Rice wine, sake and even red wines have all been successfully paired with Chinese food in the past, but stronger liquors such as cognac have been relatively overlooked. But, as chef Joseph Tse at fine dining restaurant Above and Beyond in Tsim Sha Tsui will attest, the marriage of the two is not as unusual as one may think. “Most Chinese food is rich in flavour,” he says, “which matches with relatively strong alcohol, such as cognac.”
On October 17, a collaboration between chef Tse and boutique producer Cognac Moyet saw the two elements come together at the Hotel Icon’s Chinese restaurant. The contemporary Cantonese cuisine at Above and Beyond has always been among our favourites, but how does it fare when put up against the powerful flavour and aroma of cognac? Chef Tse is adamant that the two can work together in harmony.
“Young cognac, such as V.S. or V.S.O.P, is recommended to be paired with spiced and heavy meat dishes,” says Tse. He is quick to emphasise that “spiced” does not mean “spicy” – chilli-heavy foods are a foe to cognac, as the flavours are too jarring to meld harmoniously. For dishes like marinated duck tongues and barbecued suckling pig, however, V.S or V.S.O.P is perfect.
On the other end of the spectrum, lighter dishes such as braised vegetables are good with X.O cognacs. Moyet Cognac Fine Champagne X.O, for example, with its delicate floral character and a touch of honey sweetness, is paired with chef Tse’s braised Tientsin cabbage with Parma ham in a delicate chicken broth, while the more viscous Moyet Cognac Borderies X.O with its hints of dried fruit and flowers, can cut through the richness of wok-fried US tenderloin cubes with goose liver and fresh basil (the basil, we think, might even mimic some of that slight verdant freshness in the X.O).
For V.S.O.P bottles, chef Tse recommends his braised spareribs with preserved plums in black vinegar. “The sweet sauce may soften the aggressive taste of cognac,” he explains. Meanwhile cold appetisers – such as jellyfish with sesame oil, chilled beef shank slices or marinated Chiu Chow meats can benefit from a chilled champagne cognac cocktail.
Moyet also produces a Fins Bois cognac, one of the youngest varieties available within their range. It is highly spiced, with notes of dark fruits and caramelised sugar. Chef Tse draws out this cognac’s sweeter side with his dish of honey-glazed barbecued Kagoshima pork. “The sweet and crusty skin mixed with the soft meat is a great pairing with the exclusive cognac,” he says.
Cognac and Chinese food pairings are not simply limited to savoury dishes, either. Chef Tse suggests sweet treats with a bit of dryness and texture are ideal with all cognacs, especially items like deep-fried sesame balls.
When we ask him what his ultimate cognac and Chinese food pairing might be, giving an example of the affinity between white truffles and Barolo wine, he champions silky pork belly as the best match with most types of cognac – spoken like a true Chinese chef.