Paul Howard looks at wines for spicy foods…
These days, Britain’s favourite dish is often said to be Chicken Tikka Masala, and there is no doubting our love of the ethnic cuisines of Asia, particularly those from India, China and Thailand.
Unlike in Europe, wine made from grapes was neither produced nor consumed in quantity in Asia, so there is no clearly established tradition of wine and food matching. Partnering wine with Far Eastern food is more difficult than with western cuisine – names, dishes and ingredients may be unfamiliar and it is well known that key ingredients such as chilli, ginger and tamarind are not wine-friendly. Nonetheless, it is possible to enjoy wine with Asian food, particularly where it majors on subtlety and complexity rather than sheer heat.
So here are some guidelines and suggestions as to which styles of wine are likely to be most successful with Indian, Chinese and Thai food. Drinking beer is rightly a good and popular option – but it doesn’t have to be the only one!
Let’s write off the searingly hot stuff straight away. Dishes with testosterone-appeal like vindaloo verge on the lethal and numb the taste buds so don’t waste money on wine with those. Lager (preferably Indian) or lassi will serve you best if you like searing heat. However, Indian cuisine is the product of many cultures and regions, offering milder dishes that do collaborate with wine, including tandoori and balti. Don’t get too hung up on individual ingredients, just know how hot the dish is. The inclusion of cooling yoghurt, coconut, rice and various breads is also helpful.
Don’t waste money on expensive bottles; it is inevitable that the subtle nuances of complex wines will be diminished and older wines are just too frail. Tannins and oak flavours are best avoided too. Most rosé is too flimsy while conversely, robust fortified wines like port are too alcoholic for most people to drink through a meal. Fortunately, that still leaves a wide range of wines to try!
Fight fire with fruit; wines with plenty of fruit can afford to lose some when faced with spices. Try a New World unoaked chardonnay with mild and creamy coconut dishes or korma. A little sweetness is also a good weapon against heat and sweetness will diminish when it encounters chilli. Off-dry aromatic wines such as Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris or Muscat are a very good choice, say with vegetable curries or bhaji’s. A demi-sec Vouvray is another savvy selection. In red wine, young and fruity low-tannin wines are much the best choice. Southern Italians such as Primitivo and Negroamaro can deal with meat dishes while South Africans swear by Pinotage. Drinking fizz with curry has its advocates too – Omar Khayyam sparkling wine is the authentic choice as it’s made in India near Mumbai.
As with Indian cuisine, Chinese is comprised of a whole range of regional cuisines, but in Britain probably the most common style eaten is Cantonese. The emphasis is on textures and savoury sauces rather than combining spices. Vegetables, mushrooms, pork, duck and chicken are all important ingredients. Dishes are usually milder than in India but those classic sweet and sour elements present a challenge. Given that various Chinese dishes are frequently served together, a wine that can act as a good all-rounder is ideal.
This is where classic German white wines are ideal. An off-dry German Riesling has both acidity and a delicate sweetness that is delightful with stir-fries and can handle sweet and sour. They also go well with pork dishes and crispy Peking duck pancakes. Aromatic grape varieties from Alsace such as Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris pair well with saltier or soy-sauced dishes such as spare ribs!
Most reds usually do not fare well with Chinese and will feel heavy. Their tannins clash badly with salty foods, creating bitter tastes. So choose low-tannin fruity young reds and ask for them to be chilled. Beaujolais is first choice, or a young Pinot Noir from the New World or Cabernet Franc from the Loire. A good compromise is to drink rosé – a heavier off-dry style offers the best potential.
You might like to try a well chilled bottle of fizz with Chinese food. If you do then a demi-sec Cava would be my selection.
There are Chinese influences on Thai food but there are several different regional cuisines. Thai food employs herbs, coconut, and various pastes and fish sauces (nam pla). Fish and shellfish are common ingredients, as are beef and pork. Flavours range from the mild to the krakatoan, so as with Indian food check the overall impression of heat first.
Acidity is important, but sweetness less so. When in doubt, a dry New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a good choice, as are dry Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris from Alsace or New Zealand. There is even a role for a buttery Chardonnay or aromatic Viognier if you stick with mild coconut or peanut dishes. As for fizz, I’d choose a well-chilled Prosecco.
Red wines are again harder to match; the tannins and will actively clash with many ingredients and taste bitter. Mild beef dishes present the best opportunity to drink reds – try a simple young red such as a Dolcetto or Valpolicella. As with Chinese food, rosé can be a good compromise, but with Thai choose a dry version – you’ll get red fruit flavours with refreshing acidity and no awkward tannins.
Finally, it’s also useful to recall that Asian cuisine comes with plain accompaniments designed to refresh the palate, such as rice, breads or noodles. These provide an interlude where wine can be enjoyed. In a restaurant buy wine by the glass, as this is a simple and low-cost way to experiment and reduce the risk of a dud match.
Do try some of these suggestions even where that might mean putting some of your usual wine or food choices on hold. But of course there are no rules, only guidelines that are still being worked out. Your personal taste is always paramount; if a combination tastes good then it is good!
I’ve chosen the following five wines specifically to match with Asian food. All are good quality wines in their own right that show typical varietal character and should be drunk now while at their most fruity and vibrant. They are also inexpensive enough for affordable experimentation – so why not give ‘em a try!
Paul Howard is the publisher of Wine Alchemy (www.winealchemy.com)