Over years of covering wine in Asia, one touchy subject that never grows stale is the challenge of pairing wine with Asian food. I confess I’m conflicted myself, and have occasionally got in hot water with a glib comment to the effect that it’s a waste of time.
I don’t mean that we in Asia shouldn’t enjoy food and wine together, or that trying to understand how different Asian cuisines pair with wine isn’t a fascinating and worthwhile endeavour. I mean that the wholesale application of European pairing principles to Asian meals mostly just results in anxiety, confusion and a rapid regression to beer drinking.
One aspect of this discussion that raises tensions is the concept of “Asian food” as one thing, as if anything you could say about Indian food would also apply to Japanese food (never mind that I’ve just irritated even more people by implying “Indian food” or “Japanese food” are monolithic concepts).
However, there are some common traits of cuisines throughout our continent. They usually involve serving many dishes on the table at once, rather than separate courses. Most also involve generous use of condiments and sauces, further complicating the picture. Few involve large, lightly seasoned proteins, on which most western pairing recommendations are based (remember “white with fish, red with meat”). All of these factors boost the difficulty level of finding here “the perfect match,” an elusive concept anyway that becomes deeply impractical when you find yourself at a table with a dozen dishes and as many sauces.
Breaking the Rules
Some dining establishments simply make their cuisine more western, serving it in protein-driven courses with a single wine assigned to each course. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this as a dining experience—in fact it can be truly enjoyable—but it doesn’t help in terms of integrating wine into the dining culture at large. And since a lot of local restaurants don’t have their own wine programmes and tend to be BYO friendly, enthusiasts generally just bring the wines they would drink anyway (usually a Bordeaux or a Burgundy), pairing be damned. Perhaps they are missing out on nice aromatic or semi-aromatic white, like a riesling, gewürztraminer, grüner veltliner or pinot gris.
Again, people can do whatever they want—and who am I to turn down a glass of Cheval Blanc over dim sum? However, having experienced a few too many times the acrid combination of braised abalone and cabernet tannins, I have some thoughts on how the experience could be improved. The approach I’ve developed over the past decade of living and drinking wine all over Asia is based on a few simple ideas.
Mix and Match
First, you’re never going to get the perfect match, so be prepared to take along several sufficiently different options—I recommend at least three—to your meal, pour them all at once and test with each dish. It’s fun, I promise. Just be sure to tip the staff extra for managing all the glassware (especially if it’s a free corkage situation).
Then think about matching according to overall weight and flavour intensity rather than fixating on specific ingredients. Both wine and food can either be heavy or light and intense or subtle in flavour. Matching opposites can work—such as light wines with heavy food, though generally not the other way around—but usually it’s best if the intensity of the food and wine are roughly equal. And remember, don’t get too focused on wine colour. A flamboyantly buxom gewürztraminer is both heavier and more intense than a fine-boned, wispy little Beaujolais.
A final but critical step is to avoid some obvious bombs, such as pairing Sichuan peppercorns, which make all wines taste sweeter and more buttery, with oak-laden Chardonnays. Certain key ingredients in every cuisine can pose issues for certain wine styles, so by screening for those you’ve already significantly upped your chances of a pleasant meal.