Going with the grain

Beverage report
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The jury's still out on the question of what to drink with Asian food; wine, beer and sake each laying strong and conflicting claims. Agnostics like me will drink whatever someone hands them, but still we wonder: is this the best we can do?

With Japanese food it's easy to decide: sake is the perfect accompaniment to those delicate flavours. But sakes are not created equal. If you want to get serious about the stuff, you need a Japanese retailer. That eliminates most people living outside London, but the capital's sake cup truly runneth over. Londoners have access to the Yaohan Plaza shopping centre (399 Edgware Road, NW9, 0181 200 0009) and Lau Chee Leong's Rice Wine Com-pany (82 Brewer Street, W1, 0171 439 3705). Mr Lau, a Malay Chin-ese who spent five years learning the business in Japan, sells 120 brands.

Japanese sake can be staggeringly expensive, thanks to rice-price-support systems that make Santa Claus look like Scrooge. Some breweries have set up in California, where rice is cheaper, to beat those costs. Their products can never match the best Japanese sake - the rice is different - but they offer VFM.

Wherever they're made, sakes are classifed as ginjo (premium) or dai ginjo (extra premium), according to the rice used in brewing. Polished rice produces better quality, and it must make up at least 40 per cent of a dai ginjo sake. There are also three different styles: dry, medium- dry and sweet. Medium-dry is best for food: in Japan, the sweet stuff serves as a winter warmer for all-night vigils at New Year.

At the cheap end, Mr Lau recommends Sho Chiku Bai, a Califor-nian ginjo costing pounds 3.50 for 375ml or pounds 12.50 for 1.5 litres. Higher up he suggests the Japanese Junmai Ginjo, pounds 39 for 1.8 litres. At the top of the range lies Sasaiwai Dai Ginjo, which he considers to be the greatest in the world. This comes from a small brewery in Niigata prefecture, source of all the best sake, and the cost is (gulp) pounds 120 for 1.8 litres.

Whichever you buy, don't serve it too hot; blood temperature is ideal as overheating kills flavour. Indeed, only lesser sakes need heating. Mr Lau says "table sake" in Japanese restaurants has to be heated or it won't taste of much at all. Dai ginjo should be drunk chilled.

Incidentally, in materials and manufacture sake is closer to beer than to wine. But the term "rice beer" doesn't have the same ring to it, and anyway, sake's average strength (around 16 degrees alcohol) places it in the fortified-wine league.

There are alternatives to sake - Kirin and Sapporo lagers have the right delicate touch, and at some restaurants Japanese businessmen drink Scotch. This may be a status game, but it's not as loopy as it sounds. Thais accompany food with rice-based Mekong spirit, heavily diluted. It's a perfect partner, and is sold by Thai food shops here at prices that reflect the air miles.

For oenophiles, the received wisdom demands Gewurztraminer or another spicy Alsace wine for Asian cuisines. There's a lot to that idea, but remember that strong flavours will kill a top-notch Alsace. Sadly this rules out one of the best wines I've tasted recently, Gewurztraminer Kaefferkopt, Domaine Meyer-Fonne 1995. You'll find it at Lay & Wheeler (01206 764446) for pounds 13.95. A basic Gewurz from a good co-operative such as Turck-heim (about pounds 6) is the better bet.

Other wines to consider include (surprisingly) a Muscadet sur lie; check out Asda's Domaine des Tuileries 1995 (pounds 4.49). Lower-echelon German Rieslings are good and I'm crazy about Waitrose's Riesling Spatlese Longuicher Probstberg 1988 (pounds 4.45). When I cook Chinese, I often open one of my house whites, Majestic's Dom-ain le Puts 1995. This fruity Cotes de Gascogne is on special offer (pounds 3.19) until tomorrow.

Among non-alcoholic alternatives there's tea. And better still, in my view, is plain water. It quenches thirst, cleanses palates, and lets those wonderful flavours speak for themselves. What's more, it won't cost penny if you get it from a tap.