East Meets Wine
The Secrets to Pairing Wine and Asian Cuisine
Quick: What's the best wine for Peking Duck?
Stephen Wong is trying to alleviate my confusion. We're dining together at Vancouver's Red Door Pan Asian Grill and I can't figure out whether to use chopsticks and a bowl or follow Wong's lead of fork, spoon and plate, his usual choice for Southeast Asian food. The thing is, half the dishes we've ordered are Chinese.
It's no wonder I'm flummoxed about what to do. Fusion has muddied the boundaries between all kinds of cuisines. Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Western restaurants now dabble in each other's favourite dishes, with sushi at the Chinese buffet, tandoori pizza at the diner and spring rolls at the sushi den. With that kind of cultural criss-cross, how can I ever sort out which wines to pair with Asian foods?
That's why I'm here with Wong, a food and beverage consultant, writer, cookbook author and food ambassador, poring over Red Door's extensive wine list. I've asked him to walk me through an Asian food and wine pairing.
China and Wine
I know: Asia's a big continent. So we arbitrarily put most of our focus on the Chinese aspect, where Wong, who was born in Hong Kong, has a lot of expertise. We're both aware that our wine-pairing enterprise would take a few depressing seconds at most Canadian Chinese restaurants, where there tends to be one cheap white (bonjour, M. Kressman) and one red. I have to ask. "Why don't Chinese restaurants care about wine?"
One reason, Wong says, is that in China, people don't really drink wine. What passes for wine there is liquor distilled from sorghum or rice. It's potent - not on the table to enhance food, but to enliven spirits. Imported wine is also prohibitively expensive in China, whereas the locally made stuff is not.
"They're beginning to drink more wine (in China), because it's seen to be healthy - even if they don't like it. Especially red wine," Wong says. "What's considered dry (by wine enthusiasts), to them is sour. And the tannic flavour, which is considered bitterness, is not something that they like. That's why you find Chinese people adding Coke to red wine, to make it palatable."
Another reason for the abbreviated Chinese restaurant wine-list is that Chinese restaurants are all about cash flow. "They don't have the money to tie up in wine."
Finding an Easy Wine Pairing
In addition, like other Asian cuisines, a Chinese meal consists of many disparate dishes chosen to balance with each other. Matching a wine to every dish of the four or five your party ordered would be expensive and complicated. And if the dishes all arrived at the same time, as is often the case at Canadian Chinese restaurants, you'd have five glasses of wine sitting in front of you.
"You want a wine that's an easy solution," says Wong.
The fact that the Chinese have never been big wine drinkers has not prevented them from getting into wine-making, Wong reports. Until a palatable Chinese product arrives at our local Double Happiness, however, we'll have to pair our chosen stir-fries with bottles from other countries.
At the Red Door, we sample a Calona Vineyards Peony Gewürtztraminer with chili-crusted calamari, Thai jungle curry (a spicy red), wok-fired beef and gailan, and Sichuan long beans.
Many think gewürtztraminer is ideal with spicier Asian foods, says Wong, but there are no hard and fast rules. "There's some flavour principles that apply, but those flavour principles are valid in any wine and food pairing exercise," he explains. "There's no real mystery to it."
Follow the Regular Wine Rules
He once asked a Chinese chef what were the essential ingredients of a Chinese meal. Many people would expect the response to include soy sauce, rice or ginger, but no, says Wong - "He said ‘salt and pepper.'" In other words, individual countries' cuisines are not as diverse as we might think. The rules for pairing a bottle with a French repast work equally well for a Thai, Japanese, Korean, Chinese or Indian dinner.
"Salty food brings out the fruit of a wine a bit more," Wong points out. "Against something like spicy food, something with a bit more acidity and lower in alcohol would generally be better."
A warning: umami, that special "fifth taste" that has made news in recent years, may make certain tannic red wines taste metallic. On the other hand, Wong notes, some gewürtztraminer is highly aromatic, so a spirited bite tones down its aromatics.
With the Thai curry, and its delicious snap peas, the Calona Peony helped cleanse the palate; it also worked with the Chinese chili calamari but "the wine kind of disappears," Wong observes. "To me, a wine that holds up to a pairing with a flavour profile and integrity is something that I look for."
Riesling is a Safe Bet
He prefers riesling with most Asian meals. He likes riesling's sweet and sour aspect; one reason it may work well with Chinese and Thai dishes is that those recipes usually contain sugar. The German riesling he has selected, Dr. Loosen, also refreshes between bites of spicy food, and stands up well to the garlic in all the dishes.
Whites aren't the only choice, though. The proprietor of a Calgary Chinese restaurant once assured me the only wine to drink with Peking duck was Mateus rosé, which just happened to be one of the few available at his place. It was a brilliant match.
Wong believes that red wine, too, is under-utilized when it comes to Asian foods. The fruit-forward qualities of a gamay or pinot noir can make a splendid marriage, he says. In fact, Fairview's Goats do Roam Red is superb with the Red Door's wok-fired beef with gailan.
People tend to "lump all Asian food together, all Chinese food together, and think of all of it as spicy," Wong says. Considering the difference between a delicate won ton soup and a smokin' lamb vindaloo, such generalizations are simplistic.
Pairing Wine with Indian Food
"With Indian food, wine is never going to be that perfect a match," says Vikram Vij, owner of Vancouver's Indian restaurants Vij's and Rangoli. It's the numerous spices and nuances in the average Indian dish that challenge its potable partner.
Vij says that until recently, wine was not drunk with food in India - unless you count the coconut- or date-based versions. Nowadays, though, restaurants there are starting to serve wine, and India is developing an industry of its own. Vij has brought in a couple of varieties from an Indian winery called Sula - a sauvignon blanc and a small supply of brut - to serve at his restaurants. He wouldn't include an Indian wine on his list just for the sake of authenticity, though.
"If it works well with the food and it's delicious, I'll put it on," Vij says.
One goal in choosing the wine for an Indian feast is to find something that does not accentuate the spices. Vij favours young bottles and, like Wong, appreciates rieslings. A B.C. riesling would be his choice to go with local mussels in coconut seafood curry. Reds that aren't too tannic, like a cabernet-shiraz blend, can also pair nicely.
Look for a Sweet, Low-Tannin Wine
"A cabernet franc is too peppery and spicy on its own" to mesh well with an Indian spread, Vij says. Wine should lift a dish's flavour, not make it feel heavy or complex.
The diversity of Asian food-wine pairings was celebrated at November's Cornucopia, the massive wine festival in Whistler. There, James Nevison, co-author of the book Have a Glass, led a panel on the topic, called Grapes in Heat. Participants included chef Romy Prasad, of Vancouver's Savory Coast Cucina, and Howard Soon, master winemaker at the Okanagan's Sandhill.
The audience sampled wontons and spicy beef ribs with many wines, among them Quails' Gate 2004 Reserve Riesling, Inniskillin Okanagan 2004 Discovery Series Viognier, Ironstone Vineyards 2004 Symphony Obsession, Jackson-Triggs 2003 Shiraz, Sandhill 2003 Cabernet Franc, Inniskillin 2003 Bear Cub Vineyard Zinfandel, and Burrowing Owl 2002 Barbera.
Soon warned against matching high alcohol wines with spicy foods because such bottles already have an innate "heat." The general rule, said Nevison, is to pair spicy foods with sweeter, low-tannin wines.
"Sometimes it's better to use wine to cleanse the palate than to match the food," said Prasad.
So there's no definitive answer to the question of what varietal to pair with your Asian meal. You're just going to have to work your way from gewürtztraminer to riesling to cabernet franc to Côtes du Rhone. Just know this: there's a wine out there that will kiss up to each of your favourite dishes. And doing the research is bound to be a treat.
Try this fabulous Pacific Rim Stuffed Salmon recipe.