Asian Food and Asian Wines

By; Ali Nicol/ Wine Times Hong Kong

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Pairing food and wine in Asia is all the rage and in all honesty is a good way of introducing wines to potential wine lovers in a way that seems the norm to people in the West. However in many cases – especially here in Hong Kong – the pairings try too hard and, ultimately, are a mis-match and, consequently, a complete disaster.

Many local chefs in the city do not partake in alcohol consumption yet are required to write menus that pair with wines from countries they may have never even tasted the food, let alone the wines and thus, the pairings are not the way they should be nor highlight the wine the way that the winemaker may like.

Pairing Chinese food (I know that’s generic as there is a plethora of different styles of Chinese cuisine – but for the sake of argument, I will generalise here) with wines from around the world is an attempt to show how well these wines can be paired with local cuisine and thus, entice the drinker into buying the wines and pairing them with their next meal elsewhere. Sadly, many of these pairings fall flat on their face and give writers like me a more long-term negative association to the wine or to food pairing on the whole.

I recently had the pleasure of dining in one of the city’s best known hotels where the chef had paired a beautifully delicate white steamed fish with an immature, overbearing Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a complete disaster – no matter how much my fellow diners tried to convince themselves that the wine and the soy sauce in the dish made for an excellent coupling – and left me not wanting to drink the wine again, nor as a matter of fact, attend other wine dinners there again either.

So recently I gathered together a range of Asian wines to pair with – and I use the term loosely – Asian foods with a bit of spice to see whether the wines could hold up and, as is the style of serving Asian food see which foods and which wines worked best together.

We are fortunate here in Hong Kong to have such a diverse selection of wines from around the world so I gathered some friends and a few bottles and set about on an afternoon of Asian food and Asian wine indulgence. Wines we chose were Chateau Indage Cabernet Sauvignon (India), Grace Winery Koshu (Japan), Grace Winery Gris de Koshu (Japan), Grace Winery Cuvee Misawa (Japan), Cape Discovery Cabernet Merlot (Bali, Indonesia), GranMonte Sole Chenin Blanc Viognier (Thailand), GranMonte Sakuna Rosé (Thailand) and GranMonte The Orient Syrah (Thailand).

With these wines we paired an array of Asian dishes (none Chinese I might add) to see if the respective wines suited the cuisine from their respective countries. The Chateau Indage Cabernet from India, although a wine I cannot recommend drinking without food worked surprisingly well with an Indian Lamb curry, the kick of the curry denying the astringency of the wine to dominate the palate – but none-the-less making for an enjoyable pairing.

For the Japanese wines we paired the whites with some light salads as well as some tempura style fish dishes which worked nicely, the Koshu grape being a delicate one and thus, one that cannot be paired with big, overpowering flavours. The Grace Winery Gris de Koshu goes exceptionally well with sea urchin salad, and on the whole excellently with sushi and sashimi dishes. The Grace Winery Cuvee Misawa (a classical Bordeaux blend from Japan) is lovely with Teriyaki style meats and with this style of eating in bite size portions also gives you the opportunity to taste different styles of meats, marinades and cooking styles with the wine lending towards a greater food and wine experience.

I have to say that the Cape Discovery Cabernet Merlot from Bali tastes like it’s a recipe for a hangover – it has that fruity, headache inducing feel to it when you swallow – so I wasn’t mad on tasting too much of this and, with a lack of any Indonesian food around we tasted this wine together with the Thai food and wines at Hong Kong’s top Thai restaurant Koh Tom Yums – which is also the city’s only free-standing, non-hotel restaurant to hold a Wine Spectator Award for its wine list. I cannot say that there was anything that rocked my world when it came to pairing the Balinese wine and the constant feeling of knowing you’re going to regret drinking it in the end won over and the wine was condemned to the back of the room to contemplate how to further improve itself.

The Thai wines and Thai food on the other hand made for an excellent pairing and, although there were far too many dishes there to eat – let alone bore you with in words – it must be said that these wines with food from their native lands were outstanding. Who would ever think you could pair a Chenin Blanc Viognier with a Thai beef salad? Well you can, and it’s delightful! The Sakura Rosé is made from Syrah and made for one of the best pairings of the day – together with Thai Red Duck curry it was simply fantastic. The beef Penang curry with its hint of spice but wealth of flavour worked really well with The Orient Syrah, which in itself is more Rhone-like than new-world-like; the little touch of spice in the wine complimenting the curry exquisitely and really showing how red wines can be paired with Asian food properly.

As far as Chinese food goes, the diversity makes it difficult and the multitude of tastes and flavours make for tough pairings but if there is one genre of wines that go exceptionally well with Chinese cuisine on the whole, it’s white wines from the Alsace and from Germany. The range of sweetness in the wines can be paired with the range of sugars and sauces used in Chinese cooking and I for one would only ever recommend that, for a sensory experience (of the good kind) that you choose a white wine from these areas if going for Chinese. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule – aren’t there to every rule? – but on the whole, this is what I have found out works the best.

Whilst it’s highly unlikely that you will find any Chinese wine in your local Chinese restaurant, any Thai wine in your local Thai, Japanese wines in your local Japanese or Indian wines in your local curry house, I do implore you to give wines from these Asian countries a try if the opportunity arises, it makes for a fantastic overall experience and you never know, you may just find a new found love and respect for wines coming from the non-traditional winemaking countries.

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