Everything you need to know about what to pair with Asian cuisine
Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, food editor and restaurant critic Peter Hum declared that wine and food pairing has “had its day.” “Surely,” Hum snarked, “when every food has been paired with every wine many times over, it’s time to give the thing a rest.”
So RIP wine and food pairing. Thanks for humouring me.
Admittedly, I tend to echo Hum’s sentiments. Don’t get me wrong; I think there are some truly specific — and truly fantastic — wine and food matches (goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis and oysters, Sauternes and foie gras, Port and stilton, Champagne and more Champagne, etc.). Some couplings complement each other like nuts complement bolts. Some offer surprising contrasts, with distinctly different flavour profiles melding together to dance a delicious taste tango. I agree with Hum, however, that things can get out of hand. Either matchings get precise to the point of near impossibility (freshly caught Niagara River rainbow trout must be poached in unoaked Chardonnay from the Niagara River VQA sub-appellation and served with same, with the age of the fish matching within a year of the vintage of the wine), or broad to the point of, well, what’s the point?
While “red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat and fish” is probably one of the oldest culinary rules of thumb, it still might be the most generally reliable. Try that rare grilled steak with a Muscadet or that oyster with some Barolo and you’ll easily understand the merits of “red with red; white with white.” It’s also true that, for the most part, local wines tend to pair with local foods (Crottin de Chavignol and Sancerre, for example). “What grows together, goes together.” (Another handy little saying.)
Where things get tricky is when you try to pair wines to foods coming from countries with no real history of wine production or that use ingredients not typically fused into the gastronomy of wine-producing countries or regions. Pairing wine with Asian cuisine presents one such challenge. The best advice in such a situation might be, “Don’t do it.” But I love a challenge.
While wine production in China dates back almost 5,000 years, most Asian countries have pretty much zilch in the way of a wine industry (snake wine being exempt as it stretches the boundaries of what we might call “table wine” a bit too far). And in case it needs to be emphasized again, sake is technically a beer, so it doesn’t count. It’s true that importing top-flight wines has become something of a big deal in China, but the jury’s still out as to whether these wines are being enjoyed with meals, displayed as status symbols or mixed with pop. In any case, the lack of an Asian “wine culture” isn’t the main reason matching wine with indigenous dishes is a tricky undertaking, but rather, the flavour components themselves.
When it comes to Asian dishes, beverage matching gets challenging simply due to the ingredients being used. Fermented sauces and pastes typically introduce high salinity. Then there’s the (occasionally lip-numbing) spice, and the sweet/sour yin-yang. Combined, they can create some palate histrionics that will send the flavour of almost any wine cowering.
With the possible exception of sushi and sashimi, which tend to be fairly delicate (assuming you haven’t doused it to the point where the dominant flavours come via the salt from soy sauce and sinus-clearing wasabi), most Asian dishes probably play the nicest with beer. But (I know, I know), you’re not big on beer. Fine. Let’s see what we can do.
First things first, as with any cuisine, “Asian food” is not a single dish, so there won’t be a single “go-to” wine (though there might be a go-to style — we’ll get to that). Chinese food itself includes Henan, which differs from Yunnan, which differs from Shanghainese, which differs from Taiwanese and so on. And authentic Chinese doesn’t include chicken balls dipped in a day-glo sweet sauce with the consistency of glue. Japanese, Thai, and Korean cuisine each present more options (and more sub regional variations).
So what will ultimately determine your wine choice will have a bit to do with the actual base ingredient, (e.g., meat or fish) and a lot to do with what that base is being gussied up with (those spices, fruits, fermented pastes, etc.). This isn’t a real radical departure from the usual. A simple grilled chicken breast is indeed white meat, which might prompt you to reach for a white wine. But serve it as Chicken Parmesan, with loads of tomato sauce and grated cheese and you’re likely reaching for vino rosso.
As well, different cooking techniques will open up (or limit, depending on how you look at it) your wine landscape. Wines that work with raw, steamed or poached dishes might not show as well with fried and fatty food. Are you ready for that beer yet?
A quick tour of the Internet (search: Asian+food+wine+helpmeoutwiththis) yielded predictable results, with a zillion sommeliers offering two zillion possibilities. I figured it was time to get a bit systematic, if not scientific, with things. If there were as many Asian wine and food possibilities as there was tea in China (sorry, that was a bit clunky), could I at least isolate some of the most popular Asian dishes and nail at least one popular wine (or wine style) to match, singularly and definitively, with each individual food item? Would one work pretty much with all the edibles?
As much as I was dying to find out, a few roadblocks stood in the way. First, finding authentic Asian cuisine would be a problem. Not so much because there wasn’t any to be had in Toronto, but mostly because I wouldn’t have much of a clue as to what dishes to order (my knowledge of Asian specialties beyond the basics being somewhat — read: completely — lacking). Second, even if I managed to find a resto serving the real deal, the chances of it having much of a wine list would be iffy at best (see my note re: Asian wine culture above). Maybe they’d be authorized for BYOB. Right. A lot of these places don’t even have liquor licenses. Smuggle my own in and hope I don’t get caught? Not out of the realm of the possible. How about just do take out/delivery? This would seem to be the most sensible route. I could pick my own wines and mix and match to my leisure. But nothing’s ever easy, is it?
The wines were no issue. I picked out four based on the Asian food elements I mentioned earlier.
With those criteria in mind, I chose a sparkling Vouvray (the always reliable Chenin Blanc-based Château Moncontour “Cuvée Prédilection” 2011 from the Loire Valley; palate-cleansing bubbles and a hint of sweetness); my “go to” house wine, Cono Sur Bicicleta Viognier 2014 from Chile (exotic and fragrant); a very popular German Riesling (I know, German and popular in the same sentence?), Schmitt Söhne’s Relax Riesling 2013, a Q.bA Mosel that’s light, low alcohol, and off-dry; and a token red, the Nobilo Icon Pinot Noir 2013 from Marlborough, New Zealand (mainly because of the meat dishes). So far, so good. But I still needed guidance when it came to the food to order. Luckily, help was on hand in the form of one of Quench’s contributors, Silvana Lau.
Chinese by descent, she knows her way around Asian cuisine and Toronto’s Asian food floggers. And she’s got pretty much a pro palate to boot. Having called one of the city’s better Thai joints the night before to confirm it delivered, a slight note of panic crept into her voice as we attempted to place an order we had spent a good 20 minutes assembling.
“But you told me yesterday that you did and it says you do on your website!” she countered when told delivery wasn’t an option (throwing me a WTF? look). “Try our second location,” was the helpful suggestion from the disembodied voice on the other end. “I did and I got a voice message about holiday hours — and this is February — can’t you guys just do a delivery?” Lau strained to interpret the Asian/Anglo banter being exchanged in the restaurant. “You will? Great! … What? … Over two hours? … You’re four blocks away! What? You can’t deliver tonight after all?” Bear in mind, this was a Wednesday, hardly a prime delivery demand day.
Long story short, we finally got delivery from another purveyor, a delivery that included: green papaya salad (Thai spicy), Tom Yum chicken soup, green coconut curry chicken (every time we tried to order seafood we were assured the chicken was the better choice; this did not assure us in any way) and Spicy Beef Noodles. We also nabbed a sushi/sashimi platter from a place a couple doors down (not exactly high-end exotic, but beggars, etc.). So, time to get busy. (As an amusing aside, the first place that wouldn’t/couldn’t deliver was suggested as a great Valentine’s Day Thai delivery option in the following day’s NOW magazine. This must have tested a few lovebirds’ patience, if not the strength of their relationship.)
Observations on the outcome: nothing really worked well with the sushi/sashimi. The bubbly offered indifference (but sort of at least cast a glance at the vegetable maki). The Riesling was too sweet. The Viognier kind of worked, but only to the extent that it didn’t clobber/get clobbered by the food. We had hopes for the tuna/Pinot Noir combo but the raw fish was too delicate. Tuna charred quickly on a grill might have been a good match but as good as the Pinot was, raw tuna was not its pal.
I’ve paired Sauvignon Blanc-based wines to sushi with some success (the herbal/citrus notes seem to mesh for whatever reason). Tonight’s combos, however, while not epic fails, did not inspire. On to the louder, more aggressive, Thai offerings.
The green papaya salad, with its incendiary spice level, not only obliterated the taste of each wine, but damn near cauterized my palate as well. The Riesling put up a fight but, in the end, it went down in flames. What did work well (no surprise here) was a mouthful of cold, hoppy, Total Domination IPA from Oregon’s Ninkasi Brewing Company. The combination of cold/bitter/bubbles and moderate alcohol zapped numbed taste buds back to life. In fact, the beer was the best match for everything … but back to wine.
The Viognier arm-wrestled the spicy/sweet Tom Yum soup into something akin to submission, with the Riesling doing so in a slightly lesser way. The same tag-team countered green coconut curry chicken respectably, but it was a match with not a lot of real excitement, just a kind of grudging agreement by each party not to kill each other.
Spicy beef noodles, on the other hand, killed all the wines dead. Again, the humble IPA took the dish on with easy grace.
Dejected, but not willing to quit, we sealed up the wines and, a couple days later, got out our chopsticks for Round Two: some traditional Korean and Chinese morsels. Thankfully, things gelled much better this time around, largely because the food in general was less spicy. There were still some sweet elements and the heat was there if you wanted it (by way of addition rather than being part of the dish itself), but overall the intensity level was more manageable than the Thai inferno.
Chinese roast pork belly showed well with pretty much every wine, the nod going to the Pinot (though the Riesling was a strong contender — especially when the sweet, sticky hoisin sauce was added to the mix). Succulent roast duck, with its fatty/crispy skin, also took a shine to the Pinot, with the Vouvray working nicely as well (the bubbles washed away the fattiness and cleansed the palate). A very pure and authentic shrimp wonton soup worked nicely the bubbly as well, though the moderate sweetness of the Riesling did an admirable job of cutting through the saltiness of the broth. Beef Lo Mein, a meat/noodle/broth take out staple (though authentic Chinese), also got along well with the Pinot.
Korean dishes including bibimbap (a traditional dish that includes rice, noodles, vegetables, a fried egg, beef, chili pepper paste, and soy sauce) and a kimchi seafood pancake (see Culture Club on page XX for more info on kimchi) also turned out to be surprisingly grape-friendly. The former dish’s mélange of flavours, textures and mild heat provided a perfect playground for the mildly earthy, sparkling Vouvray. The latter intermingled nicely with both the Pinot and the Viognier, with the tangy kimchi weaving exotic flavour tendrils around the fruit core and acidity of each wine (another one of those food “rules:” acidic foods and slightly acidic wines get along — the acids tend to soften, rather than build, on each other).
Verdict: Thai food’s best friend is cold, crisp, hoppy beer. In general, there’s too much heat and too much going on to work with most wines. Go delicate with Japanese sushi and sashimi — light, white and crisp. Chinese and Korean foods seem to be the most wine-friendly, with flavour combinations that are a bit less busy than Thai, and not as volcanic.
Wine and food pairing dead? Nah. It can be a lot of fun to experiment. It’s also a great excuse for exploring ingredients and food preparation techniques that might not normally pop up on your epicurean radar … and washing the results down with a good glass of grape (or three).