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Sake & Indian Cuisine: The Ultimate Game-Changer In Food Pairings

 

Samurai. The very word conjures images of fearsome warriors, blades flashing in the sun, their existence shrouded in myth and legend. We see them in movies and video games, larger-than-life figures seemingly beyond our grasp (though modern researchers found most samurai to be no taller than 5'5″ or 1.65 m). But what if I told you that you could taste a sip of history, a taste of the same sake once savoured by these legendary warrior-lords?

 

Statue honouring the samurai lord Date Masamune in his signature crescent moon helmet crest, near the Aobe Castle of Sendai City. (Source: Discover Sendai)

 

One of the most famous samurai warriors in Japanese antiquity is Date Masamune. Rising to power slightly before the 1600s, Masamune led his first military campaign at the tender age of 14 and ascended to power at 17 while swiftly conquering much of what is now the Tohoku region – a large swathe of northern Japan. He was also known as the "One-Eyed Dragon" due to the loss of his right eye to disease, which legend says that after a rival mocked him, suggesting an enemy could easily grab his sightless eye in battle, Masamune calmly plucked it out himself, silencing his detractor and cementing his fearsome reputation.

 

The Aoba Castle served as Date Masamune and his clan's seat of power (Source: Discover Sendai)

 

Despite his fearsome rep, Masamune interestingly had a soft side. A patron of the arts and culture, Masamune welcomed Christian missionaries at a time when many Japanese lords were persecuting its followers. He even sent a diplomatic mission to the Pope, a testament to his open-mindedness to views from the outside world.

As with any discerning connoisseur, Masamune appreciated the finer things in life, including sake. And it was in his domain, in the heart of Sendai, that the Katsuyama Sake Brewery was established in 1688 to serve the Date clan. To this day, Katsuyama stands as one of the very few surviving brewies with a direct lineage to the samurai era. Its sake is a living testament to the tastes and traditions of a bygone age.

 

The Samurai’s Sake

Despite its 300-year history, Katsuyama is not bound by the past. Instead, it embraces a philosophy known as "Modern Shudo," a term that encapsulates its progressive approach to sake brewing. Shudo is translated as "the way of sake" and encompasses the entire process of sake production, from rice cultivation to fermentation and bottling. Traditional Shudo is rooted in centuries-old practices and rituals in Japan. Modern Shudo, however, infuses this heritage with contemporary techniques and a global outlook.

  

 

This forward-thinking approach manifests in several ways. Katsuyama employs cutting-edge brewing technologies, and high-precision rice polishing to achieve unparalleled levels of refinement in their sake.

 

 

The brewery also embraces international influences, as they seek to make sake more accessible and appealing to a wider audience around the globe. The brewery exclusively makes premium sake of the Junmai grade, and even consults with chefs from French restaurants on the ideal sake flavour profile that could pair the drink well with various dishes. This is a departure from the conventional wisdom that sake is best enjoyed with Japanese food.

 

 

Katsuyama is also passionate about revitalising sake's popularity among locals, and embraces new trends with enthusiasm. This manifests in eye-catching bottle designs and innovative marketing strategies aimed at attracting a younger generation of sake drinkers.

Katsuyama’s Secret Weapon: Umami

Katsuyama brewery’s dedication to Modern Shudo and quality has not gone unnoticed. Sake sommeliers such as Joshua Kalinan have praised Katsuyama's offerings for their exceptional balance and food-pairing versatility.

Now, much like wine, sake is increasingly recognised for its ability to enhance and elevate the dining experience. But the underlying mechanism isn't quite the same. While wines often provide contrast and balance to foods—think of how acidity and tannins can cut through rich, fatty dishes, cleanse the palate, or how residual sugar can counterbalance spice and salt—sake is more about harmony.

 

 

Certain sakes are not only sweet but also rich in umami – enhancing and bring out more of the savouriness of the foods you eat. Sake also tends to have a more subtle flavour profile compared to wine, which can be a boon when pairing with delicate dishes. This gentle touch makes it a versatile companion for refined and nuanced cuisines, both within and outside of Japan.

Katsuyama’s niche in the sake world lies in its premium sakes that are always clean, clear, and umami-forward, designed to pair beautifully with Japanese cuisine. However, the brewery's ambitions extend beyond these shores, aiming to harmonise their sake with international fare as well.

Indian Cuisine & Sake?

But what about Indian cuisine, a culinary landscape seemingly diametrically opposed to sake? Indian dishes are renowned for their robust spices, complex aromas and rich gravies. How could the supposedly delicate sake possibly complement such bold and rich dishes?

 

 

Thanks to Master Sake Sommelier Joshua Kalinan who has a penchant for coming up with the most creative sake pairing experiences, I had the opportunity to attend a tasting dinner that paired Katsuyama sakes with Northern Indian cuisine – yet another unconventional concept dreamt up by Joshua. 

 

 

Gracing this pairing dinner was CEO of Katsuyama Brewery himself, Heizo Izawa-san, who is the 12th generation owner of the 17th-century brewery.

 

 

In Joshua’s words, he wanted us to experience firsthand how Japanese sakes could be harmonised at the dining table with Indian cuisine. Let’s find out how this goes!

Katsuyama Junmai Ginjo - KEN, 16% ABV – Review

Yamada Nishiki rice, 50% rice polishing ratio.

  

  

First up, we have the entry range Katsuyama KEN. Intriguingly, although this sake pretty much qualifies as a Junmai Daiginjo-grade sake – its rice has been polished to 50% – this is labelled as a Junmai Ginjo. Perhaps the brewer believes that this sake’s character aligns more closely with the ginjo style.

Tasting Notes

Nose: A wave of rich sweetness, reminiscent of ripe melons on a summer's day. It's bright and lively, with a subtle yeastiness that hints at the fermentation process.

Palate: Sweetness continues on the palate, but it's joined by a contrasting dryness and a citrusy zing, like the zest of a lemon. It’s fairly basic and uncomplicated but the texture is incredibly full and velvety, almost juicy, with the luscious sweetness of peaches and melons.

Finish: Short and clean, with a lingering dryness that quickly takes over. There's a touch of yeastiness here too.

 

 

My Thoughts:

While this the most straightforward sake of the Katsuyama range, it’s still fairly layered with a clean, sweet character that evolves smoothly into acidity and dryness, ending with a touch of yeastiness in the back of the throat.

 

 

Joshua decided to pair this with the appetiser of Samosa Corn Chaat. The acidity of the sake balances out the oiliness of the fried pastry, while the sake's sweetness complements the corn in the samosa, while balancing the saltiness, spice and sourness of the chutney. The pairing also seems to bring out a subtle earthiness in the sake. Very, very promising start to the meal!

 

Katsuyama Tokubetsu Junmai Ginjo - EN, 15% ABV – Review

Hitomebore rice, 55% rice polishing ratio.

 

 

Next up we have a Miyagi Prefecture signature, this Tokubetsu Junmai Ginjo is crafted from locally grown Hitomebore rice and Kobo yeast sourced locally. Not usually used to make sake, Hitomebore rice tends to provide a slightly dryer sake experience with a touch of acidity—a signature of the region.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Sweetness greets me first, but it's a touch more subdued than the KEN. There's a distinct earthiness, like the smell of freshly harvested mushrooms, and a delicate aroma of cooked rice.

Palate: A rather full-bodied texture, starting with a pop of sweetness balanced by a distinctive umami ricey note that quickly dries, revealing a powerful acidity and dryness. The flavour of cooked rice is very prominent throughout, adding to the sake's overall earthy character.

Finish: The finish is clean and light, leaving a lingering dryness (karakuchi) that's more pronounced than in the previous sake.

 

 

My Thoughts:

This is another very clean and easy-drinking sake, but its character is slightly more austere than the KEN. Indeed, the use of Hitomebore rice led to a drier Miyagi style of sake.

 

 

Pairing it with the milky, saffron-infused chicken broth was a revelation. The sake's dryness beautifully balanced the broth's subtle sweetness and the saffron's spice, creating a very harmonious and satisfying pairing.

 

Katsuyama Junmai Daiginjo - REN, 16% ABV – Review

Yamada Nishiki rice, 35% rice polishing ratio.

 

 

Now, we elevate our sake journey with the Katsuyama REN, a Junmai Daiginjo crafted from the revered Yamada Nishiki rice. The Katsuyama REN isn't just a premium sake because of its exceptionally low polishing ratio of 35%. Its rarity extends to the meticulous extraction process. Whereas conventional sake makers employ an efficient mechanical pressing method to separate the liquid sake from the solid sake kasu (lees), the Katsuyama REN is made using the really, really slow "fukuro shibori" method.

 

 

Imagine this: the fermented sake mash (moromi) are wraped in individual cloth bags and patiently hung above vats, allowing gravity to slowly work its magic. Over time, the pure sake gently drips out of the bags, unrushed by harsh pressing techniques. This slow, natural extraction method safeguards the sake's most subtle flavors and aromas, resulting in an incredibly clean and pure sake.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Incredibly expressive. The REN bursts forth with a delicate floral bouquet intertwining with ripe pears, juicy melons, white peach and a zesty burst of pomelo. It's clean, sweet, and utterly luscious.

Palate: Cleanliness meets pure flavour. The sweetness of the rice is undeniable, yet it's balanced by an abundance of luscious melon notes and a velvety, almost creamy texture. A whisper of citrus dances on the tongue, while a mild lactic tang reminiscent of yoghurt adds a layer of complexity. A gentle umami note that evokes dashi broth. There's a subtle minerality that adds structure and a clean, refreshing acidity that balances the sweetness.

Finish: The finish is long and graceful, dryness gently emerging alongside delicate hints of rose, slightly acidic green apples, and sweet tangerines. A lingering whisper of vanilla

 

 

My Thoughts:

This is one of the most flavourful sakes I've had the pleasure of tasting, boasting a remarkable creaminess, impeccable cleanliness, and a vibrant fruity character. The umami notes are prominent but not overpowering, and the subtle yoghurt complexity adds intrigue.

 

 

Paired with a medley of grilled meats, particularly the lamb chops, it was simply perfect. The REN's robust flavour profile held its own against the well-marinated meats, while its dryness and subtle acidity cut through the fat and oil, cleansing the palate with each sip. The prominent umami further enhanced the savouriness of the dishes, creating a harmonious and truly satisfying dining experience.

 

Katsuyama Junmai Daiginjo - DEN, 16% ABV – Review

Yamada Nishiki rice, 35% rice polishing ratio.

 

 

Crafted using many of the same steps as the Katsuyama REN, both using Yamada Nishiki rice polished to a refined 35%, the key difference of the DEN lies in the extraction method: while the REN is patiently drip-extracted, the DEN is made using a slightly faster extraction method that involves using weights – such as large boxes or wooden lids to press the sake from the mash.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Bright and sweet, leading with clean, yeasty notes and light citrius reminiscent of a Chardonnay. A touch of lactic sweetness peeks through, along with the gentle aroma of pears. The yeastiness and earthiness seems a bit more noticeable than in the REN.

Palate: This is a bit of a surprise. It’s quite a viscous mouthfeel, but the flavours are quite austere. An initial wave of sweet, bright melon is quickly met with a sharp, dry karakuchi. A medley of spices unfolds, with prominent aniseed and a cooling mintiness weaving through a subtle rose note softening the edge. The structure is quite remarkable, with the palate dancing between fruitiness and austere dryness.

Finish: Peaks in umami, with an almost creamy, milky character akin to a light rice pudding.

 

 

My Thoughts

This sake is memorable for its upfront dryness and minty freshness. It's an austere departure from the pure bright and sweet notes of the REN.

 

 

Joshua decided to pair the DEN with a series of rich Indian gravies. As expected, the DEN's intense dryness cuts through the fat of the curries, while its minty notes seem to somewhat intensify the spices.

 

Katsuyama Junmai Ginjo Nama - LEI, 12% ABV – Review

Hitomebore rice, 55% rice polishing ratio.

 

 

Our final sake of the evening was a delightful departure from tradition. The Katsuyama Junmai Ginjo Nama – LEI, was specially designed to be a perfect complement to French dishes following consultation with renowned French chefs. In particular, the chefs recommended a sake with slightly lower alcohol content as well as a slightly heavier body. The result was a sake made in a lighter nigori style – also known as "usu-nigori," and has a slight cloudiness.

Tasting Notes

Nose: The aroma is rich and inviting, a medley of sweet marmalade and creamy kaya (caramelised coconut jam). Beneath the sweetness, there are some mineral undertones and a comforting hint of rice pudding.

Palate: Really decadent. It coats the palate with a velvety texture and delivers a burst of candied sweetness that evokes mango sago, ripe melon, pineapple, and banana split. A rich coconut sorbet note adds to the dessert-like experience, while subtle earthy rice notes ground the sweetness. There’s a gentle acidity peeking through and add balance to the sweetness.

Finish: Fairly short - a lingering pop of sweetness, followed by a gentle dryness. There’s also a touch of gentle effervescence that adds a playful, uplifting quality right at the end.

 

 

My Thoughts:

This was the most fun sake of the evening, reminiscent of a dessert wine. It's a lively balancing act of sweetness, savouriness, and a touch of alcohol, culminating in a subtly sparkling finish.

 

 

Joshua decided to pair this sake with a trio of rich Indian desserts – pistachio kulfi (a type of Indian ice cream), rasmalai cake (a sweet and spiced milky cake), and gajar halwa (a sweet carrot dessert).

Drunk alone, this sake is pretty much a satisfying and flavourful dessert digestif drink, but when experienced with these rich Indian desserts, it becomes a sort of refreshing counterbalance, with sweetness becoming less prominent while its acidity seems to brighten a bit.

 

Final Thoughts

This has been a revelation. Who would have thought to pair sakes with Indian dishes?! From my observation, everyone at this pairing dinner, including Izawa-san himself, were pleasantly surprised by how well the pairing worked. It certainly helped that each Katsuyama sake selected here had a distinct personality that shone through, enhancing and playing off the diverse flavours of Indian cuisine - from the rich gravies to the intricate spice blends. 

 

 

Two pairings were particularly unforgettable. The most transcendent was probably the luscious Katsuyama REN which was paired with grilled meats, especially the lamb chops. The REN's dryness and acidity cut through the richness and smokiness, while its umami notes amplified the savoury goodness of the meat. Pure harmony.

On the sweeter side, the Katsuyama LEI and pistachio kulfi were also a match made in heaven. The LEI's sweetness and subtle acidity beautifully balanced the creamy kulfi, creating a delightful dance of flavours that left me wanting more.

 

 

Learning about Katsuyama and experiencing this pairing has shown us how sake has great potential as a global player, ready to rival wine in the world of culinary pairings. I, for one, can't wait to see where this journey takes us next.

@CharsiuCharlie