Japanese Dishes for Wine Lovers

by Machiko Chiba and J.K. Whelehan

Published by Kodansha International

119 pages, 2005






Pairing Japanese

Reviewed by Adrian Marks


You settle in for a nice Japanese meal. Maybe start with Yakitori followed by a bowl of Chirashi sushi and some beautiful baked salmon. What to drink? Well tea, of course. Strong and green. And perhaps, if you're in the mood for imbibing, a glass of good Japanese beer or perhaps some saké -- served either hot or cold, depending on the brand and what's on the table.

What about a glass of wine? Not rice wine, but wine of the grape, as so often graces the European table. Wine with Japanese food? Never! It simply isn't done. Is it?

In Japanese Dishes for Wine Lovers renowned cookbook author and cooking teacher Machiko Chiba and wine writer and expert J.K. Whelehan examine something that should be obvious, but until now has not been: certain types of wine and Japanese food cooked with select ingredients can go together quite brilliantly.

Even without the wine component, Japanese Dishes for Wine Lovers would be a book worth remarking upon. It is elegantly designed, styled and photographed. The recipes are all either intelligently modernized versions of Japanese classics or new recipes, original to Chiba, that give full props to the culture that inspired and gave birth to them. In the introduction, Chiba explains:

In this book, I introduce a modern version of Japanese food -- dishes that are easily prepared and can be eaten on their own, as a kind of appetizer. I have avoided dishes that are hours in the preparation or require complicated processes or tools. I also tried to select low-calorie, healthy dishes.

Not westernized versions then, but modernized. The difference may be subtle, but it's vast and, ultimately, important.

Chiba weighs in, also, on the whole Japanese food and wine issue:

Japanese cooking lets the taste of each ingredient emerge. It is not overly spicy, overly sweet, or overly sour. For these reasons it is extremely well-suited to accompaniment by wine.

Wine expert and co-author Whelehan has a much more detailed and technical explanation of why Japanese food and wine go together in his introduction to Japanese Dishes for Wine Lovers, as well as some advice for making your own pairings, but I'll let you discover it on your own. Suffice it to say that Whelehan has done his homework and his footwork here and he explains himself very well, though not -- in no uncertain terms -- in shorthand.

Meanwhile, whether or not you are, in fact, a wine lover, if you love cooking and Japanese food, Japanese Dishes for Wine Lovers is a book you will most likely enjoy. The book is sensibly organized, beginning with vegetable dishes -- including a truly lovely Japanese Mushroom Terrine and a delightful Avocado Tofu Salad -- then moving to meat and poultry -- dishes mentioned here include Bite-Sized Marinated Beef, Miso Pork and the aforementioned Yakitori. The fish and seafood section is appropriately thick and includes recipes for Steamed Scallops, Lobster Dip and Oysters on the Half Shell with Japanese Dressing. The section on rice and noodles is surprisingly shallow -- though very good -- and is comprised mainly of sushi and related dishes.

Now back to the opening lines of this review and the foods mentioned. How would they be paired? With the chicken Yakitori, Whelehan recommends a Chianti or "if you wish to mix and match" a Beaujolais. With the Chirashi Sushi -- or in Chiba's modern parlance "Scattered Seafood Sushi" -- Whelehan advises respecting the various types of fish used in the Chirashi and making your decision from there, keeping in mind that since "sushi represents the fish in its purest form, look for wines that reflect the vine, not the vinivication process, so avoid wines that have been aged in oak." And what of the baked salmon? Here Whelehan suggests a Sauvignon Blanc Champagne. One might be tempted to add "arigato," and "bon appetite!" | September 2005


Adrian Marks is a January Magazine contributing editor.