When Osaka native Iori Kataoka opened her Japanese restaurant on Vancouver’s West Side in 2005, she hoped to offer a menu that paired the dishes of her home country with sake. She found herself making matches with wine instead—but not for lack of trying.
“There wasn’t enough sake available,” Kataoka says in an interview downtown. “There was industrial sake in a box that you heated up to hide the flaws. There were only three kinds, and they all came in boxes.”
Things have changed since her Zest Japanese Cuisine launched more than a decade ago. That restaurant has just been reborn as Yuwa Japanese Cuisine (2775 West 16th Avenue), with a mission to highlight the country’s regional variations. Well-known restaurants everywhere from Paris to New York are specializing in sake, and given the proliferation of high-quality sake available on local liquor-store shelves now, Kataoka is going back to her original plan.
“Doing sake and food pairings was a dream from the beginning,” Kataoka says. “A lot of people still say, ‘Oh, I can’t drink sake.’ But there’s not just one kind of sake. There is so much to explore.
“Pairing it with food has the same rules, the same ideas, as wine,” she adds. “You look for something that’s going to complement or contrast the flavours.”
Kataoka is a certified advanced sake professional with Tokyo’s Sake Education Council and a kikisake-shi, or sake sommelier. In 2008, she opened ShuRaku Sake Bar and Bistro (833 Granville Street), which serves about 30 different types of the fermented rice wine. Both it and Yuwa offer sake pairings and sake flights.
Sake is made from rice that is polished, washed, and steamed. Different categories of sake are broken down in terms of how much each grain of rice is milled. Premium sake has been polished at least 30 percent, which means that 70 percent of each grain remains. It then gets more complicated than that, depending on whether any distilled alcohol is added.
To celebrate the drink, World Sake Day takes place every year on October 1. That date was chosen because it’s the traditional starting date of sake production in Japan. The Japan Sake Brewers Association first held the annual event in 1978, but the marking of World Sake Day in North America has been more recent.
San Francisco, which has the largest Sake Day celebration outside of Japan, has celebrated for the past 12 years. The Sake Association of British Columbia, meanwhile, kicked off its annual celebration last year.
This year’s event will include a trade portion featuring products from 21 brewers and importers from Japan, Canada, and the United States, as well as consumer tasting of dozens of different grades and classifications.
Lara Victoria, founder of Cru Classe Hospitality Corp., is another local sake expert. She travelled to Japan earlier this year to become certified by the London-based Wine and Spirit Education Trust as a sake educator in a program sponsored by the Japanese government. She was one of eight people from around the world (and the only Canadian) to be invited. (Victoria is teaching a WSET Level 1 Award in Sake class on October 7 at VanDusen Botanical Garden.)
While in Japan, Victoria learned this expression: “Sake does not fight with food.”
“I have yet to find a food that does not go nicely with sake,” Victoria says in an interview in Chinatown. “It’s amazing with fish and chips or with clam chowder. I would like to see every seafood restaurant in B.C. carry sake.
“It’s great with spicy food,” she adds. “Sake and Indian food are best friends. Or Malaysian food; it would be great with beef biryani.”
Victoria notes that sake is naturally gluten-free and is devoid of sulphites, unlike most wine. She says sake would also pair well with something simple like a grilled panini with roasted tomatoes and peppers and cheese. On a cold and rainy day, Victoria would serve sake with a pot roast containing root vegetables. She says it even goes nicely with desserts, including chocolate.
Food-and-sake pairings at Yuwa include sockeye salmon sanshozuke-ae, a dish found in Hokkaido or Tohoku. Served with taro chips, it consists of salmon and avocado tartare marinated in shio-koji malt soy sauce with spicy green pepper and bits of rice cracker.
“When you are having a spicy item, go with sake that’s slightly sweet,” Kataoka says. “It’s the same idea as Riesling with spicy Chinese food. I would suggest nigori sake, which is cloudy sake, as it complements the koji rice malt and it has sweetness.”
Sizzling wagyu steak, meanwhile, would go nicely with a junmai yamahai sake, which has a wild, gamy flavour. “This sake’s higher acidity level cuts through the oiliness of wagyu beef,” Kataoka says. “Its mushroom and earthy tones complement beef. When it’s warmed gently, it’s very comforting in colder weather.”
The Vancouver Sake Fest takes place on Thursday (September 28) at the Imperial (319 Main Street).