The Spice of Your Life

The Spice of Your Life

The Spice of Your Life

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April 29 1998 3:30 AM

The Spice of Your Life

What to drink with Eastern food.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

"Let them drink beer!" So said my wine connoisseur friend when I outlined my dilemma. My boss and his wife were coming over for dinner, and we had decided to prepare an Indian feast (a big mistake, as it turned out, but more on that in another column). Hence the question: What wine to serve with Indian food?

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My friend's response was familiar. There is a kind of inverted snobbery among wine connoisseurs that makes them explain triumphantly that with certain foods they always drink ... lemonade! One such individual once explained to me that the only beverage worth drinking with eggs Benedict was ... orange juice! Now, this is all well and good. I have nothing against drinking lemonade, orange juice, beer, or even water with food. Indeed, I drink all of them, some in large quantities. But you can't throw a formal sit-down dinner and serve your guests beer. It doesn't work visually. There is something elegant and communal about sharing wine around a table. It marks an evening in a special way.

So, what wine to serve with Indian food? The flight to beer is understandable, because most Eastern foods do not go well with most wines. By "Eastern" I mean east of Iran. Middle Eastern foods can be eaten with wine, resembling as they do Greek and other Mediterranean cuisines. Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese foods are the problem. Their spices are too intense. There are too many vegetables and not enough meat or fat-filled sauces, and some of the distinctive tastes of these cuisines are too strong to marry with wine--soy sauce, plum sauce, tamarind, sweetened yogurt, pickles and, of course, chili peppers of most kinds. Yet, with some experimentation, I have found a number of wines that actually taste rather good with these foods. Herewith some guidelines:

First, be sensible. There are some dishes that simply overpower wine, or even good beer. A ferocious Thai red curry or a fiery Szechwan shrimp dish is going to leave people gasping for water and nothing else. If you like the sensation of taste buds on fire, fine. Just say no to wine.

Second, red wines don't work with Eastern food. There are a few exceptions--a mild Indian tandoori chicken goes well with a slightly chilled zinfandel--but, by and large, even the mildest spices throw red wines off-balance. (This might pose a problem for some. I had an English friend who always ordered red wine with dinner, even if he was eating grilled Dover sole. The first time I noticed this, I asked why. "Bad stomach," he explained without elaboration. His stomach never improved; even on a warm summer day, eating oysters on the half shell, he would devotedly sip only claret. On the other hand, he never touched Eastern food, so our problem never disturbed him.)

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Chinese: Because Chinese foods aren't slow-cooked in lots of oil, butter, or lard, they leave a light tingling feel on the palette. So try German wines, which are light and have a low alcohol content. German wines are sweet, but much less so than many think. They range from new dry offerings to the traditional spectrum of Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese (semisweet, sweet, sweeter, even sweeter, sweetest). Stop at Auslese: Beyond that the best wines are still delicious, but they're dessert wines. A good Kabinett or Spätlese goes superbly with most Chinese dishes. (The Mosel region is lighter and better for these purposes than the Rhine. Good producers include Ockfener Bockstein, Jo. Jo. Prüm, and Egon Muller.)

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Japanese: A mixed bag. Some Japanese food--such as tempura--goes well with German wines. But most dishes can be matched with traditional dry French wines--they have enough heft, even if in the form of fish oils. I find that white Bordeaux, Chablis, and any New World sauvignon blanc (try America's Robert Mondavi, Australia's Rosemount, or New Zealand's fantastic Cloudy Bay) all go well with sushi and sashimi (go easy on the soy sauce). Complicated meat dishes such as shabu-shabu don't work with anything. Except for sake, of course.

Vietnamese: Like Japanese food, good Vietnamese food can be eaten with traditional French wines. Try those with slightly lower alcohol or slightly higher sugar levels. Vouvray and Sancerre work well, as do New World chenin blancs and Sémillon. (Sauvion & Fils is one of the best wine producers in the Loire, home to Vouvray and Sancerre.) A good rosé--stick to the Rhone Valley and avoid those from Provence--is also a nice accompaniment to Vietnamese food.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Indian and Thai (which are quite similar): In some ways, these are the toughest, because their spices are the most intense and the food can be quite rich. German wines lack the acidity to stand up to the food. (Acidity is a wine's backbone.) Alsatian wines are a felicitous combination of sweetness and acidity. Gewürztraminer is perfect, mixing sweet and sharp tastes that are distinctive and yet complementary. Also try pinot blanc, a lovely fruity wine. (Excellent Alsatian producers include Zind Humbrecht--though it may be too rich for this kind of food; Trimbach; Hugel; and Schlumberger.)

Despite being a perfect match on paper, the one Alsatian wine that does not marry with the North Indian food we served is the Alsatian Riesling. A smooth, somewhat bland wine, it seems to get stripped of all flavor when paired with the heady mix of spices, yogurt, saffron, and rice that make up so much Mughal food. Guess what wine we offered at dinner? Alsatian Riesling, of course.