IN Asia one of the most interesting and challenging cuisines to pair with wines is Japanese cuisine. When done properly the results are outstanding, but the process can be fraught with danger.
Modern day Japanese cuisine is the product of thousands of years of foreign exposure along with prolonged periods of isolation. Early migrations from the Yangtze River Delta in China and the Korean Peninsula first brought rice to Japan about 2,400 years ago. Rice soon became the staple food of Japan. Soy beans were also introduced from China.
Another profound influence on Japanese culinary history is Buddhism. In AD 675, the Emperor Temmu issued a decree outlawing the consumption of most meats. The only exceptions were wild deer and boars that were still hunted in the mountains. Like Buddhism, the indigenous Shinto religion also frowned on eating meat. Emperors in the 8th and 9th centuries continued to issue decrees outlawing the consumption of meat. Vegetables, soy bean-based products like tofu as well as the bounty from the sea formed the cornerstones of Japanese cuisine for centuries.
Starting in the 16th century Japan started to emerge from a long period of isolation, engaging in trade with Portuguese and Dutch merchants who periodically visited the islands. Trade was still nascent but one of its biggest influences was on Japanese cuisine. Sugar and corn were introduced as well as new cooking techniques that resulted in tempura and croquettes.
Curry was introduced to Japan during the Meiji era (1868-1912) by the British who brought it from their Indian colony. As with other foreign foods, the Japanese slightly modified the styles and made them their own.
The historic importance of freshness, minimalism and presentation continue to be important and these ideals have in turn greatly influenced other great culinary cultures, including the French.
Wine and Japanese cuisine
The geographic and seasonal variations of Japanese cuisine demand more than one wine solution. Thankfully, the great diversity of wine styles means there's a good wine pairing for almost every popular Japanese dish.
The gastronomic world has come to embrace sushi and sashimi. Go to any gourmet capital in the world today and you're sure to find sushi stands, bars and restaurants that serve a variety of sushi, sashimi and other Japanese delicacies. The explosive global popularity of sushi and sashimi is a relatively recent phenomenon.
The most common ingredients in classic Japanese sushi are white rice and raw fish often wrapped in seaweed.
A dipping sauce comprising soy sauce and wasabi is also commonly served with sushi.
The best wines to serve with classic sushi are fresh and lively white wines that emphasize the freshness of the fish while offsetting the saltiness of the seaweed and soy sauce.
Sashimi is also perfect with these wines. My choices would include Spanish Albarino, young unoaked Sancerre or French Muscadet white wines because of their light and bracing qualities.
The only real challenges these lighter whites encounter is the wasabi. Often mistakenly referred to as Japanese horseradish, wasabi is actually a perennial herb native only to Japan and Eastern Siberia. The spicy, numbing and nasal clearing effect of wasabi can overwhelm lighter whites, so if you're a liberal user of wasabi choose a more powerful and extroverted white wine. I recommend Sauvignon Blanc white wines from Marlborough in New Zealand since they are not easily overpowered by strong flavor sensations. Good Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc producers include Villa Maria, Kim Crawford and Spy Valley.
The foreign-influenced croquettes and tempura have become a national passion in Japan. Croquettes fillings are usually mild creamy cheese or potato mixtures that can be quite dense. Here a white wine with body is called for, such as a Napa Valley Chardonnay or Pouilly-Fuisse from southern Burgundy. Both whites feature ample fruitiness with weighty mouth-feels to mirror the weight of the croquettes while also having enough acidity to refresh the palate. For meat-filled croquettes, try a fresh Beaujolais Villages red or young Burgundy Pinot Noir.
Tempura tend be lighter than croquettes and there's a greater emphasis on the original flavor of the major ingredient, which might be shrimp, fish, vegetable or mushroom. Recently, I paired a Reisling from the Eden Valley in Australia with tempura and the combination was inspiring as the ample acidity of the wine accentuated the flavor and texture of each ingredient while cleansing the mouth of any sense of greasiness.
Japanese curry tends to be sweeter than other styles of curry and therefore is best enjoyed with a ripe and fruity wine to mirror the sensations of sweetness or a dry wine to offset them.
With the popular deep-fried pork chop in curry sauce served with white rice, a fruity southern Rhone Grenache red provides all the ripe fruit you need along with a slightly zesty spiciness that adds excitement to the dish.
A teppanyaki meal is tailor-made for a structured red wine. You may start with a full-bodied white wine to pair with the grilled seafood and now popular pan-fried goose liver. But the main event of any teppanyaki meal is the well-marbled beef. Here we need a stylish red with plenty of tannins to cut through the fat while emphasizing the beefy flavors. Tannic reds from St Estephe in Bordeaux are ideal.
How about going local when you enjoy Japanese cuisine? You may be surprised to know that Japan produces its own wines. Legends claim that winemaking dates back to the early 8th century, but the earliest documented evidence of wine making and consumption is from the 16th century when Jesuit missionaries from Portugal brought wines and vines to the island. Though still very small in terms of scale and international recognition, there are some increasingly interesting Japanese wines.
The most acclaimed Japanese wines are made with the Konshu variety in Katsunama Prefecture in the foothills of Mount Fuji. The grape produces pale-colored pink or lavender colored wines with excellent acidity. The delicate and fresh qualities of Konshu wines make them naturals with many Japanese dishes. Konshu producers with good reputations include Katsunuma-Jozo Winery, Magrez-Aruga, Alps Wines, Kai Winery and Shizen.
But the Konshu variety isn't the only new star. The island of Hokkaido is also producing some exciting wines. In one of the most northern wine regions in the world, small wineries are making increasingly good Pinot Noir red wines. Can Hokkaido emulate Central Otago in New Zealand and make world-class Pinots? The challenges and benefits of making wines in these two extreme climates do offer some intriguing parallels.