Too hot to handle? Enjoying wines with Asian food
Britain’s favourite dish is often said to be Chicken Tikka Masala. There is no doubting our love of Asian food, particularly those cuisines from India, China and Thailand.
Unlike winemaking in Europe, Asia has never produced nor consumed in quantity, so a tradition of wine and food matching never arose there. Even now, home-grown Chinese and Indian winemaking is still in its infancy. Partnering wine with Asian food is harder than with western cuisine. Names, dishes and ingredients may be unfamiliar. And it is well known that ingredients 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 suggestions as to which styles of wine are likely to be most successful with Asian 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 ask how hot the dish is. The inclusion of cooling yoghurt, coconut, rice and various types of bread is also helpful.
Don’t waste money on expensive bottles either; it is inevitable that the spices will 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 a New World 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 Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris or Muscat are an excellent choice, say with vegetable curries or bhajis. A demi-sec Vouvray is a savvy selection that deserves to be more popular.
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.
As with Indian cuisine, Chinese food is made up of a whole range of regional cuisines, but in Britain probably the most familiar style eaten 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 present a challenge. Given that various Chinese dishes get served together, the wine chosen has to act as a good all-rounder.
Classic German white wines are a good idea. 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 food and will feel heavy. Their tannins clash badly with salty foods, especially those with MSG, creating bitter tastes. Instead, low-tannin fruity young reds are a better choice, especially if chilled. Beaujolais is the first choice or maybe 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. If you do, then a demi-sec Cava would be my selection or a sweeter Prosecco.
There are Chinese influences on Thai food but once again there are several different regional cuisines. Thai food uses herbs, coconut, and various pastes and fish sauces. Fish and shellfish are common ingredients, as are beef and pork. Flavours range from mild to eruptions from Krakatoa, so as with Indian food ask about the heat first.
Acidity is important with Thai food, but sweetness less so. A dry New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is an excellent choice, as are dry Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris from Alsace. 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, a 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. A Provençal rosé is good with shellfish.
Finally, it’s also useful to recall that Asian cuisine comes with plainer accompaniments designed to refresh the palate, such as rice, bread or noodles. These provide an interlude to enjoy wine. In a restaurant buying wine by the glass is a straightforward and low-cost way to experiment and reduces the risk of a dud match.
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 that are still being worked out. Your personal taste is always paramount; if a combination tastes good then it is good!
Why not let me know about Asian food and wine combinations that work for you?
Like this? Then try my article about Cheese and wine matching.