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A stall worker prepares barbecued chicken wings in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
© AFP/ Kamarul Akhir | A stall worker prepares barbecued chicken wings in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
In the penultimate instalment of her series on drinking wine with Asian food, Patricia Guy considers strong spicy and smoky flavors.

Part 5: The Spice Wines

One of the more intriguing features of Asian cuisine is the somewhat rustic, smoky tastes that derive from cooking dishes (often containing complex blends of spices and other flavorings) over charcoal or wood. Indonesian Satay (grilled beef or lamb on skewers, served with a sauce made from roasted peanuts, coconut milk and cumin), Masala Grilled Fish (seasoned with garam masala, a classic mix of black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin and coriander seeds), and Tandoori Chicken (which includes saffron as well as garam masala and cumin in the marinade) are perfect examples of the savory and rich flavor profile.

White wines that have been fermented and/or aged in oak are often ideal partners; during their time in wood, they develop vanilla and spicy notes that recall nutmeg and cinnamon. Such wines also have the backbone to stand up to a strong spicy component and they have the refreshing, palate-cleansing acidity that cuts through curry and nut-based sauces. In addition, their medium-to-full body is compatible with the density of rich gravies and sauces. Do not underestimate the part that texture and weight (sometimes referred to as mouthfeel) play on the senses. If you are uncertain about how to determine these qualities, here is a simple key to use: full-bodied wines have the same texture and weight in the mouth as milky coffee, while medium-bodied wines are comparable to distilled water.   

Lightly oaked whites also bring out the flavor of richly spiced shellfish, lobster and grilled chicken; additionally, their citrusy freshness combines with the mellowness of the wood to create an ideal match for dishes that feature peanut sauces. Attractive pairings can be made with white Burgundy and New World chardonnays. However, do not hesitate to branch out and try less common varieties. Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, verdicchio (from either the Castelli di Jesi or Matelica zones), Greco di Tufo, Pinot Blanc d’Alsace, or any lightly oaked wine based on pinot blanc, pinot grigio, trebbiano, viognier or semillon-sauvignon blends will provide a suitable accompaniment.  

Juicy, fragrant, medium-bodied reds also make good partners, particularly when paired with tandoori dishes, as their sprightly aromas mingle with the smokiness from the tandoori oven to create a very attractive perfume. Cru Beaujolais, teroldego from the Italian region of Trentino, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Valpolicella, Chianti, young Rioja and rustic reds from the south of France have the supple fruit to support the juicy richness of meats or fleshy fish, along with bright, refreshing acidity. Simple wines based on tempranillo, gamay, merlot, nebbiolo, dolcetto, barbera, sangiovese or pinot noir also fit the bill.

When the sweet fattiness of pork or duck is brought into the equation, you might consider a sprightly lambrusco as well. Here, I’m talking about such dishes as Imperial-style Grilled Spare Ribs (marinated and basted with a succulent combination that includes Hoisin and soy sauces, honey, sherry, lime juice, five-spice powder and garlic), or Thai Kaeng Phet Pet Yang (duck with lychees in red curry). Lambrusco is a popular favorite in its home territory of Emilia-Romagna, where this zippy, fruity, fizzy red wine is invariably dry. Sweeter lambruscos are usually found in export markets. As the degree of sweetness varies, ask your wine merchant for advice on the particular characteristics of the brands that he or she sells. But whatever the sweetness level, all Lambruscos will have luscious  fruit flavors (strawberry and raspberry), zesty acidity and a lively effervescence that cuts through rich, fatty and fried flavors and leaves a pleasant tingle on the palate. If you can find one on the dry side, try it with noodle dishes that feature Chinese sausages.  

Also good with duck and pork are sweet wines, which echo the lush succulence of the meat. Depending on the level of sweetness in the dish deriving from fruit sauces, you may want to opt for demi-sec Vouvray, German spätlese riesling, spätlese gewürztraminer or Alsace riesling or pinot blanc. 

Those of you with an adventurous spirit may find that this is the perfect opportunity to enjoy the heady pleasures of a chilled fino, manzanilla or amontillado sherry; a sercial (slightly drier) or bual madeira; or a tawny port. Their flavors are compatible with stir-frying and the tastes derived from sesame oil, sesame seeds and roasted nuts. Also, their high alcohol creates a silky fullness on the palate. These wines seldom get a chance to leave the drinks cupboard nowadays and deserve an opportunity to find new fans. 

Another unusual wine that fits nicely into this category is Vernaccia di Oristano. Produced in Sardinia, this sherry-like wine is full-bodied, with intoxicatingly nutty fragrances. It may be too alcoholic for some, but you will never know until you try it. That is, after all, one of the joys of combining wine with Asian food: it gives you the opportunity to explore new regions, grape varieties and styles.

A vendor grills satay at his roadside shop, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
© AFP/ Saeed Khan | A vendor grills satay at his roadside shop, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

SATAY – Indonesian and Malaysian 

Peanut Sauce
4 tbsp oil
1 stalk lemongrass
2 tsp shrimp paste (belachan)
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 oz (190 g) roasted peanuts
1 tbsp dried tamarind
1 cup (225 ml) hot water
1 tsp chili powder
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 cup (225 ml) coconut milk

Trim off and discard the root end and leaves of the lemongrass. Slice the white stem into rounds. Put the shrimp paste on a spoon and heat it over a flame until it is fragrant.

Blend 2 tablespoons of oil, the lemongrass, onion, garlic and the toasted shrimp paste in a food processor to obtain a spice paste. Remove and set aside. Crush the peanuts to the texture of coarse sand in the food processor. Set aside. Soak the tamarind in the hot water, mash it with the back of a spoon until the pulp disintegrates, and strain. Keep the liquid.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and sauté the spice paste until it is fragrant. Then add the crushed peanuts, tamarind liquid, chili powder, sugar and dark soy sauce. At this stage, a cup of coconut milk can be added if you prefer a creamier sauce. Simmer, stirring until the sauce thickens.

Meat Skewers
1½ lbs (700 g) meat (chicken, round steak, or lamb steaks)
2 tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground fennel
2 tbsp finely grated lemon zest
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp thick coconut milk
3 onions, wedged
1 cucumber, wedged
Thin bamboo skewers

Soak the skewers in water for 3 hours so that they do not burn over the fire.  Cut the meat into ¾–inch (2-cm) cubes, leaving some of the fat.  Combine all the other ingredients (with the exception of the cucumber and onions) in a bowl and marinate the meat for 2 hours, then thread four pieces of the meat onto each skewer.  Grill the meat over hot coals of under a broiler until the meat is cooked.  Serve with the sauce, cucumber, onions and lemon wedges.

Wine suggestions

Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, a lightly-oaked chardonnay, viognier, pinot blanc or semillon. These grape varieties have broad, enveloping fruit flavors that mirror the rich peanut-based sauce, while the light oakiness marries well with the dish’s smokiness, which is derived from grilling. If you want to try a red, go for sangiovese and Montepulciano blends, such as Italy’s Rosso Piceno. Or simple barberas or Côte du Rhônes. These wines offer a rich cushion of soft berry fruit that partners rather than overwhelms the dish.

* Next week, in the final part of this series, Patricia will explain how to match wines with sweet or fiery 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.


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