Part 4: Hitting the Right Note
This category encompasses such diverse yet complementary flavors as creamy, textured, coconut milk- or yogurt-based sauces, bean curds, fleshy vegetables (such as eggplant), and sweet pork seasoned with mellow, nuttily herbaceous spices. With these subtle flavors it is best to avoid powerful, characterful wines, because they would dominate instead of merely accompanying them; rather like inviting Vin Diesel to an English ladies’ tea party. I am sure he would behave himself, but it would radically change the dynamic of the experience – and not for the better.
Only the most food-friendly of wines should be considered. These are mellow, medium-bodied, easy-drinking wines, with simple and direct fragrances and flavors. Their alcohol level, tannins and acidity should not be pronounced, nor should they be too heavily oaked or made from highly aromatic grape varieties. We do not want a wine that will overstate its accomplishments, but one that will serve as a pleasant background for the food. Our aim is to make the wine another ingredient in the dish, not the predominant flavor. Any of you who cook, can immediately understand this concept. You have the ability to look through your spice rack and know instinctively which flavors are compatible and which would jar the taste buds. The parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme that Simon and Garfunkel sang about are an historical example of seasonings that work well together.
Among whites, choose juicy, lightly oaked or unoaked wines based on chardonnay, chenin blanc, colombard, semillon, pinot blanc, albariño, vermentino, trebbiano, fiano, insolia (also known as ansonica), greco, pinot grigio or verdicchio. Also included here should be Soave (made from the garganega grape variety). Its gentle floral fragrances, with just a hint of minerality, make it one of the easiest wines to match with food.
The above wines have enough zesty acidity to make their presence known, yet their lightly floral fragrances (elderflower or peach and cherry blossoms) blend easily with the aromas of mellow ingredients like sautéed bean curd and braised pork. With Meen Varul (a southern Indian dish of marinated and then battered fried fish) the food-friendly white wine par excellence – unoaked or lightly oaked chardonnay – would fit the bill, as would chardonnay–semillon or chardonnay–insolia blends.
Medium-bodied, dry rosés are extremely versatile wines and add a pleasant touch of color to the table. Look for those based on grape varieties such as barbera, cabernet franc, dolcetto or gamay. New Zealand, Northern California and the cooler areas of Australia offer good, vivacious pink wines from these varieties.
The round, palate-pleasing juiciness balanced by crisp acidity of fruity reds enlivens the broad flavors of mildly spicy food while refreshing the palate. Try such French reds as Alsace pinot noir, Beaujolais, Bourgueil Rouge, Cabernet D’Anjou, Chinon and Corbières Rouge. From Italy, look for Bardolino, dolcetto, dry lambrusco and teroldego. If you can find one, an Austrian blaufränkish can be a very satisfying wine: it enlivens the flavor of food while adding its own touch of fruit. Try it, or a Dolcetto d’Asti, with Indonesian Sambal Babi (pork cooked in coconut milk and seasoned with coriander, ginger and cumin) and see for yourself how the flavors react.
I find the gentle textures and flavors of Crémant d’Alsace and Franciacorta Satén make intriguing matches. These sparkling wines usually have a creamy, elegant mousse, which goes well with velvety textures, and they have subdued fragrances that do not interfere with any spices in the dish.
When you pick wines to put on the table at a communal meal in the Asian tradition, where all the dishes are served at the same time, the wisest choice is to pick a white and a red (or rosé) like the ones described above. They may not be perfect matches for every dish, but they will be able to make liaisons with a wide variety of flavors. At such meals it is a good idea to include a lightly sweet wine to accommodate fruit-based or coconut sugar-based sauces.
Before jumping into wine matching, I would like you to do another exercise. Put one teaspoon of curry powder in a cup of yogurt. Pour yourself a glass of one of the food-friendly wines mentioned in this article. Take a sip of wine and really think about its weight in the mouth and how it tastes. Then eat a spoonful of the curry/yogurt mixture and re-taste the wine. Notice how both the flavor and the texture change. Try the same exercise with a slice of fennel or mint leaves.
If you really want to test my Vin Diesel theory, try sipping a burly, muscular primitivo or heavily oaked zinfandel after munching some mint leaves. After that experience, I suggest you grab a handful of macadamia nuts to restore a mellow sensation to your palate and state of mind.
MEEN VARUVAL (Southern Indian Fried Fish)
1 lb 10 oz (800g) fish fillets or cutlets
1½ cups (350ml) oil for frying
1/8 cup (40g) lemon juice
1 tsp ginger, finely chopped
1 tsp garlic, finely chopped
3 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
4½ oz (150g) rice flour
1½ oz (40g) besan flour (gram flour)
2 tbsp chili powder
1 tsp salt
Marinade the fish in the lemon, ginger, garlic, turmeric and salt for 30 minutes. Mix the rice and besan flours and to this mixture add the chili powder and salt.
Heat the oil in a frying pan. Dust the fish in the flour mixture, and shallow fry one side at a time. When both sides are done, remove, set on a plate and garnish with curry leaves.
Wine suggestions: Chardonnay and insolia from Sicily, or a well-chilled Beaujolais.
** 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.