Pairing Wine with Asian Food – Edwin Soon
Having Thai? Some wine and food matching secrets
By Robyn Lewis
Ever wondered what wine to drink with Peking duck, laksa or curry? Or a Thai green curry – do you match the wine to the chicken, or the eggplant?
This gem of a book will take the mystery out of choosing wines to serve with many styles of Asian food, from the cuisines of China to Indonesia.
Written by oenologist , wine judge and educator Edwin Soon, Pairing Wine with Asian Food is the guide we’ve all been waiting for, especially to match wines with our contemporary Australasian cuisine – or that of west coast USA, New Zealand or indeed any country where chillies, lemon grass and coriander have reached.
The book is also an increasingly important resource as the consumption of wine increases in Asia, especially in China where consumers are becoming more adventurous with grape varieties, and are moving away from sweet to drier styles, and towards reds of increasing refinement.
As Soon says in his introduction, ‘it used to be a simple affair matching wines with food. But … that’s for Western food. Venture in to the Asian kitchen and things can begin to look complicated. But it needn’t be.’
His reasoning is that, unlike the West, there hasn’t been a history of Asian cuisine evolving with wine. Europe, and more recently America, South Africa and the ‘New World’, have had centuries of trial and error; the Asian wine and food adventure is really just beginning.
Pairing Wine with Asian Food makes it easy to get underway, and indeed even if you only read the first ten pages (and it’s a small format book) you’ll be well on the road to mastery. It’s that good.
The book starts with a section on understanding Asian flavours: sweet, sour, salty and bitter are the main ‘components’, along with umami, a savoury characteristic. Wines react differently to each, so these provide the basis of wine matching principles.
Texture too is also important: whether a food is fatty or dry, crispy or soggy, rich with coconut cream, stirfried, or steamed and delicate. Then, there is ‘intensity’ of the flavours: think five spice, lemon grass or the rich, malty taste of miso.
On top of this comes what Soon describes as ‘sensations’: the tang of chilli or the bite of fresh ginger. A hint from the expert: “the tartness of a dry wine often accentuates the chili sensation, as will the tannins in a red wine high in alcohol” (alcohol spreads the chilli’s heat around the mouth, and into the throat).
The solution to hot food? Low alcohol wines, wines that are slightly sweet, or sparkling wines that provide a refreshing, cleansing action to the palate.
A common mistake that Soon describes is that of drinking gewürztraminer with curry, based on the ‘spicy goes with spicy’ resemblance, but which he thinks is incompatible. Instead, he prescribes merlot, zinfandel or nero d’Avola, with strong berry flavours and bold fruit that play up to the curry spices.
Marriages made in heaven are certainly possible once the basics are understood. Soon further explores other ‘problem ingredients’ in the Asian kitchen, including souring agents such as tamarind, green mango, vinegar, lime and pomelo, all of which can make wine taste flat and flabby. His answer is to choose wines that are light, crisp and tart, which taste sharper than the souring agent in the food.
For dishes high in umami (especially in seafood), Soon recommends to avoid chewy/tannic red wines and to choose whites, or pink wines with very low tannins (tannins react with umami and bring out metallic tastes, and at worst leave a dry, rough sensation in your mouth).
‘Dark spices’ (cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, cumin, turmeric and several Asian herbs) are another potential minefield, and again don’t work with high tannin reds. (The future of New World shiraz in Asia is perhaps not looking promising.)
Then there are ‘numbing ingredients’, described in Chinese as ‘ma la’, and reserved for the potent mix of chilli, Szechuan pepper and sometimes other spices. Few wines can stand up to the tingly mouth sensations this can produce, although the adventurous can try a match with a very strongly sweet wine (personally, I’d be trying a beer!).
However, for fermented ingredients like kim chi, blachan (trasi) and fermented soybean (which looks like very old, soft blue cheese and tastes rather similar) Soon suggests iced water, or sweet wines, Sherry or Port (served on the rocks, which many Westerners might recoil at, but in a hot, noisy Asian restaurant, can be very appropriate).
Once past the mismatch minefield, however, Pairing Wine with Asian Food moves into positive territory: what TO do. As with Western food, it depends on what role you want the wine to play. Are you drinking just to quench your thirst, cleanse your palate or even get a little intoxicated, or to complement the food without making a big deal of it? Or are you seeking wine and food Nirvana, with a budget to match?
Soon’s rule is to ‘echo the flavours, and flatter the tastes’, and to let either the food or the wine take the lead. Don’t drink a complex wine with a complex dish, but select something simpler.
On page 15 there is a very straightforward table, a matrix of wine styles (dry, lightly sweet, strongly sweet, low tannin reds and high tannin reds) vs food styles (cooking methods, components, textures etc), and some example dishes. All you have to do is pick the wine, then match the food to it, or the reverse. Easy.
Then there are 2 pages of the author’s favourite wine matches for Asian flavours:
- weighty white wines for dishes with sweet overtones
- lightly sweet, demi-sec for sour dishes
- Champagne and sparkling wines for salty dishes
- tempranillo with low tannin for strong-flavoured and spicy dishes
- moscato, lightly sweet for chilli dishes
- grüner veltliner for vegetables
- rosé wine with multi-textured dishes
- off-dry riesling for complex flavours
- red burgundy or pinot noir for meaty and sweet, spicy flavours
- oloroso sherry for nutty flavours
- pinot grigio or pinto gris for delicate seafood and stronger sauces
This list is just a start – Soon gives plenty of examples of dishes in each category, and recommended wines. For such a small book, it’s packed with information.
The major cuisines of Asia are covered, listed by theme (party foods, curries, vegetarian, Asian barbecue and seafood) and then by country. These sections highlight the most common dishes and offer more detailed wine suggestions, as well as featuring restaurant safe bets.
From Chinese banquets to Thai streetfood, Nonya to Korean, this excellent guide will ensure you match the right wine next time you dine Asian. I was lucky and picked it up for a song, but even if full price it’s worth it. And as soon as it’s in app format, I’ll be downloading one too.
Pairing Wine with Asian Food by Edwin Soon is published by Monsoon Books (Singapore, 2009; hc, 64 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$26.99
It can be purchased via Booko here »
- Singapore (SG)
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