Asian grapevine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 January, 2011, 12:00am

'How do you drink wine when you are having soup?' The question, posed by an elderly Chinese man during one of my food and wine pairing dinners in Hong Kong, made me pause. 'When you are eating soup, do you take a sip of wine when the soup is still in your mouth or wait a few minutes until your tongue has cooled down?' I thought about the question for a few moments.

'When I am enjoying soup, I don't often find myself reaching for my wine glass,' I replied. 'It doesn't mean wine cannot be paired with soups, but the temperature of most soups, usually enjoyed piping hot in most parts of Asia, does two things to your palate: it has a numbing effect, so your tongue temporarily loses some of its sensitivity, and it has a heating effect on the wine as soon as you put it in your mouth.'

This question made me think about the role of soup in our culture. To this day my father feels that a meal is incomplete without some type of hot nourishing broth on the table. No matter if the temperature outside is over 35 degrees Celsius, when there is no soup to accompany a meal the corners of my father's lips droop, his eyebrows firm up, his voice sounds irritable and he eats without relish.

I know many Cantonese families with a similar ardour for soup. The classic double boiled soup made from chicken and/or pork bones with herbs, and sometimes seafood, is the nourishing sustenance of cold nights or frail bodies. Double boiled soups may consist of a number of mixed meats, such as whole chicken and Hunan ham, but their flavours, reduced slowly over many hours, are crystal clear. The texture is seamless and light, with all the components intricately woven together so that one can't discern where the pork flavours end and the dried abalone flavours begin.

I grew up with a constant stream of different soups - my mother was the master of soup stock. Although her repertoire was mainly Korean soups, she could make a mean dashi (Japanese soup stock) that would put some Japanese chefs to shame. She could quickly whip together a savoury, umami-laden soup base using dried kelp, kombu and thinly shaved dried fish called bonito - putting just the right proportion into the water. Or she would make a hybrid stock using Korean dried anchovies with kombu.

After each childbirth, I was house-bound for a month and lived mainly on seaweed soup. I had a thermos next to my bedside and, instead of water, I drank seaweed soup throughout the day. Soup still remains an integral part of my meals. I never thought it clashed with the wines on the table because I find myself enjoying them separately, one after the other.

When I am enjoying a mouthful of soup, I don't reach for my wine glass. But a minute or two after the soup has coursed through my system, I enjoy taking a sip of full-bodied red wine, which instantly warms up inside my mouth. Sometimes when the tannins are tough - as with the 2008 Esk Valley merlot and cabernet sauvignon blend from New Zealand that I opened recently - the warm palate can be a bonus. Tannin perception is less sharp and the wine tastes rounder, more mellow, and the tightly knit flavours are released instantly on the palate. It is much more enjoyable than the tannic reserved flavours it expresses when not followed by a mouthful of hot double boiled chicken soup.

In May 2010, more than 100 new terracotta soldiers were uncovered in Xian. Also discovered were pots of what is believed to be soup and jars of wine. Our ancestors probably knew that wine and soup could be compatible, just not both together sloshing around in one's mouth at the same time.

Jeannie Cho Lee is the first Asian Master of Wine. Follow her at twitter.com/JeannieChoLee or contact her at features@scmp.com or www.AsianPalate.com