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Posts Tagged ‘flavor components’

In my Sushi and Wine Part 1 post, I did a survey of the existing help a person may find browsing the internet on pairing wine with sushi.  The results were not good.  It turned out that given the number of conflicting views that existed, people should just give up and drink sake (or a gin martini!) instead of attempting to drink wine with their sushi.  While disheartening for wine lovers who also eat sushi, I would not be deterred.  Sushi, after all is just food and there is a science behind how wine interacts with food.  Let’s break it down!

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Basic food components of (Americanized) sushi: raw fish (tuna, salmon, snapper, etc.), rice prepared with rice vinegar and sugar, soy sauce, pickled ginger and wasabi (although a lot of times it’s just a colored horseradish and mustard mixture).

Additional food components in rolls: carrots, cucumbers, mango, sprouts, mayonnaise (sometimes “spicy”), cream cheese, crab (fake or not), nori (the seaweed wrap) and tempura (batter of mostly wheat flour that things can be fried in).

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is pretty comprehensive if you consider the vast majority of sushi consumed here in America.  One thing to notice here is that even though sushi and wine pairing is kind of an unsettled thing, the taste components of sushi don’t differ from any other foods.  You still perceive the primary tastes* sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness and umami from sushi, just as you would any other meal.  Theoretically then, sushi shouldn’t be treated any differently than if you were considering a wine for another type of meal.  So where is the disconnect?  Does the dunking of the sushi into a vat of soy sauce (umami and saltiness) really “kill” a wine.

In researching how sushi and wine can interact with each other, I decided I needed to know a little bit more about the science of taste.  The journey ended up leading me to the one and only, Tim Hanni, MW.  Tim is known, amongst other things, for two firsts: Being one of the first two resident Americans to receive a Master of Wine title and for being the first to introduce the flavor component, umami into the wine and food community lexicon.  The latter has given him the tongue-in-cheek (almost literally) title as The Swami of Umami.  Visit his website through the link for a whole host of interesting materials.

“There are actual differences in how people experience some sensations. It’s not that one person has a better or worse palate than another.”  Tim stated, referring to the idea in the wine world that one has to “mature” their palate to truly appreciate the best wine and food pairings.  In his teachings, we all fall somewhere on a scale of how sensitive a taster we are.  The highly sensitive tasters can notice interactions to a high degree while a more tolerant taster might not even notice it at all.  An example he gives is experiencing a wine with a high alcohol level.  A more sensitive taster will experience almost a burning sensation which can be heightened if paired with a sweet or umami-laden food.  The tolerant taster, on the other hand could find the sensation to be almost sweet instead of a burn and not mind the food/wine combination at all.

More specifically, about sushi, I asked him about the claim that soy sauce “kills” wine.  “I hate that. Most people don’t actually pay attention to what is happening in their mouth and the ones who should (writers, bloggers, “experts”) often pay the least attention – they write about wine and food interactions that they have never taken the time to isolate and experience. Do you have a bottle of red open yet today?”  I didn’t.  I’d just gotten done with a 3-hour bike ride and was still in full gear, sans helmet.  “Ok, well I have this bottle of red here that I’ve been working on today and…it’s ok, it’s not that good.”  Tim is very much a hands-on kind of educator. “And I have a little bit of this soy sauce…then the wine…and this wine actually tastes better with the soy sauce.”  So no, wine isn’t “killed” by soy sauce.  What does happen, is that the perception of tannin in the red wine noticeably diminishes due to the salt in the soy sauce.  Therefore, someone expecting the astringency (and also considering the presence of those tannins the mark of what the wine should taste like in the case of many wine professionals) might consider it a bad pairing while someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy that sort of cottony-feeling in their mouth might consider it a good pairing.  Tim, had just answered the question as to why there was no consensus in the on-line world as to what wines were good with sushi and what wines were not.  It’s all about perception.

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Therefore, pairing wine and sushi (or to any dish really) is not so much about finding the perfect wine that everyone agrees on, but discussing the sensations that are possible and letting someone figure out which ones they like. The experience of flavor matching, on the other hand; the concept of hooking up a similar aroma or flavor from a wine to one that is found in the food, will probably be consistent across the board, but one would need to decide if they want to up-play or down-play that flavor.

Now for the theoretical part.  Through my research so far, I’ve come up with 4 interactions that generally make up and affect the wine and sushi experience.  Just 4, you say? Yes! Just 4!  These 4 guidelines will assist people in choosing the wine and sushi pairings that work for them.  If you’d like, you can play around with these interactions as you eagerly await the exciting conclusion of my sushi and wine research.  Part 3 will involve experiments, charts, more science and as promised, a guide to show you what to order at your favorite sushi restaurant based on what kind of experience you want to have.

The 4:

  • When a flavor component of the food is similar to that in the wine, the experience of that flavor is enhanced.  This is called flavor matching.
  • The perception of alcohol will increase when paired with sweet, umami-tasting or spicy foods.
  • The perception of spiciness will decrease when paired to a wine with more acidity.
  • Tannins will noticeably diminish when they encounter salt (soy sauce), citric acid (lemon juice) or vinegar (pickled ginger).

*More and more research is showing that taste takes on a hierarchical form with the primary tastes on top and their variations underneath.  At least 5 different types of bitterness have already been sussed out and there is little doubt that more will be found including sub-types to those sub-types and perhaps more tastes than the 5 general tastes already labeled!

Read on to the exciting finale: Sushi and Wine Part 3!

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