-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-
Fortunately, what happens between food and wine is not haphazard. Certain elements of food react in predictable ways with certain elements of wine, giving us a fighting chance at making successful matches. With Asian food though,
wine is not a traditional match but it is not an impossible one. What it takes is a little more imagination.
Asian style cooking, after all, is classic and traditional in its own right, in a different way from European cuisines. There are differences in ingredients and cooking style and in the sense of balance and harmony. Whereas, say, classic Italian cooking relies on a certain purity and freshness of ingredients, and French cooking on depth of flavour in sauces and natural stocks, in Asia the emphasis is on the constant balancing and contrasting of tastes and textures.
Take for instance Thai beef salad where each bite brings a dozen different tastes, and one needs to pause between mouthfuls to fully enjoy its taste. Green Papaya, cucumber, seeded chilli julienne, mint, coriander and onion is just the start of individual tastes of extreme complexity. Add acid, cooling coldness, heat, mild bitterness, light refreshment, and then the sauce that is chilli hot, pungent with black vinegar, tempered with the sweetness of palm sugar and mutated with the saltiness of soy. About 50 more things to consider than with most European food, and that is before one even starts to consider the textural differences, of crunch, soft, slimy and more.
The basic (Southeast Asian) palate is hot, sour, salty, sweet, and sometimes bitter. If you order a green papaya salad from a street vendor in Bangkok, the last thing the vendor will do before serving the salad is to give you a small spoonful of the salad, asking for your opinion. If you’d like it hotter, more chillies will be added; if you want it saltier, more fish sauce; more sour, lime juice will be added; sweeter, more palm sugar… And while this balancing act takes place in an individual dish like a green papaya salad, it also shapes a meal, determining what dishes should be served alongside others.
The strong and authentic flavours of say Sri Lankan, Indian, Thai and Malaysian food are quite a contrast from China, where the diversity of flavours ranges from incredibly delicate dishes of the coastal regions where fresh seafood abounds, to uncomplicated almost bland flavours of everyday Chinese cooking. Then you have the court cooking of Peking and the exotic and sophisticated nuances of the Cantonese kitchen, to the incredible pungent flavours and chilli heat of the Sechuan region.
It is a total myth, however, that spicy Asian influenced styles of cooking – such as Sri Lankan and Thai food are not compatible with wine. The fact is that sweet, sour, spicy Asian influenced food goes wonderfully with light, fragrant, off-dry or even dry Rieslings from Germany, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and places as far flung as South Africa and the Finger Lakes of New York. It also goes great with Gewurztraminer, Spanish Albariño, Grüner Veltliner from Austria, and often with sparkling wines of all sorts from around the world.
But no, Asian spicy cooking does not do too well with red Bordeaux, white Burgundy, Napa Valley Chardonnay or worse yet, Cabernet. But just because it does not go with everything, it is not necessarily a “beer” cuisine.
The trick to matching wine with Asian style cooking is to start with the premise that we need wines that emphasize a balance, as opposed to sheer power of taste sensations. This is why the classic “power” wines – made from grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay – are not an easy match for Asian foods. Although there is nothing wrong with intensity, the difficulty with these types of wines is that they tend to be high in alcohol, low in acid, and (in the case of Cabernet) excessively hard in tannin. The best wines for Asian foods are those with moderate levels of alcohol, softer tannin, crisper acidity, and sometimes (not always) a judicious amount of residual sugar. Not surprisingly, many of today’s food and wine experts strongly recommend German Rieslings with Southeast Asian and Chinese foods. The natural sugar and acid balance of Rieslings is quite compatible with the hot, sour, salty, sweet elements of Asian food. It’s a question of harmony and balance and it certainly works in Asian food settings.