Sakana is a thing with which people enjoy having alcoholic beverages; yet, it is not necessarily a food item. It is also referred to as "shuko," or "ate" (since sakana accompanies, or "ategau" in Japanese, alcoholic beverages).
The word sakana (肴) originated from 'saka-na' (酒菜).
In Japanese, dishes were called 'na,' and the word na was represented by the kanji characters, '菜,' '魚,'or '肴.'
The word sakana, thus, meant 'na (dishes)' for saka, or sake (alcoholic drinks). In other words, sakana can be seafood or vegetables as long as it goes well with alcoholic beverages. Furthermore, people sometimes enjoy having alcoholic beverages with non-food sakana such as 'complaints about superiors,' 'the talk of the neighborhood,' topics about sports (baseball, soccer, etc.), and objects for viewing (art work or flowers, for example, cherry blossoms); this use of the word sakana for non-food items is acceptable. The kanji character '魚' (fish) came to be pronounced as 'sakana' because fish (mostly dried fish) was particularly preferred for dishes for alcoholic drinks (see the article on fish).
Drinking alcoholic beverages has been regarded as a recreational part of life and has been widely enjoyed by ordinary people since the old times thanks to their relatively easy production methods. When they consume alcohol (ethanol), people become intoxicated due to its sedative effect, get relieved from stress which has restrained them, and stop refraining from various pleasures. The enjoyment offered in such occasions is generally called sakana. Accordingly, the phrase uttered by heavy drinkers called nonbei, "alcohol itself is sakana for alcohol," is not necessarily incorrect, and in fact, it clearly shows their dependence on alcohol. In many parts of the world, history shows that enjoyment of drinking along with usual enjoyments such as going to plays and comic stories has helped food culture develop while food culture has helped enjoyments grow.
Even a heavy drinker, however, finds it difficult to keep on drinking alcohol only, whether it be beer, sake (Japanese rice wine), or whiskey. Furthermore, there are cases where enjoying alcoholic drinks with certain dishes will have a "one plus one equals three or four" effect since drinks and sakana complement each other. For example, having wine and cheese in turn may deepen the flavor of each much more than having only either one of them. In France, a good combination of certain wines and cheeses (as well as other food items) is called 'mariage' (marriage) and is covered to a great extent.
Compared with having only alcohol, drinking with food slows down alcohol absorption, which saves a drinker from feeling sick and having a hangover. An alcoholic beverage (alcohol) is biochemically a source of calories but can not be a nutritionally beneficial 'meal;' thus, it is deemed clinically appropriate to drink alcoholic beverages with sakana which is categorized as a food item in order to compensate for the lack of nutrients in alcoholic beverages.
Requirements for sakana
Any food can be sakana for drinkers as long as it has a salty taste to some degree.
In rakugo (traditional comic storytelling) called 'su-dofu' (vinegar tofu), there is a scene in which people with too much free time gather for a drink and think about what kind of sakana to eat, saying, 'Sakana should be something inexpensive and abundant that everybody likes. It should be something pleasant to see that doesn't make one full. Furthermore, it should be healthy.'
This 'something that doesn't make one full' is one of the requirements for sakana. Sakana is always a thing that accompanies drinks; that is to say, drinks are the main focus while sakana is supplementary. Thus, the dishes served in a full course French meal are not called 'sakana' even if one drinks wine. This means that heavy foods or staple foods such as steamed rice, bread and noodles are unfit for sakana. The foods left after steamed rice and noodles each removed from rice bowl dishes and noodle dishes with toppings, however, can be perfect sakana. An example for the former is 'gyu-sara' (literally, beef plate) in a beef bowl restaurant while one for the latter is 'nuki' (literally, removal) in a soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurant.
For sake, it is often the case that steamed rice goes well with foods that goes with sake while sake goes well with ones that go with steamed rice, probably because sake and steamed rice are both rice products.
Typical sakana for sake
Fixed sakana is often stereotypically arranged with a specific drink as seen in the examples of sausage for beer or raw oysters for Chablis (dry white wine), and in what follows, sakana specific to sake will be discussed.
When sake is served in a masu (wooden box cup originally used to measure rice), one drinks sake and licks salt placed on one corner of the masu in turn. Because alcohol causes one to drink more water and thus urinate, he/she may lack salt content in the body; as a result, one may feel that salt tastes good when drinking sake.
In addition, salt increases sugar absorption and causes one to be more sensitive to sweetness; salt has been empirically used to increase sweetness as shown in the names of cocktails with the word 'salty.'
Salt is sometimes served as 'sakana' for tequila as well.
Name-miso (miso mixed with ingredients)
Miso itself, cooked miso, and miso mixed with additional ingredients (for example, kinzanji miso, or miso made from soybeans, barley and vegetables) are sakana for sake. Some name-miso is served after being broiled with green onion, dried bonito, ginger, Japanese butterbur or buckwheat seeds.
See individual articles for details about other dishes, delicacies, and tidbits called 'kawakimono' (literally, dry food).