When Nancy Cushman, the co-owner and founder of o ya restaurant in Boston, asked Alyssa DiPasquale if she had had sake before, she paused. DiPasquale was a hostess then, and wondered whether she should reveal to her boss, a sake sommelier and expert, that her only prior knowledge of sake were sake bombs at the Japanese bar across the street from her college campus? “I said no, I had not,” she said with a laugh.
That night, DiPasquale (a 2013 Eater Young Gun and currently Cushman’s Director of Special Projects) had her first true introduction to sake not in bomb form, and she quickly fell in love with it. “It was the end of the night and Nancy poured me a cold glass of Yuki No Bosha Junmai Ginjo,” she said. “I was so surprised and delighted by it — it was not harsh in any way. It tasted like delicious fruit and was cool and refreshing. It was the first of many glasses that Nancy and I have shared together and I am forever thankful for that moment.”
Then again, anyone who has the chance to taste sake under Cushman’s direction would likely become a sake evangelist too. Cushman first tasted sake in 1997 with her now-husband Tim, and had the same moment of excitement. While working in advertising, she continued her sake education with a tasting journal, and eventually filled it with more than 200 sakes. She’s since become one of the country’s foremost sake sommeliers, as well as co-owner and founder of a mini Boston-New York restaurant empire with Tim: o ya (in Boston and New York City), Covina, Hojoko, and Roof at Park South. “It was a way my mom could be proud of this new habit of mine,” she laughed.
On a cold and snowy night in Chinatown, Manhattan, Cushman led eager newbies through a tasting of sakes, with the help of JFOODO, a Japanese government agency that promotes sake and other homegrown products (like fish and rice) outside of the country. After a brief cocktail hour with sparkling sake, Cushman sat everyone down to a tasting of sakes, from daiginjo to junmai to honjozo, and braced everyone in the room for the subtlety found in each glass. “If you’re more familiar with wine, it’s okay to make that same comparison,” she said. “You’ll find a lot of the same flavors and aromas as you would in wine, but you have to look harder for them in sake.”
But the comparison between wine and sake stops about there. If you were to make a more apt comparison between beverages, sake has more in common with beer, thanks to its starch base. Swap out a special kind of brewer’s rice (sakamai) for barley and you have the foundation of sake, one that has been built upon for generations. “You hear winemakers talking about old vines, but these brewmasters are keeping the traditions of brewing sake as early as the 1600s or 1800s,” Cushman said.
What else makes sake stand out in a sea of wine and beer lists? For that indescribable fifth taste that foodies are eager to define and experience: umami. The term umami — Japanese for “deliciousness” — technically refers to the taste of only one amino acid, glutamate, and its general ethos is understood to include the cascade effect of this and other amino acids working together in some of our favorite foods, like mushrooms, tomatoes, aged cheeses, meat, and fish. But umami is also a common terminology for describing and evaluating sake. Through the unique fermentation process of sake and the koji — a special type of mold used in the brewing process that converts the starch of rice into sugars — the rice in sake develops high levels of inosinic acid and some glutamate for that desirable umami effect. (Compare that to a bottle of wine or Champagne: While wine and Champagne also develop glutamate through the fermentation process, the final levels per bottle are significantly lower than what’s found in most sakes.)
The desired level of umami often determines what purpose each bottle of sake will serve: A junmai daiginjo, with more than 50 percent of the rice’s outer bran polished away, typically has fewer umami compounds and a lighter, more delicate taste, while a ginjo or an unfiltered nigori has more umami and leaves a more robust aftertaste. A less-milled junmai, for example, is excellent with sushi, as the umami from the sake pairs well with the umami of the fish.
The secret sauce to sake, the koji, is personal to each brewmaster, Cushman explained. The application of koji to the rice varies between them, as do the different types of yeast used. “If we think about how we use the word terroir to define wine, it’s mostly in the land and weather and how it affects the vintage,” she said. “But in sake, that terroir, that indescribable feeling of sake has nothing to do with outside factors — it’s in the brewmasters’ hands.”
It’s a part of what makes sake so magical, she said, both on its own and at the dinner table. Brian McGonagle, chef de cuisine at o ya, and Hart Lowry, culinary director of Cushman Concepts, prepared the dishes at the tasting: Kumamoto oysters with watermelon pearls and cucumber mignonette; sashimi topped with avocado and cilantro or Thai basil and shallots; even chocolate treats at the end. And the sake pairings brought out each of the four tastes — salty, bitter, sour, and sweet. But the true star of the show was the umami bomb, a tea-brined pork rib blazing with hot sesame oil and honey, paired with a honjozo extra dry sake. “There’s just a balance there that you can’t really find anywhere else,” Cushman said.
It’s why Cushman encourages all to order off the sake list next time you’re out to dinner — even if you’re not at a Japanese restaurant. (Her favorite, most unexpected pairing that she treated to everyone at the end of the night? Sake and pizza.) She said she had an epiphany while teaching a class recently, about why sake makes for such outstanding food pairings, even more so than wine. “Think about it: Wine is made from grapes, and grapes are a fruit. I can’t imagine that I’d want to pair fruit with everything that I’m eating.”
“But sake is made from rice, beer is made from barley, and grains are consistently used as the base in so many cuisines,” she said. “It’s that savoriness that comes from the rice and the koji, that feeling of umami that makes it so easy to pair with whatever you’re having: It’s savory plus savory.”
“Wine is a big personality at the dinner table,” Cushman said. “But sake is that agreeable, trusty partner to your food.” Could sake be the unsung hero at your next dinner reservation? You’ll have to try it for yourself.
Photography by Ryan Muir