Sake and Spice. I admit to doing a double take when I received the invitation. Sake, Japanese rice wine, at an Indian restaurant? Surely there was a mistake somewhere? But actually there wasn’t. The evening was the first in a series of Spice Dinners hosted at Moti Mahal in Covent Garden, which pair their food with a range of different beverages. The dinner series is the idea of Barry McCaughley, Head of Beverages at the restaurant and also at Soho’s Chotto Matte, who wanted to break away from the expected rich spicy wine and beer and see what other drinks might go well with his restaurant’s cuisine. Moti Mahal serves food from the Grand Trunk route, one of Asia’s oldest roads, and one that links the eastern and western regions of the Indian subcontinent. The route runs from West Bengal in India, on to Delhi and up through Punjab into Pakistan, and then through the Khyber Pass to Kabul, the heart of Afghanistan. It’s been an important trade route for almost two millennia, and many commodities have plied it, including the spices that are at the heart of Chef Anirudh Arora’s cooking.
Alcohol is notoriously difficult to pair with Indian food, but sake is, rather surprisingly perhaps, one of the best matches there is. Until recently sake has been seen as belonging exclusively to Japanese food, and a bit, to be honest, old hat. However, it is becoming increasingly common at non-Japanese London restaurants, Chiltern Firehouse for example offers a sake menu alongside its wine list; and if Bibendum (the company who supplied the sake for the evening’s event) have anything to do with it, it will soon be the drink of choice for the young and cool. The sakes were introduced by Natsuki Kikuya from the Musuem of Sake London, and included some which, until now, had never left Japan. They were served alongside five dishes, most from the restaurant’s normal menu, but some which had been created especially for the event.
On arrival we were offered a glass of a sparkling sake along with some rather addictive spicy cashew nuts. Sparkling sake is made using the same process as Champagne, except the yeast from the second fermentation is not disgorged; it is left in the sake to add texture and is responsible for its cloudy appearance. It was light, effervescent and fruity, the perfect aperitif.
Our first dish was karraree bhyein aur salad, crisp fried lotus stem and sprouted lentil salad, a dish created especially for the evening. Fried lotus stem is a traditional Indian street food, and paper-cones of the hot, salty, crunchy nibble are served alongside bottles of beer on the sub-continent. Ours were served with a simple salad of yellow tomatoes, cucumber and sprouted lentils, sprinkled with masala, and Fukukomachi Junmai Daiginjo from Kimura Brewery. Described to us as a classic sake, it was elegant with a good structure, aromas of liquorice, and flavours of honeydew melon. Sake has a much higher sugar content than wine, lower acidity, and a higher ratio of alcohol: this one was 16.5%. The spicy food bought out the fruity notes in the sake, and I could instantly see why Barry and his team had got excited by the pairing.
Next up was sagar rattan, lightly seared scallops, marinated in coriander and sour tamarind, sprinkled with sesame seeds and served on top of crushed lime and cumin peas; a regular and popular dish on the Moti Mahal menu. It was served with Atago no Sakura, Junmai Daiginjo, from Niizawa Brewery. The same high quality as the previous one, but with more lactic acid making it more mouth-filling and giving it texture. It was the only sake to be served in a classic pewter cup that kept it very chilled. Whereas we thought the previous combination had been to the benefit of the flavours in the sake, this time we felt the sake really made the spices in the food sing.
Our third course was barra peshwari, tandoor roasted lamb chops with kashmiri chillies, black lentil stew and mint and cumin paratha. It was served with a sake described as an ‘absolute thoroughbred’: Fukukomachi Daiginjo, made by the Kimura Brewery, and named the 2012 IWC Grand Prix Champion Sake. Premium sake is rated according to two variables: how milled the rice is, and whether any extra alcohol has been added. Milling takes away impurities on the outside of the grain which can affect the flavour. The rice for this sake was polished to 50%, a very high ratio, which gives it a very clean taste and was, with notes of Nashi pears and melons, the perfect accompaniment to the rich meat, buttery dhal and flaky paratha.
The next sake was the only one to be served warm, Kimoto Classic Junmai from Daishichi Brewery, and it was partnered with murgh biriyani, a portion of fennel scented baby chicken, cooked with aromatic basmati rice in a sealed pot, an okra curry and pomegranate raita. Sake has traditionally always been served warmed, a process that is meant to bring out the umani flavours in the drink, but this is at the expense of the gentler, more aromatic notes. The warm sake tasted more of rice than anything else, and had the same harsh burn to the back of the throat as a spirit. It was, I admit, my least favourite. The chicken biriyani however was wonderfully aromatic, the meat falling apart, and delicious when teamed with a helping of the creamy cooling raita and bold okra curry.
For dessert we were treated to aam shrikhand, a mango yoghurt pannacotta, with a peanut crush, served with a plum-infused sweet sake, Kimoto Umeshu from Daishichi Brewery. Both food and sake were stunning. The drink had a delicious slightly almondy taste, reminiscent of Amaretto, which sat perfectly with the cardamon infused cream and crunchy pistachio base of the dessert. I would happily drink this sake instead of a dessert wine any day, and I really love my dessert wine!
The evening was one of the most unusual, and best, pairing events I have been to. Barry and Natsuki were great hosts, explaining the sake and food before each course, but not bombarding us with so much information as to detract from the evening’s enjoyment. There is clearly a movement in the drinks industry at the moment to re-brand sake, to take away its image of being the preserve of old Japanese men, and introduce it to a younger, global audience. The trick, they have realised, is to serve it chilled, allowing the delicate aromas and flavours to come forward. I left the event really keen to try more sake, so in this case at least, they’ve done their job!
The next in the Spice Dinners series will be Champagne and Spice on the 15th July. You can find out more and book tickets on the Moti Mahal website. If it is anything like Sake and Spice it will be a fantastic evening!
If you would like to learn more about Sake, then this article on Vinspire is a great place to start! I sat next to Jo, one of the co-founders of the website, at this event.
I was invited to this event by PRCo. Opinions, as always, my own.