Wine lovers beware; sometimes, only a beer will do
01:00 AM EST on Wednesday, January 5, 2005
By JOHN MARIANI
Too many wine lovers find it hard to fathom that not every food in the world should be accompanied by their favorite beverage.
Some foods, like artichokes, which contain cynarin, are chemically antagonistic to wine, making them taste oddly sweet. Others, like chile peppers, obliterate them. And no matter what enophiles may say, Cabernet Sauvignon is absolutely awful with chocolate desserts.
I was reminded of this while having dinner recently at a very good Indian restaurant in New York, Khyber Grill. I was struck, not for the first time, that wine and Indian food have little natural affinity.
One might argue that a crisp, acidic Riesling will help cut the heat and spices of, say, mulligatawny soup or a creamy chicken korma dish. And since tandoori dishes need not be particularly spicy, a simple merlot might work.
Others contend that Gewurztraminer, which is itself spicy, with a little sweetness beneath it, is a credible match for milder curries or with the sweet, milk-based desserts in Indian restaurants.
To which I say, why bother? Such recommendations are certainly not ideal; they are merely a way to get wine on the table.
Beverages like beer or tea go much better with the incendiary heat and spices of Indian food. Simply put, there is no wine I know of -- not Cabernet Sauvignon, not Zinfandel, not Syrah, and certainly not a complex, expensive Bordeaux or Burgundy -- that does anything more than quench thirst with Indian food.
During my visit to Khyber Grill, I was accompanied by two winemakers and a restaurateur from California; we tried to make reasonable matches with the restaurant's highly aromatic northern Indian cuisine.
The restaurant actually has a pretty substantial wine list, with several dozen wines from many countries. We chose a Patz & Hall Chardonnay from California.
With its well-rounded fruit and balanced acids, it seemed an ideal match with aloo papdi chat (crispy crackers topped with chickpeas), tangy yogurt, sweet tamarind, and chopped coriander.
The flavors were mild and tropical, the wine adding its own lushness. And that was that.
The parade of wonderful dishes that followed -- spiced ground lamb (seekh kabab); tandoori chicken marinated in a pickling brine (achari kabab); lamb morsels with the complex spice mix called garam masala; chicken vindaloo in a hot chile paste; Goa fish curry made with red chile sauce; and black lentils cooked with garlic, spices, and butter -- completely blew away both the white wine and a big-bodied Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel that followed.
If any wine could have held its own with Indian seasonings and chile peppers, this massive, plummy Zinfandel should have. But it came up short.
The wines didn't compromise the food at Khyber Grill in any way, but neither did they complement it. There just didn't seem any good reason to match wine with such highly seasoned food.
Indeed, if an enophile were to insist on drinking wine with Indian food I would recommend an inexpensive white wine of almost any varietal. After a taste or two of red chile paste, which has a searing heat to it, no wine can go the distance.
This would be just as true of matching wines to hot Thai food, Korean food laced with the incendiary chile pickle called kim chee, and most Chinese food, which contains assertive spices, high salt from soy sauce, and a good dose of sweet flavors, as in Peking duck or dishes made with hoisin sauce.
Cantonese cuisine, which is far more delicate, is not so much of a problem. Many dishes in that repertoire, like clear chicken soups, many dim sum items, pan-fried noodles, and steamed fish with scallions would be enhanced by white wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Grigio or light reds like Beaujolais, Bardolino, and Red Sancerre.
Traditionally, the Cantonese drink tea or beer with their meals, occasionally rice wine or brandy. Still, as Eileen Yin-Fei Lo writes in her book New Cantonese Cooking (Viking, 1988), "Wine selection can be tricky. The problems inherent in pairing wines and Chinese foods is that the sweet, sour, tart, salty, steamed, fried, roasted, stewed, and blanched all may be included in a single meal."
So, if my wine-loving friends and colleagues will excuse me, I prefer to revert to my Joe-Six-Pack persona at Asian restaurants. For me, an ice-cold Eagle beer from India, or Tsingtao from China, or Singha from Thailand is not just a better choice, but one I don't have to think too hard about to have a good time.
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