Part 1: To Boldly Go
Matching wine with Asian flavors is a wonderful adventure, one that gives tasters the freedom to follow their instincts and to experiment. All the ancient wisdom concerning food and wine pairing that has been handed down over the years – red with meat, white with fish, sweet wines only with dessert or occasionally foie gras – simply do not apply. However, the lack of hard-and-fast rules does not mean there are no guidelines.
Most Asian dishes, whatever their main ingredient, are prepared in such a way that it is not the meat, seafood or vegetables that stand out as the predominant flavor. Instead, the true flavor of the dish may be determined by the cooking method (e.g. the nutty smokiness that comes from stir frying), the sauce (from the dark richness of a soy-sauce glaze to the shifting nuances of sweet and sour) or the seasonings (the zing of ginger, the gentle but decisive sweetness of coriander seeds, the piquancy of chili). Also, these elements may combine to create a new and distinct taste sensation. The diner’s goal is to match the wine to the overall flavor of the dish.
There are, however, some useful pointers to bear in mind right from the start. Firstly, it is best to leave that old mainstay of the dining table – oak-aged cabernet sauvignon – in the cellar, because its high tannins will accentuate the saltiness of soy and oyster sauces or shrimp and bean pastes. You are more likely to find a compatible match for these with juicy, fruit-forward and food-friendly reds, such as Lambrusco, simple Barbera, Chilean merlot or Beaujolais. These wines have softer tannins, but still offer backbone and crisp, palate-cleansing acidity. Or, if you prefer, a well-structured rosé such as Bardolino Chiaretto, or rosés from Australia, Chile or Southern France can also provide a satisfying counterpoint for the sometimes-complex flavors of Asian dishes.
Another reason to avoid big, tannic reds is that they tend to clash with umami-rich ingredients. Umami is a savory flavor associated with glutamate, although it is also found naturally in cured meats and fish, caviar, fermented soy products, ripe tomatoes, mushrooms and fish sauces. It is better to pair umami-influenced dishes with the light salinity found in such crisp whites as vermentino, fiano and Soave from Italy or albariño from Spain. Mature pinot noir also has the supple body and restrained tannins to enhance umami flavors, and again you might consider a dry rosé or indeed an unoaked chardonnay, semillon or pinot blanc.
You should also treat sauvignon blanc with great circumspection (or should I say gingerly?). While sauvignon blanc-based wines are good with many things, any bitterness in food (this can come from roasted nuts, the char of a hot wok or the flavor of certain vegetables) tends to make herbaceous wines seem even sharper. That said, blended whites that include just a touch of sauvignon blanc, but whose predominant variety is softer and rounder, can not only partner bitter flavors, but waltz them around your taste buds. For example, Jermann Vintage Tunina – a blend of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and three other varieties from Friuli in north-eastern Italy – has this ability to a near-magical degree.
Sweet and/or spicy-hot dishes open the door to a wine style that has for decades been relegated to the dusty depths of the wine closet: I am speaking, of course, of sweet wines. The basic rule is that a sweet wine must be sweeter than the dish it is meant to accompany. That holds true not only for desserts, but also for such dishes as Malaysian Nasi Lemak (highly seasoned rice cooked in coconut milk). The richness of sweet wines enfolds and subdues the chili heat and combines with it to create a totally new experience: it propels the flavor to a new and original dimension.
Such matching allows you to explore and develop your own sense of taste. Why not get started right away by organizing a tasting party? Serve two or three Asian dishes and open up three or four wines: a rosé, a lively white, a juicy red and a well-made sweetie. You will be assured of a good time and you may just find a mythic match that allows you and your friends to boldly go where no taster has gone before.
2 cups (500ml) coconut milk
2 cups (550ml) water
¼ tsp ground ginger
1 1-inch (2-cm) piece ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
3 pandan (screwpine) leaves
Salt to taste
2 cups (400g) long-grain rice
1 cup (250ml) oil for frying
1 cup (200g) raw peanuts
130g fresh anchovies, filleted
1 cucumber, sliced and then quartered
4 hard-boiled eggs, quartered
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 gloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 shallots, thinly sliced
2 tsp chili paste
1 cup dried anchovies (ikan bilis)
Salt to taste
2 tbsp sugar
¼ cup (60ml) tamarind juice
Place the coconut milk, water, ground ginger, ginger root, pandan (screwpine) leaves, salt and rice in a saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for around 20 minutes or until the rice has absorbed the liquid.
For the garnish, heat the vegetable oil in a deep frying pan over a medium–high heat. Stir in the peanuts and cook until they are lightly brown. Remove peanuts with a slotted spoon and drain them on a paper towel. Remove excess oil from the pan and fry the fresh anchovies until they are crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and leave to drain on a paper towel.
For the anchovy sauce, heat the 2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan. Stir in the onion, garlic and shallots and cook for about 1 or 2 minutes. Add the chili paste and dried anchovies and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. You may wish to add a little water if the paste seems too dry. Stir in the salt, sugar and tamarind juice; simmer until the sauce is thick – about 5 minutes.
Pour the anchovy sauce over the rice and garnish with the peanuts, fried anchovies, cucumbers and eggs.
A sweet or semi-sweet wine calms down the chili paste and tones down the saltiness of the anchovy sauce, while its acidity brightens the flavor of the fried anchovies. Try a good Recioto di Soave or another well-balanced sweet wine. Look for words such as “late-harvest,” “vendange tardive” and “passito” on the label.
* Next week, Patricia will report on matching wines with fresh and herbal flavors in Asian cuisine.
** For more information on grape varieties, click here.
*** "Wine with Asian Food: New Frontiers in Taste," by Patricia Guy and Edwin Soon, is published by Tide-mark Press at $24.95.