This is the fifth entry in our series on eels. Here we briefly consider two beverages that are thought to go well with Unagi no Kabayaki—nihon-shu and beer.
There are some rules,…or guidelines,…or, wait a minute,…perhaps the best word to use here is suggestions as to what drinks complement which foods. A common assumption is that red wine goes with any cheese. This is simply not the case. Goats’ cheese and a tannic Bordeaux, for instance, are guaranteed to elicit a grimace or two, whereas the same goats’ cheese may have its qualities highlighted by a Brut Champagne, with smiles all over. For more on this subject readers might want to consult the Academy of Cheese (https://academyofcheese.org/). Nevertheless, there is an element of subjectivity with respect to many food-and-drink pairings that makes the word suggestions preferable to the imperious rules.
We tasted three beverages with our Unagi no Kabayaki: dry nihon-shu from Yamagata Prefecture, a sweet nihon-shu from Aomori, and Kirin lager. The purpose was twofold: 1) to determine whether nihon-shu or beer is the better pairing and 2) to determine whether a dry or a sweet nihon-shu is more appropriate with the dish. Our informant in Shizuoka—Mr. Koji Ikuma—favors beer and makes a strong argument with respect to its carbonation counterbalancing the richness of the tare. He also believes that nihon-shu is appropriate and casts his vote with dry.
Choice of beverages: Our original intention was to pair the eel with at least one sake from Shizuoka. For various reasons, this could not be done easily, so we chose Karakuchi Junmai Kudoki Jozu (辛口純米 くどき上手) (16% ABV), a dry nihon-shu from Yamagata, which was recommended by the proprietor of our local sake shop. The other sake was a special junmai daiginjo (13% ABV) under the Mutsu Hassen (陸奥 八仙) label, which is available only at Hachinohe Shuzo in Aomori. It is unlabeled as to sweetness level, but we determined that it is sweet. The beer was Kirin’s Ichiban Shibori, First Pressing, (5% ABV).
Readers looking for a definitive answer here will be sorely disappointed. They all paired very well with the eel we consumed. As Mr. Ikuma has asserted, the carbonation was effective in tempering the influence of the tare. Hence, the beer was a good choice. The dry sake from Yamagata, Kudoki Jozu, was also a good pairing, but less so than the special-edition Mutsu Hassen. We suspect that this had less to do with the sweetness level than it had to do with the difference in alcohol content. Though the Yamagata sake is clearly labeled as “dry,” we found it to have quite a bit of sweetness. We believe that a factor to consider when pairing beverages with Unagi no Kabayaki is the strength and amount of tare.