Too hot to handle? Enjoying wines with Asian food
Britain’s favourite dish is often said to be Chicken Tikka Masala. Hence there is no doubting our love of Asian food, particularly cuisines from India, China and Thailand.
Historically, Asia never produced nor consumed wine in quantity, so a wine and food cultural tradition never arose. Even now, home-grown Chinese and Indian winemaking is still in its infancy. As a result, partnering wine with Asian food is more challenging than Western cuisine. Names, dishes and ingredients may be unfamiliar. And components such as chilli, ginger and tamarind are not wine-friendly. Nonetheless, it is possible to enjoy wine with Asian food, especially when it majors on subtlety and complexity rather than sheer heat.
So here are some general suggestions as to which styles of wine are likely to be most successful with Asian cuisine from India, China and Thailand. Of course, drinking beer is rightly a good and popular option, but it doesn’t have to be the only one!
Asian food: Indian
Let’s write off the searingly hot stuff straight away. Dishes with testosterone-appeal like Vindaloo 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 a complex product of many cultures and regions, offering milder dishes that collaborate with wine, including tandoori and balti. Please don’t get too hung up on individual ingredients; instead, ask how hot it is overall. Those dishes incorporating cooling yoghurt, coconut, rice and various types of bread are also helpful.
Please don’t waste money on expensive bottles either; the spices will inevitably diminish subtle wines, while older wines may be too frail. Best avoid tannins and oak flavours too. Most rosé is too flimsy, while conversely, robust fortified wines like Port that can stand up to heat are too alcoholic for most people to drink through a meal. Fortunately, that still leaves a broad range of wines to try!
Fight fire with fruit; wines with plenty of fruit can afford to lose some when faced with spices.
Try an unoaked Chardonnay with mild and creamy coconut dishes or korma. A little sweetness is also a good weapon against heat, and that sweetness will diminish when it encounters chilli. Off-dry aromatic wines such as Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris or Muscat are excellent, say with vegetable curries or bhajis. Alternatively, demi-sec Vouvray is a savvy selection that deserves more popularity.
In red wine, young and fruity low-tannin wines are the best choice. Southern Italian reds, such as Primitivo and Negroamaro, can deal with meat dishes, while South Africans swear by Pinotage.
Asian food: Chinese
As with Indian cuisine, Chinese food comprises a whole range of regional cuisines, but the most familiar style eaten in Britain is Cantonese. The emphasis is on textures and savoury sauces rather than combining spices. Vegetables, mushrooms, pork, duck and chicken are all essential ingredients. Dishes are usually milder than in India, but those classic sweet and sour elements are challenging. Given that various Chinese dishes are often served together, the wine chosen must act as a good all-rounder.
Classic German white wines are a good idea. For example, an off-dry German Riesling has acidity plus 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 food and feel heavy. In addition, their tannins clash badly with salty foods, especially MSG, creating bitter tastes. So instead, low-tannin fruity young reds are a better choice, especially if chilled. Beaujolais is the first choice, or Valpolicella or Cabernet Franc from the Loire. Red wine that breaks this rule is Amarone, the heady dried-grape red wine from Italy that works surprisingly well because of its smooth texture and sheer power.
A good compromise is to drink rosé – a heavier off-dry style is the best bet.
You might like to try a well-chilled bottle of fizz with Chinese food. A demi-sec Cava or a sweeter Prosecco would be good if you do.
Asian food: Thai
There are Chinese influences on Thai food, and again there are several different regional cuisines. Thai food uses herbs and coconut, plus various pastes and fish sauces. Fish and shellfish are common, as are beef and pork. Flavours range from mild to eruptive, so as with Indian food, ask about the heat first.
Wine acidity is essential for Thai food, but wine sweetness is less important. A dry New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is an excellent choice, as are dry Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris from Alsace. If you stick with mild coconut or peanut dishes, try a buttery Chardonnay or aromatic Viognier. As for fizz, try a well-chilled Prosecco.
Red wines are again harder to match; the tannins 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. Provençal rosé is great with shellfish.
It’s also helpful to recall that Asian cuisine is often accompanied by plainer accompaniments designed to refresh the palate, such as rice, bread or noodles. These provide an interlude for enjoying wine. Buying wine by the glass in a restaurant is a straightforward and low-cost way to experiment and reduces the risk of a dud match.
Perhaps some of these suggestions might mean putting some of your usual wine or food preferences on hold. But of course, there are no rules, only ideas – and matching wine with Asian food is a fairly recent phenomenon that’s still evolving. Personal taste is always paramount; if a combination tastes good, it is good!
Of course, there’s more to Asian cuisine than these three countries – Korean, Indonesian, Malay, and Japanese cooking are increasingly popular in the UK – so maybe they’ll feature in a future article.
Why not tell me about Asian food and wine combinations that work for you?
Like this? Then try this article about Cheese and wine matching.