Sunday, 11 December 2011

What wines go with chilli spicy dishes?

No doubt you have heard someone (probably a westerner) saying that off dry wines go well with Asian spicy dishes because they tone down the spiciness, making the food more palatable. But hang on a second. Is that what we Chinese (or Asians) want—to eat spicy dishes without the fiery or numbing sensation?

This is the main difference between the average westerner and the average Asian over spicy food. Westerners want to tame the chilli while Asians (especially South Asians) think the spicier the better.

We had lunch with Casey McClellan from Seven Hills Winery in Washington last year, and paired each of his three wines, Tempranillo, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, with the same dish: chicken's feet in black bean sauce. Each pairing gave a very different impression. The Tempranillo was subtle but the sauce brought out the fruitiness in the wine, making it livelier but not overpowering. The Syrah had a spicy character which was accentuated by the peppery and spicy flavours of the dish, while the Cabernet was in perfect harmony with the chicken's feet, like a contented old couple. All three wines matched the dish but your ultimate choice would depend on how you like your spicy food.

While personal preference is certainly a factor, there are still basic guidelines for food and wine matching. Their styles can be contrasting (sweet vs spicy, acidic vs oily), but their intensity and body (richness) have to be compatible, otherwise one will overpower the other (check out Flavour Colours for more elaboration). We ran a spicy food/wine pairing exercise the other day and here is the verdict:

Chicken in spicy sauce (口水雞) with a Chilean Carmen Gran Reserve Chardonnay 2009: Although the wine is medium bodied with pronounced fruit, the dish was just a notch too heavy for the wine. The wine tasted thin and lost the fruit aroma after the food.

Hunan deep-fried prawns in chilli sauce with Chablis Domaine Laroche St. Martin 2009: Again the food was too heavy for the wine. It was actually better matched with the Chilean Carmen Gran Reserve Chardonnay 2009

Sautéed mutton with chilli in casserole with Chateau Croix Mouton Bordeaux Superior 2009: Unfortunately (or fortunately?) the food was too subtle (by mutton standards) and the wine was not intense. This mismatch turned out to be inoffensive but unsensational.

Sautéed spicy beef brisket in casserole and Domaine des Sénéchaux Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007:  The intensely flavoured dish was well balanced by the equally intensely fruit-laden wine. The weight of the food and wine were spot on—seamless!

The key for pairing spicy, or indeed non spicy, food with wine? The intensity of flavour and body. Sweetness, acidity and tannins are more a matter of personal preference. So next time you have (especially Asian) food with wine, trust your palate, not what the experts have told you. Have fun experimenting with the options that wine and food matching offers!

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