In our monthly column, “Cider Loves Food,” contributor Meredith Collins (blogger extraordinaire at Along Came a Cider) is looking at different cuisines and finding the perfect ciders to help take your meals to the next level.
When I don’t feel like cooking, one of my go-to dinner solutions is sushi and Japanese food. This cuisine makes for some great cider pairing, because the levels of intensity are easy to match between different ingredients and different ciders. And, as always, cider’s acidity serves as a brilliant driver for food flavors.
I love Japanese food, but I’m no expert. My expertise is cider, and I’d like to think I have something to offer in terms of pairing principles as well. But for this topic, I wanted to consult someone more familiar with Japanese food. Of course, my first thought was Lee Reeve, the brain behind InCider Japan, Japan’s only bilingual cider magazine.
When I asked Reeve about pairing cider with Japanese food, here’s what he had to say:
“What’s exciting about pairing ciders with Japanese food is much of the cuisine here is regional, so there’s always something new to find and try. Recently, I discovered a local pickled dish that pairs amazingly with dry ciders. Also, wasabi-complimented vegetables go great with other ciders. What I try to look for are very simple dishes or foods that might seem unimpressive, and then bring them to everyone’s attention with cider. Conversely, most Japanese ciders tend to be extremely dry with little apple character, so I also look for Japanese ingredients that complement or contrast with heavier apple-body ciders.”
Reeve is also extremely active spreading the word about cider through events and social media. You can find him on Instagram as @inciderjapan.
Here are a few of my own recommendations, based on some of my favorite Japanese dishes to either order at restaurants or make at home.
For anyone who has wondered about the brilliant green pods served as appetizers at many Japanese restaurants, they are edamame: young soybeans either boiled in salt water or steamed and then salted at the table. People shell them and eat them immediately, an interactive communal starter that makes for excellent conversational accompaniment. Edamame flavor is green, grassy, herbal and mild. In terms of cider, this makes edamame very flexible to pair.
I love pairing edamame with a semi-dry hopped cider. Doc’s Dry Hopped Hard Cider makes a particularly good choice, because it’s so balanced and approachable. Though the name mentions dryness, the cider is more like a friendly semi-dry. I also think Ploughman Cider’s Lummox from Pennsylvania tastes great with Edamame. This Citra-hopped cider flaunts nice herbal, grassy and piney notes.
My favorite dish in all of Japanese food is okonomiyaki. This cabbage pancake is fried, salty, crispy and often topped with both Japanese mayonnaise and barbecue sauce. What you taste in Japanese mayo (sometimes called Kewpie mayo) is different from what’s in the American grocery store tubs. It uses rice vinegar, more egg yolks, and a few spices. It’s the most exquisite casual street food imaginable! The flavors are strong and complex, so the pairing needs to be bold, as well.
With my okonomiyaki, I prefer a semi-dry cider, sometimes even one fermented or blended with other fruit — this dish can handle it. I had ÆppelTreow’s Bunting Berry Cider this summer, and it’s perfect for this pairing! Another excellent choice is 2 Towns Ciderhouse Made Marion with marionberries. Both of these ciders have some sweetness but lots of acidity from not just apples, but also the berries that they are blended with.
Staying in the realm of delicious fried snacks, cider goes awesomely well with takoyaki, little dough balls stuffed with meat or seafood, often octopus. I prefer mine with no octopus, but instead, with smoked salmon and ginger or sweet corn and tofu (these are just a few of the ways my talented friend Danielle makes takoyaki). There are dozens of ways to make it, what’s important is using the specially-shaped cast-iron grill pan that makes takoyaki just the right size.
For the right cider, bring extra-bubbly, dry ciders to pair with this airy, rich concoction. I prefer something with a little farm and funk for this particular pairing, as well. I love the Farnum Hill Farmhouse Cider. To most palates this tannic bubbly cider will be perceived as though it’s on the dry side. It has richness, sparkle and structure — everything that’s necessary to pair with a savory treat like takoyaki. Another great pairing is Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse’s dry and bubbly Wild English. This cider has enough body and presence to balance, but never overpower, this super-fun snack.
Sushi is not just one dish, but many. I’ll describe three primary styles of sushi here that all can present a wide variety of different ingredients. Cider can work with any of the three, but the balance of textures and flavors will be very different, based on the different uses of rice and seaweed, as well as the primary ingredient.
Maki is my favorite kind of sushi. I like simple rolls with one or two ingredients, rolled in sushi rice and wrapped in seaweed. Maki works really well with a semi-dry rosé cider like Kite and String’s Rosé, with it’s blend of Cab Franc grapes and apples, or Eden’s Specialty Cider’s Imperial 11° Rosé cider. Both of these ciders are powerfully tart while still being fruit-forward and approachable.
Nigiri is fish, seafood, egg, or vegetables layered on top of sushi rice. If the nigiri uses a bolder fish, or highlights earthier flavors, it’s time to go heavier in terms of the pairing cider. The same can be said for sashimi, which is simply the thin slices of seafood or meat without any rice.
This is when I’d choose a lightly sparkling cider, with either some tannic presence or barrel aging (or both). Dunkertons’ Black Fox Organic Cider makes a fine choice, as does Tilted Shed’s Barred Rock. These two ciders are very different from one another, but I recommend you put the Dunkertons with yellowtail and the Tilted Shed with freshwater eel.
Dumplings can be as varied as sushi, including potstickers and gyoza. They can be served in broth, steamed, or fried, and the fillings can include minced vegetables, kimchi, shrimp, or meat. My mouth is watering just thinking about the delicious dumplings I’ve had with mushrooms, cabbage and crumbled tofu!
These are strong flavors that require similarly powerful ciders. My first recommendation is the rich and tannic Understood in Motion 03 created by Angry Orchard Cider’s Ryan Burk and Tom Oliver of Oliver’s Cider and Perry. It’s silky and structured, perfect for pairing with fried dumplings. If you prefer your dumplings a touch healthier — either steamed or in broth — I think choosing a fruity yet dry cider is key. Virtue Cider’s Heritage Harvest Blend is zingy and crisp, with notes of stone fruit and green apple, something to contrast hearty, soft dumplings.
There are so many options; just think of these ideas as a place to start! Here’s one last word of advice I got from Lee about his pairing process to help you. Lee says, “With any Japanese ingredient or food or dish, I first taste and try to understand what qualities make it interesting. Then I think whether I want to integrate or counter those qualities with cider.”
That makes all the sense in the world, and it makes a great reason to seek out both new Japanese dishes and new ciders. I’ll happily raise my glass to that!
- Photos: Dish Works