Buy a Bottle of Sake and Go Nuts

I don't mean that literally, of course. But I've noticed a tendency for people who are brazen about pairing beer and wine with all manner of foods to be shy when it comes to sake. Why?

Japanese rice wine, sake, is traditionally paired with Japanese foods. Imagine that. And unlike beer or wine, sake is made from the same foodstuff that's so prevalent in Japanese cuisine -- rice -- so it's a natural pairing with chirashi bowls or gently vinegared balls of soft rice under draping pieces of tuna or salmon.

But we don't pair wine exclusively with French foods or dishes made from grapes. Nor do we pair beer exclusively with German foods or dishes made from barley and yeast. No -- we pair them with anything and everything under the sun! So do the same with sake! Don't be afraid!

One of my favorite and most wonderfully affordable bottles of sake is Sho Chiku Bai Ginjo from Takara. You can find it even in the most basic of sake aisles (and here in Houston, all the sake aisles are basic save for a few good Spec's locations) for $7 to $8 and split it between two people for a welcome warm-weather alternative to white wine.

Sho Chiku Bai -- a brand which is to sake as Budweiser is to beer, so that we're all clear on the fact that sake does not have to be pretentious -- comes in several varieties: Junmai, Junmai Nama, Junmai Ginjo and even Junmai Nigori, the sweet version that's cloudy with the grain solids of rice left behind during the fermentation process.

The Ginjo version of Sho Chiku Bai comes in a hazy bottle with a pretty pink flower on the front, attesting to its slightly sweet taste as well -- but one that's smooth and dry like Jane Curtin in the late '70s. It has the same light floral qualities of a nice Chenin Blanc, the same delicate structure of a good dry Riesling.

And although I'm sure a Japanese sake connoisseur would balk, I love pairing my el cheapo Sho Chiku Bai Ginjo with soft cheeses and fruit spreads: Fromage d'Affinois and fig preserves, for example. Even ballsier moments find me pairing it with brusque, musky Truffle Tremor goat cheese. The sake couldn't taste more different between the two cheeses, taking on wholly different characteristics between the two, making the adventure of pairing even more exciting.

So liven up your Monday. Buy a bottle of sake tonight for dinner instead of wine or a six-pack of beer. Experiment. Go nuts.

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Katharine Shilcutt