Given the year that we are in, I felt that in October we would probably still be reaching for a white or sparkling wine with cold hors d’oeuvre. So I elected to match a German sparkling wine (or Sekt), in this particular case Fürst von Metternich, Riesling Sekt Trocken with Chikuwa. For those new to Japan, chikuwa is a fish cake shaped like a cylinder with a hole in the middle. The one I used for the pairing was from Marunaka Honpo in Nagasaki.
Established in 1934, Marunaka Honpo specializes in fish cakes and emphasizes keeping natural fish flavors without using preservatives. The numerous awards received, not to mention the grand honor of being served at the Imperial palace and Imperial families residences, highlight the pedigree of their products.
Marunaka Honpo produces various chikuwa from different fish — the ones which I selected were made from snapper and flying fish. The former went especially well with Fürst von Metternich. Though troken translates as dry, in the case of German Sekt, such wines still have between 17 to 35 grams of sugar per liter. The residual sugar of the Fürst (around 17grams) went well with the natural sweetness of snapper chikuwa, and, most importantly, the match did not leave any fishiness on the finish. This is in part due to the inherently high acidity of a Riesling grape (especially one grown in a cool climate like Germany’s) which cleanses the palate.
Adding a bit of grated wasabi on top of chikuwa creates a harmonious match with increased depth and complexity of flavor with which the distinctive and forward character Riesling grape can still hold its own.
Wasabi is sometimes described as a wine killer. However, fresh wasabi should not create any major hurdles for wine used judiciously. Wasabi is enjoyed for its fragrance, which is best preserved if you use a wooden grinder and then consume it quickly, as the aroma and spiciness start to dissipate after couple of minutes. In my experience the spiciness affects the nose more then the palate, where it does not linger as chili pepper does. Regretfully, it is often sold as a paste or powder, which tends to be more potent — hence its infamous reputation.
In summary, if you opt for sparkling and spice and other things nice, in particular sashimi and nigrizushi (hand-formed sushi) traditionally consumed with wasabi, the key is simple: a Riesling Sekt troken.
Photos courtesy of J.K. Whelehan