Dousing the Flame

Words by Nimmi Malhotra

Pairing spice-driven cuisines with wine has long been a challenge but with a little imagination, it doesn’t have to be.

*This is an extract of an article that first appeared in Wine & Dine’s 2021 ‘Spice and Aromatics’ issue

Spice and chilli sit at the heart of Asian food. Our rich and diverse cuisines would be incomplete without the warmth of ginger and galangal, the numbing sensation of Sichuan peppers, or the scintillating burn of bird’s eye chillies.

In Europe, food and wine made from grapes evolved simultaneously to naturally complement and balance each other. Asian cuisines, on the other hand, developed over centuries without grape wine and sought to find harmony with components of sweet, sour, salty and bitter within the meal. Balance can also come in the form of the various condiments on offer: sambal, belachan, shimi-chi togarashi flakes or a wedge of lime.

Signature Wok-fried Fish with Shishito Peppers at Shisen Hanten (Image courtesy of Shisen Hanten)

Due to the complexity of Asian cuisine, finding the right wines to pair them with rightfully pose a challenge. Should the wine complement the meat or the sauce? Should it mute the heat or not? For most, the foolproof answer is an off-dry Riesling; its residual sugar mutes the heat, high acidity refreshes the palate and low alcohol soothes the burn.

But Derek Li, group sommelier for Jia Group in Hong Kong, doesn’t believe Riesling satisfies all of his clients: “Asian people love the spiciness. They want to feel the Sichuan pepper, feel the sensation of numbness. People come to eat spicy food to feel the heat. Off-dry Riesling, with its sugar, kills the spiciness.” Before recommending wines, he makes it a point to ask diners if they want to experience the spiciness or mute it out. “It really changes the recommendation atour restaurants like Cha Cha Wan [a Thai restaurant],” he says. “Pairing wine with spicy food is a subjective choice.”

Paneer at Benares (Image courtesy of Benares)

Spice and wine 101

Interestingly, spiciness is not a flavour. It registers as pain and heat on the tongue. When eating chillies that hot, burning sensation is generated by the chemical compound called capsaicin. Capsaicin binds to the receptors on our tongues that perceive temperature, triggering the nerve fibres to deliver a pain signal to the brain. This pain brings on an endorphin kick in those who love it, a sense of euphoria that makes them reach out for more.

Jeannie Cho Lee, MW, addressed Asian food and wine pairing in her book Asian Palate back in 2009. In addition to being capable of standing up to a wide range of spices and condiments, Lee writes, wines must possess sufficient texture to match the umami notes prized in Asian foods and boast some intensity of flavour to keep up with the richness of the sauces.

Garoupa Dumpling with Spicy Termite Mushroom at Duddells (Image courtesy of Duddells)

Although Rieslings and other cool-climate white wines, with their lovely line of acidity and lower alcohol, are generally preferred, they are by no means the only option. Sparkling wines including champagne, cava or any wine made méthode traditionelle can help offset the richness of Asian sauces.

Red wines are deemed difficult to pair as their tannins tend to clash with the tannins of spices, but even that does not rule out a place for them on the table. Low-tannin reds like riper-Pinot Noir and Grenache complement spicy foods, as do aged tannins. Fruity wines can add dimension to the spice and create balance like fruit-driven Beaujolais and soft-tannin southern Rhone blends. The same goes for warm-climate rosé that has enough body and riper fruit notes.

*Read the full article in Wine & Dine’s 2021 ‘Spice and Aromatics’ issue. Available at newsstands and Magzter

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