Exploration Sessions vol. 1: Sake & Zakuski
Exploration Sessions 1: Zakuski & Sake
Russian/Baltic drinking snacks paired to a selection of 4 World Sake Imports sakes
Guest: Chris "Sake Ninja" Johnson, World Sake Imports
Author/explorer: Nina Murphy, Sunflower Sake
In Elena Molokhovets’ essential 1861 book, “Guide to Young Housewives,” which is still reproduced and gifted today, readers are advised to fill the zakuski table so that no empty space remains. Much like the KBBQ table filled with banchan, or the Spanish table filled with tapas, the Russian table filled with zakuski keeps conversations lively and drinks flowing. Guests gather for hours to indulge in countless bites, songs and conversations. It is the host– or hostess’-- duty to create a space of joy and abundance.
Growing up as a Russian-American girl in the SF Bay Area, zakuski were the obligatory appetizers before dinner. At the Anissimov’s guests cruised platters of homemade gravlax, pickled mushrooms, dilly cucumber and tomato salad, cocktail piroshki, eggplant “caviar” (spread), and on special occasions– especially in the mid-90s, when they regularly traveled to Russia– a baguette, a bowl of caviar and a side of sour cream. At the Devoulin’s, pre-war immigration through China and Dailan could be seen in the zakuski: assorted dim sum, Japanese rice crackers and soy-glazed chicken drumettes sat in the most natural way next to chicken liver pate, headcheese with horseradish, herring in sour cream, or sauerkraut.
But if I’m honest, I couldn’t appreciate most of these foods as a kid: cold fish dressed heavily in garlic and lemon, while pickles were intensely salty and sour. On a cold Christmas eve, I couldn’t understand why we were eating cold food with such strong and pungent flavors.
Deep into my 30s, reflecting on the pairings that follow, I can finally see that these dishes were not meant for children. We were expected to run around grandma’s house wildly, digging up toys and getting our energy out together, while parents engaged in a ritual that is as old as time itself: eating small, flavorful bites slowly and relishing the contrast of a good drink– each critical to the balance of the other.
Sake #1: Akitabare Nama Honjozo Shunsetsu “Spring Snow” served ~45-50F
Pairing: Mixed pickles (green tomato pickles, cucumber half-sour dill pickles)
Sake tasting notes: On a fresher release (~6 months old) this sake is floral and crisp, medium aromatic intensity with grassy, lily, pink peppercorn notes. The texture is so soft and creamy as to be almost slippery on the tongue. Flavor notes of clean nut (cashew, brazil nut) and freshly ground rice powder characterize the umami, while lighter herbal aromatics and gentle petillance (when freshly opened) lend freshness. Overall, there is a cleansing quality to the sake much like a glass of spring water infused with cucumber.
An older release was also tried, which is approaching 14 months from the date of original bottling. This older version is still refreshing but it has lost the higher herbal, floral aromatics and the ricey, nutty notes are deeper, richer– leaving the palate feeling like it just had a cool glass of unsweetened rice/cashew milk. It also has a bit more texture, taking on a velvety grip at the finish. It is an effective pairing for the pickles, but a bit less so, failing to resonate with the spices and a little less “cleansing” overall.
Why it works: Akitabare Nama Honjozo has a crisp, cleansing, waterlike quality and impeccable balance, which makes it very easy to drink, very versatile to pair, and well suited to “washing away” flavors to leave the palate refreshed. The effect here is a bit like an ice-cold shot of vodka, or a big sip of ice-cold lager, taken with a vinegary, salty snack. A pleasant shock to the system: cleansing and refreshing. Akitabare softens the volume of the brine from 8 to 5, while musty note from the prepackaged pickles disappear. The sake doesn’t linger, but it does leave the palate with soft umami richness, warm pickling spices, and an appetite for more.
TL;DR: A sessionable interpretation of cold vodka with pickles.
Other combinations tried:
- Russian pickles worked with all of the sake, but Akitabare made the best match because it really improved the pickles, without taking center stage.
- Oreshki, walnut cookies with caramel filling that are usually enjoyed with tea, made a lovely if subtle match w/ 12 month old, creamy Akitabare warmed to 110F. But as good as this was, I felt other sake could work even better.
- With dried herring, the fishiness was cleaned away but no improvement of flavors or synergy otherwise.
- Homemade Russian pickles with improved salt-acid balance and texture, as well as a larger assortment to play around with! Impeccably fresh namazake is definitely the key to this pairing as well.
- A simple, rich protein-based zakuski such as salmon caviar and chive on blini, or a little smoked white fish with mayonnaise and chervil, would likely be an excellent match for the Akitabare.
- Something very strongly flavored that really needs a fresh, cleansing chaser, like headcheese with fresh horseradish, would be worth trying.
Sake #2: Tamagawa “Ice Breaker” Nama Junmai Ginjo Natsuzake
Pairing: Borodinsky bread with Tvorog cheese, Persimmons in Syrup, Black Pepper, Olive Oil and Flake Salt
Sake tasting notes: This ~1.5 year room temp aged, 17-18% ABV, off-dry junmai ginjo namazake from Tamagawa is a concentrated, punchy natsuzake (Summer sake) designed for serving on the rocks. Its earthy qualities (fresh grass, sesame seed, white pepper, sencha, turned soil) and fruity qualities (fresh apricot, red apple, bosc pear) create a complex, powerful interaction on the palate, with moderate umami, a long finish, and an unctuous mouthfeel. This dichotomy of earth and fruit, while maintaining a great sense of freshness and rich expression when chilled, is very unique– and very Tamagawa.
Why it works: This is a complex sake, expressive on multiple dimensions, and it benefits most from pairing with all of the same: sweet, fat, creamy, sour, earthy, and spice. Persimmon, tvorog, rustic, sour Borodinsky bread and a drizzle of pepper-inflected olive oil was, for me, multiplicative with Ice Breaker. The harsher edges of the sake (ex. high alcohol) were softened by the fat and dairy in the fresh cheese, while the slightly astringent sweetness of the sake highlighted the same qualities in the persimmon. Black pepper and good olive oil played with the peppery earthiness of the sake and persisted through the finish. Sweet persimmon is sweeter, creamy cheese is creamier, earthy bread earthier, and peppery accents more expressive. In this pairing, nothing was drowned out: instead, it came into focus.
TL;DR: A unique, resonant harmony was achieved in the many elements of this pairing.
Other combinations tried:
- Dried herring + mustard -- the sake mellows out fishiness, but is overall uninteresting.
- Mushroom pickle- the fruitiness and spice of the sake are emphasized while the mushroom flavor persists nicely. Both exist independently and carry through– it works, but not as well as the persimmon dish.
- A sprig of tarragon could pick up on the herbaceous notes of the sake as well, and make the pairing even more interesting.
Sake #3: Masumi Junmai Okuden Kantsukuri “Mirror of Truth”
Pairing: Borodinsky bread with adjika, svalya cheese, and olive oil
Sake tasting notes: In Winter, Masumi Okuden Kantsukuri is one of two standby sake in my house. By the time Fall has arrived the bottles have matured past their post-bottling youth, with notes of sweet spice, roasted apple, braised white mushroom, brown butter, kombu dashi, toasted brown rice, balsamic, usukuchi shoyu, simmered daikon radish, and a crisp twist of slatey minerality. When it’s freshly bottled, Masumi has more fruity notes: fresh bosc pear, apricot, teacher’s red apple, fresh daikon, and few oxidative/spice notes. For this tasting, I’m using a bottle that’s about a year past bottling and has settled into its spice.
Why it works: This pairing works, but being limited to pre-made ingredients and no heating element, it’s probably the weakest of the four. The mellow red pepper spiciness of the adjika is elongated and made sweeter/more complex by the spicy, lightly sweet, umami-rich Masumi, while the cheese (creamy and rich as it is) gets a bit lost as the sake is more strongly flavored. The sake picks up on the sweet nuttiness of the toasted bread– the sprouted wheat and rye– echoing those flavors and letting what might otherwise be but a vehicle for toppings, take center stage.
TL;DR: sweet spice loves sweet spice, nutty umami loves nutty umami, and together they are stronger.
Other comnbinations tried:
- Bolete pickle: they coexist, but there are no interesting interactions.
- Chanterelle pickle: they coexist, but the chanterelle’s subtle flavors get lost.
- Dried herring: Masumi mellows out the fishiness, but it lets the umami and oiliness of the herring, as well as the spice of the mustard, carry into the finish. Not bad at all, but missing something.
- Green tomato pickle: Masumi highligbts the mustard, pepper, and bay, takes away any mustiness, and makes it rounder– really nice. This is one pickle that can stand up to Masumi.
Future experiments: A more flavorful cheese (gruyere?) and heating the toast as well as the sake would dramatically improve the pairing. I think the disconnect here isn’t in the ingredients, but in the lack of heat to heighten their best qualities. When the toast is at room temperature, the swiss-like cheese doesn’t taste like much and the adjika dominates– but with a bit of heat, the flavors of the cheese would come out as well.
Sake #4: Tamagawa Junmai “Heart of Oak” 2017
Pairing: Borodinsky bread with kewpie, Russian mustard and smoked sprats
Sake tasting notes: Served at ~60F, a cool room temp, Heart of Oak is oxidative, sherried, saline/mineral, and iodine on the nose. Palate is slick and slippery at first, then a little fuzzy, grippy-- like velour. The aromatic notes are present on the palate (sherry, mineral) as well as toasted grain, caramelized onion, toffee, buckwheat honey and white pepper. On the finish I get dried wood ear mushroom, turkey tail mushroom, and spice– nutmeg, white pepper and oak/wood. The overall impression isn’t one of food spice or food mushrooms, it’s a dank forest mushroom in an old apothecary jar, stored beside dried herbs and spices intended to heal– not necessarily to season.
Served warm (110F), the flavor reaches a higher intensity and expands to include those Christmas favorites: clove, white pepper, cinnamon, black tea and wintergreen. The nuttiness takes on a more old-world quality: Ukranian poppy seed paste, sunflower seed oil, toasted rice hulls, and toasted buckwheat flour.
Why it works: Aged sake pairing takes an easy page from the oxidative wine playbook: what works with rancio, oloroso, sercial, even vin jaune (yes, I know it’s not oxidized per se!) often works well with aged sake as long as you account for the lower acidity, and higher umami. So the old formula– oily fish conservas with oxidative wine– is revisited in this Russia-Japanese equivalent.
Enter salty, smoky, fishy bites with hot mustard and umami mayo: enough fat to soften the bitterness of age, or to draw subtle flavors out from a whisper to an essay. Spicy hot mustard can be shockingly complex if you stop fanning your nose long enough to listen, and this potential works well with the expansive complexity of koshu. Salt and umami in fish amplify the umami and body of sake, while sweet and sour grain notes in bread are similarly echoed. Finally, sake’s greatest power, minimizing fishiness, make this pairing one which only sake could excel at.
TL;DR: A prism of spicy, smoky, earthy notes in aged junmai amplify the same in this Russian classic, while sake’s unique ability to cleanse fishiness makes it shine particularly bright.
Other combinations tried:
- Chanterelle pickle: synchronizes texturally with Heart of Oak, and surprisingly (for its subtlety) and lets all the flavors of the chanterelle endure. Long finish shows the olive oil, garlic and a solid clean umami, while iodine/sherriness drops away from the sake.
- A chanterelle pickle/ mayo/ bread combo also works, but it isn't especially magical. Fat and smoke are needed to play off of the aged notes of Heart of Oak.
- Tomato and cucumber pickles work with the sake, but these are really plain pickles– the sake has so much unused potential.
- Good with the Svalya cheese and adjika, but not as good as the masumi. Plus, the Tamagawa wants more bitter and pungency.
This is pretty superb, but a strong alternative to smoked sprats could be smoked kielbasa, charred hard and sliced on toast with mustard. Like the Masumi, or anything which hardens in the cold, heat is crucial to achieve the best result.
Foods considered in the pairing exercise:
- Bulk dried salted herring (Russia, $12/lb)
- Kedainiu Konservai brand marinated champignons– white button mushrooms (Origin not listed, $7.59 for a jar of 480g)
- Pickled green tomato in brine (Poland, $5.99 for a jar of 820g)
- Skatertsi Samoyranka brand pickled shiitake (grudzi) (Russia, $8.79 for a jar of 530g)
- Chanterelle vinegar pickles (homemade– https://foragerchef.com/fresh-wild-mushroom-conserve/ )
- Bolete vinegar pickles (homemade– above recipe, replacing salt with a combination of soy and miso, and replacing half the water with cooked sake)
- Riga Gold brand smoked sprats in oil (, $3.99 for a 5.3 oz tin)
- Kewpie mayonnaise (Japan, $4.99 for a 7 oz tube)
- Zakuson brand Russian style mustard (Canada, $4.99 for 8.8 oz jar)
- "Heart Kitchen" Brand Mild Adjika (Oregon, $8.99 for an 8 oz jar)
- Svalya cheese, Russian semi-firm gouda (Lithuania, $5.99 for an 8 oz pack)
- Lifeway brand Tvorog aka farmer’s cheese (USA, $7.00 for a 16 oz pack)
- Borodinsky bread, Good Neighbor Market PDX, OR
Other sake that were also explored:
- Candied persimmon x Hanatomoe Mizumoto
Really good pairing. Creates something totally new, like a persimmon white chocolate cheesecake with a super long finish. Really lovely.
- Smoked sprat w mustard x Hanatomoe Mizumoto
Not at all bad, but the sake sort of powerhouses through the sprat and I get the bread and mustard only on the finish. Hanatomoe is too strong in the wrong ways to work here– dare I say, the smoked sprat gets lost, and the Hanatomoe doesn’t really get to show its potential, either.
- Smoked sprats x Kubota Manjyu (11 months from bottling)
Mostly cleans out the fishiness and replaces it with a clean, creamy Kubota flavor.
- Dried herring x Kubota Manjyu (11 months from bottling)
Not bad, but like the sprats it cleans out the fishiness– almost too much– replacing it with a creamy, sweeter than usual expression of Kubota, which is such a dramatic turn that it feels disjointed. After dried herring, I’m not looking for a sweet finish. This would probably work if it was dried herring in some kind of white rice application, where a little sweetness would be welcome.