Asian Food and Wine Pairing

by Ha-Kyung Choi and Mai Vu

Pairing wine with Asian cuisine has long felt like a gamble. The many layers of ingredients and flavors featured in one dish and the simultaneous serving of multiple dishes can make pairing wine with Asian food overly complicated and risky. The safest bets seem to be a beer, a sweet cocktail, or water. But a few key tips can make wine pairings with Asian food easy, mutually enhancing both the wine and the meal.

Balance is the basic consideration when pairing wine with Asian dishes. As a rule, wine with heavy alcohol or tannins will block the rich flavors of most Asian dishes. Foods that are spicy are enhanced by a wine with very little alcohol; otherwise, the heat from the alcohol will intensify the heat sensation from the food. The best bets for hot, spicy foods are a German style Riesling or a Muscadet from the Loire Valley in France.

Contrasting tastes in wine and food matching is another approach that can be used with Asian food. Slightly sweet wines are a good contrast to the salty flavors in most Asian cuisines, while matching some of their sweeter flavors. Typical sweet wines include many Rieslings, Gewürztraminers and lighter style Chenin Blancs.

These easy tips can enhance your next Asian food outing and provide opportunities to experiment with different varietals and styles. The challenge may be to convince Asian restaurants to stock the wide-ranging variety of wines that make a fine match with their complex dishes.

Jennifer Kirkgaard's Curried Halibut Filet With Grapefruit Salsa
This dish presents the classic Asian palate of hot, sour, sweet, salty with a hint of bitterness. To complement these flavors, the classic pairing is a balanced German style Riesling Kabinett. Typically an off dry, high in acidity, and medium bodied wine that straddles the perfect balance between sweetness and acidity. The wine complements the hotness of the jalapenos while not overpowering the fish. Another derivation is serving a bottle of champagne: its effervescence in conjunction with the grapefruit salsa will cut through the honey and curry powder flavors while not suppressing the delicate taste of grilled halibut.

Tom Power's Beef Sashimi
A common Japanese dish, sashimi, is raw seafood served thinly sliced with traditional condiments such as grated white radish, wasabi, or ginger, and ponzu sauce. Applying a twist to this time-tested recipe, the chef decides to replace seafood with Piedmontese beef strip loin, searing it in a hot oiled pan and then slicing thinly. To complement this updated dish appropriately, pair it with an old world wine, preferably red wine from the Loire Valley, France, and served chilled. In America, the perception persists that it is bad form to serve chilled red wine. However, serving a chilled Chinon or a Bourgueil will prove a formidable pairing with this modernized dish. After savoring the taste of the beef delicately dipped in its traditional accoutrement, a sip of the wine will accentuate the traditional condiments, especially the wasabi and the ginger, while negating the oily taste of the searing preparation method.

Steven Raichlen's Lemongrass Chicken
Evidenced by the prolific number of Vietnamese and Thai restaurants currently operating in this country, Southeast Asian cuisine's popularity has skyrocketed in the last ten years. A staple recipe in this genre is lemongrass chicken, a dish with a complex mélange of ingredients, thus creating a challenge for pairing wine. While the taste of lemongrass is increasingly better understood, the dish's other main ingredient, fish sauce, presents its own unique challenge. Derived from naturally fermented sun-dried anchovies, the liquid has a briny quality. Consequently, the prepared chicken possesses a salty, herbaceous quality, which demands a dry, fruity wine like a Sauvignon Blanc. These grapes tend to have a grassy, hay-like character and shows depths of fruity characteristics ranging from just ripened green plums to apricots, depending on the region. As such, choose a young, Sauvignon Blanc acidic wine aged in steel barrels to enhance the lemongrass, cilantro, and mint flavors that permeates this dish.