It feels natural to pair nihonshu with Japanese dishes such as sushi. But as nihonshu becomes more popular and accessible outside of Japan, one can’t help but wonder if Japan’s national alcoholic drink could pair well with dishes from other countries, too. 

Niigata-based label Kubota wanted to explore the possibilities of pairing varieties of nihonshu with a wide range of international cuisines. Collaborating with three Tokyo chefs, Kubota organized a tasting experience to showcase the potential of sake served alongside French, Mexican and bar cuisines. Tokyo Weekender had the chance to attend and see the efforts of Kubota first-hand.

Meet the Chefs

Asahi Shuzo first invited three top chefs to create dishes that would lend themselves well to pairing with nihonshu. 

Owner of Ginza Foie Gras, chef Takashi Igarashi created recipes inspired by his training in French and Spanish cuisine. Chef Igarashi approaches food scientifically, jotting down the exact chemical properties of each ingredient, down to the pH of the water used during the nihonshu brewing process.

“Nihonshu is made from water, which has a pH of 7 — it’s neutral. But nihonshu is fermented, and so it’s acidic, with a pH of around 4.8.” With this in mind, Chef Igarashi designed a menu using alkaline-rich ingredients. During the tasting experience, he presented a salmon dish as well as a dessert featuring peach and vanilla ice cream topped with Tajin seasoning.

Another chef trained in French cuisine who participated is Vivo Daily Stand’s Akira Hanamoto. Chef Hanamoto is also a wine sommelier and oversees 34 wine bars across Japan. To pair with Kubota nihonshu, he prepared a light seafood-based starter and a browned butter chicken entrée.

Representing Latin America was chef Hideo Ogawa, an expert in Mexican cuisine and general manager of the modern Mexican restaurant Cielito Lindo Bar and Grill. Chef Ogawa presented a quesadilla as well as a steak dish. Both dishes are already known to pair well with tequila and red wine respectively, but the chef wanted to show that nihonshu was an equally exquisite option.

Reactions From the Audience

TW readers attending the tasting experience ranged from nihonshu lovers to informed connoisseurs. All had an open mind and shared a curiosity to see Japan’s national alcoholic drink paired with international dishes. 

Couple Lia Tee and Aarong Tseng revealed that they’ve already been combining nihonshu with non-Japanese food at home. Though they enjoyed all the pairings presented, they admit their favorite was Chef Hanamoto’s browned butter chicken served alongside Kubota’s Hekijyu Junmai Daiginjo. Both have strong flavors that complimented each other perfectly. 

Guest Kieran Hallahan was pleasantly surprised to discover the possibilities of pairing nihonshu with international dishes. “I never, in a million years, would’ve paired a quesadilla with a nihonshu,“ he admits. “I’ll now be asking for sake at Mexican restaurants,” he adds, laughing.

Chef Ogawa’s dishes were a success. His inspiration came from cheese and wine pairing. A cheese and shrimp quesadilla with jalapeño, he explained, paired well with the gentle and fruity Kubota’s Senjyu Junmai Ginjo.

Kubota’s Senjyu Junmai Ginjo also impressed Hallahan and Tseng when harmoniously with Chef Igarashi’s starter of salt-marinated salmon and creamy beets. Tseng admitted he thought he might dislike fruity sake, but his mind has changed. 

Another fruity nihonshu from Kubota was their Junmai Daiginjo, which Chef Hanamoto paired with his steak dish and Chef Igarashi paired with his peach dessert, the latter making the strongest impression among the guests. Elvira Yunitan chose it as her favorite pairing, explaining, “I’m adventurous with my ice cream, I add salt and olive oil, but I never tried it with alcohol before.” 

Pairing the three nihonshu varieties with seafood bites, chicken and steak, and ice cream left the guests buzzing with excitement, exchanging opinions and their newfound determination to crack open a bottle of nihonshu more often, regardless of what food is on the table. The possibilities were endless.

Asahi Brewery and Kubota hope to plan more events in the future. Those keen to participate should stay up to date by following Kubota on Instagram. For more information and their full lineup of nihonshu, visit the global Kubota website.