and we've had Julia Child. But how many French consciously cook like Escoffier, and how many Americans actually follow Julia? Certainly not a majority, like you still find in Japan.

You could surmise that it's the Japanese temperament and culture that lend itself to such formality, but I would proffer an even simpler explanation: Shojin Ryori looks, tastes and even feels "right." How many of us have no idea of what we're eating in a Japanese restaurant, but appreciate the beauty of the food nonetheless?

There are many other foods, of course, which exemplify this sense of universal rightness. For Italians it's pasta, tomatoes, olive oil, Parmigiano and porcini; and when the season arrives, it's truffles, which make short, chubby Italian men prance like little girls. Don't laugh — I do that over raw oysters. Why do Germans swoon over white asparagus, Russians hawk their black caviar, and Cajuns trade Mason jars of sticky roux like bottles of precious fluid? Well, some things are just that important.

And the important thing all of these foods have in common is a taste that is more than sweet, sour, salty and bitter — the four basic sensations felt on the palate — but also round, complex, almost titillating to all the senses, including those of sight, smell and sound. Earthy qualities, which you certainly find in the intriguing shapes of mushrooms, gnarly oysters and seaweeds, tend to be very much a part of this. In fact, there are many foodies who now like to use the word umami (originally coined by a Japanese scientist) to define this "fifth taste," although more pedestrian terms like "savory" and "delicious" seem just as accurate.

Whatever it is, it is perfectly conducive to the human need for foods that do more than sustain the body, but also pique our curiosity, appeal to our sense of aesthetics and rock us until the cows come home.

I once read a story by David Rosengarten that talked about a Frenchman who recommended Sancerre — the flinty, smoke-scented, light and lemony dry white wine of the Loire River region — with charcuterie, the sausage and cured meats of that region. "But why?" asked Rosengarten. Because it is "a priori," said the Frenchman — it stands before reason. If that is not rightness, I don't know what is.

In Alsace, the French region across the Rhine from Germany, the charcuterie is served with sauerkraut, and the a priori choice of wine would be the dry yet flowery, crisply acidic and often headily alcoholic (in very ripe years) style of Riesling produced in Alsace. It makes sense because the Riesling fragrance always hints at sweetness, while the crisp acids and full alcohols of these white wines match the sweet-sourness of the sauerkraut and help the palate digest the spicy fattiness of the sausages.

More importantly, all the sensations, given by both wine and food, combine to create a perfectly delicious whole — better than if the parts were eaten, or drunk, separately.

Lately I've been finding this phenomenon — that delicious harmony of multiple elements — in places far less traditional than the regions of France.

I've often wondered, for instance, what to serve with sticky sweet, spicy, vinegary, barbecued baby back pork ribs. Sweetly acidic Rieslings have always been a problem, because they aren't always strong enough to handle the fatty, gristly ribs. Fruity red Zinfandels don't always work, because the red wine tannins often fight with the hot, sweet seasonings.

But then I tried a plate of ribs with a "Y" label nigori genshu ("cloudy" and "undiluted") style of sake made in Forest Grove, Ore., which was full in alcohol (close to 18 percent), lusciously fruity (without being too sweet) and totally without the rough tannin or souring acid of red or white wines. Although this style of sake was a "wine" made from rice, not grapes, it had all the elements needed to take the sticky ribs to places I never thought possible. Made me feel strangely like a samurai, in fact, on a path toward a strangely nonvegetarian Shojin Ryori.

Another odd turn recently came up in a shopping center Italian restaurant, where I couldn't help but be intrigued by a simple dish of risotto cooked in a slightly truffley mushroom broth and topped with pungent shavings of Parmigiano. I thought: Why settle for a traditional match of an Italian white wine such as Arneis or Pinot Grigio? Why not one of those new, dryish, ice cold styles of ginjo ("superpremium") or daiginjo ("ultrapremium") sakes, which offer just as much of the minerally, silky qualities of white wines made from grapes to match the earthy, creamy taste of mushroom risotto? And after trying this unorthodox combination, I have to say: Works like a charm!

But oh, some wine-foodie experts might say, sake tends to be way too alcoholic and much lower in acid than white wines like Arneis and Pinot Grigio. Aren't high acid/low alcohol wines the best matches for food?

First of all, I see nothing in a brothy, mushroomy risotto that suggests that high acid and low alcohol is necessary. In fact, I would suggest that the relatively low acid and full alcohol of a dry or semi-dry sake give it even more of an advantage in such food contexts.

Few things may be as overrated by contemporary gastronomes as the importance of acid and dryness in wines. There are many foods — from pasta in oils and fish in butter, to sushi, ham hocks and clam bakes — that are perfectly delicious with decidedly low-acid, unabashedly fruity wines such as Chardonnay from California, Muller Thurgau from Germany, Vouvray from France, and even sakes from Japan. So the next time you hear an expert pontificating about the need for acidic, dry wines for food, I suggest that you run from the room, screaming.

Finally, there is my newly formed theory, which I call Musashi, or "Drunken Samurai." Musashi was a legendary figure in 1600s Japan whose self-taught style was the opposite of the geometric, disciplined, almost scientifically defined style of kenjitsu (Japanese sword-fighting). But it was precisely this unorthodox, ungainly and unpredictable style that made Musashi virtually unbeatable as a swordsman.

How many of our best food and wine experiences have been just as unexpected, totally unpredicted, yet triumphant? Old rules like white wine with fish, and even new rules like red wine with fish, often fall by the wayside when we are actually enjoying such things at the table. Why? I think it is because we have a tendency to want to pigeonhole elements of food and wine combinations, forgetting that the ultimate test is how delicious everything really tastes.

Like the time I put together a Island-style poke — raw tuna tossed in soy sauce, sesame oil, chopped sweet white and green onions, seaweed, and chili pepper — with a glass of slightly sweet German Riesling and a glass of full tannin Oregon Pinot Noir. Every saw, old and new, tells us that German Riesling has all the balancing elements needed for decidedly salty, sweet and spicy dishes like poke, yet it was the slightly bitter and dry Pinot Noir that kept saying to my palate, "I taste better." This was because red wines like Pinot Noir are what they are — earthy, harmonious, velvety textured sums of their parts, rather than defined by their parts. Perfectly delicious, like the blinding slash of a Musashi, to behold when it counts.