Japan, Hokkaido, Takasago Shuzo

Jun 1, 2012
2012 / June 2012

Across the world, it is almost always true that the locally made beverage is a natural match with the local cuisine. Burgundy, for example, is the perfect companion to Burgundy’s foods, and this is so for the wines and foods of nearly every wine-producing region. It is also true for sake and Japanese cuisine: a meeting and melding of flavors and tastes.

But sake with Western cuisines? We drink sake hot, cold, in mixed drinks and in Japanese restaurants — not with a typical American meal. Yet as more sophisticated premium sakes arrive in the United States, it has become an intriguing question: Not simply, will sake go with this Western dish, but, as with wine, which sake will go with this dish?

Enter a group of Japanese farmers of Hokkaido Muumin Village and the sake brewery Takasago Shuzo, both on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. The farmers grew a rice called ginpuu, and from it the brewery made a traditional sake. They then invited an American chef, Christopher Lee, to come to Hokkaido to advise on how to adjust the sake to make it compatible with American foods. Among the changes Lee suggested: “Bring down the alcohol and give it familiar flavors, such as citrus.”

They named the new sake Iki, which in Japanese means a cool, chic, stylish lifestyle. And the taste? A fragrant, floral aroma; a whiff of citrus fruit; soft on the palate; relatively light in body; its 15.5 percent alcohol well integrated; a sake that does not fight the food. Indeed, it welcomed Chef Lee’s dishes.

Among those dishes were marinated salmon, scallop with black truffle, and braised beef with jalapeño and sesame aioli. The braised beef dish was a surprisingly good match with Iki. My favorite, though, was Iki with crispy pork belly, wasabi peas and sweet potato cakes. Who would have thought?

This is Iki’s introductory year. In each following year, a different American chef will be invited to adapt Iki to American cuisine and the American palate.

As the song from Fiddler on the Roof goes, “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match, find me a find …”. The farmers and brewers of Hokkaido, with Christopher Lee’s help, have found us a match in cool, chic Iki.

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