For several weeks last year, I was based in Beijing and loved the range of hearty, flavourful dishes of northern Chinese cuisine such as braised offal and chewy fat noodles with salty, black soya bean sauce. I enjoyed jiaozi, meat dumplings, nearly every day and had wonderful spicy meals in the many Sichuan restaurants across the city. Even with tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorn in my mouth, I reached for wines to try flavour combinations.
I was so obsessive about trying wine with everything that at the end of the third week, my discussion about wine with Chinese ingredients and seasonings elicited groans from my local friends. 'You continue with your quest,' they said. 'We will just watch and drink and eat what we like.'
In Asia we do not have a tradition of eating only what is on our plate - our chopsticks and spoons reach out to the centre and dig into communal plates and soups filled with a diverse array of flavours. Each bite we take is different from the last. So how does one pair wine within such complex culinary traditions and the thousands of variations that are possible in a typical Cantonese, Korean or Japanese meal?
One common theme and consideration that emerges across Asia is the strong emphasis on palate texture and subtle umami (savoury, bouillon-like) flavours. In the Cantonese kitchen, umami comes from the richly flavoured stocks which form the base of nearly every Cantonese dish - as the base for various sauces, in marinades and as soup bases. Adding stock increases the texture, richness and umami component of the dish. In the Japanese kitchen, umami flavours come from the abundant use of soy sauce, miso paste and dashi soup stock. Similarly, across other parts of Asia, soy sauce, oyster sauce and all forms of fermented soya bean are as basic an ingredient as salt in the West.
Palate texture is extremely important in many Asian cuisines; just look at the ingredients that are most highly sought-after: matsutake mushrooms, toro (fatty tuna), uni (sea urchin), Kobe beef, shark's fin, bird's nest, home-made tofu, abalone and sea cucumber. The value of these ingredients is not in any obvious flavour but in the extraordinary texture they possess.
This understanding about different elements in Asian dining can help with wine choices. When the food texture is considered important, the texture of the wine must also be considered seriously - a velvety textured ingredient like silky tofu can be completely overwhelmed if paired with a wine that has aggressive tannins and a dry finish. The palate texture of the wine has a direct impact on the appreciation of a finely textured dish. Try tofu with a soy sauce-based seasoning with a white wine that has a rounded yet prominent mid-palate flavour like Grand Cru Chablis from a top producer like Raveneau or Dauvissat.
Another consideration when pairing Asian food with wine is the expectation of the role of wine at the dining table. In a French or Italian meal, the wine's role is to enhance the appreciation of the food and also vice versa. However, Asian dishes are often so flavourful even without wine, that enhancing flavours or our appreciation of them doesn't translate as well. My experience as an Asian food lover is that the marriage of Asian dishes and wine is most often about finding compatible wines rather than sublime unions.
The much wider range of flavours in a typical Asian meal including the addition of numerous condiments and sauces means that one wine will very rarely go with all the dishes and flavours. In this context, a good match is defined by a wine's ability to pair with the majority of dishes and enhance the enjoyment of a meal.
In a typical Cantonese meal for example, each bite is a different combination of flavours. This requires a wine that possesses the one character I truly value in wine: versatility.
While factors such as wine's quality, style, maturity and flavour intensity are all important considerations, versatility in wines is a key consideration for most Asian meals. With a typical Chinese, Korean, Japanese or Singaporean meal consisting of a wide range of spices, ingredients and condiments, a versatile wine is one that can work with a wide range of flavours.
Generally, wines with strong, overt upfront fruit work less well than more subtle styles from cooler climates. The lower alcohol levels and higher acidity found in cooler climates also help in mirroring the lighter ingredients (little meat, mostly seafood) found in most Asian cuisines. Although stir-frys are not heavy, there is a certain amount of oil used, so refreshing acidity in reds and whites are a welcome accompaniment.
As an avid fan of traditional Asian flavours, I consider how the wine has an impact on the integrity of the dish, that is, enhances the meal without detracting from the food flavours. Wine's flavour intensity should echo that of the meal: Japanese food whispers rather than shouts and wines should also possess similar subtlety such as mature Clare or Eden Valley Rieslings; Korean meals can be loud but there is a depth of flavour which may require a solid wine whose personality is strong but contains complex flavours and fruit depth such as Yarra Valley Cabernet blends. Dishes that focus on texture require quiet wines that whisper and caress like vintage champagne or aged Hunter Semillon.
Asian seasonings such as chilli, which is enjoyed in a number of ways (eg flakes, paste, sauce) can be bold. Those unaccustomed to such tongue-numbing flavours may look for wines that counter the chilli burn and add refreshment value such as sparkling wine or off-dry white; however, there are chilli-lovers who are happy to reach for a bold red wine which can prolong the burn. Each culture and cuisine has a different appreciation for flavours such as sweetness, chillis, spices and salt - suggestions on wine pairings need to take into consideration the local dining culture. For the more savoury palates in northern Asia, I would suggest a bold red; for the southeast Asian palates with greater sweetness on their plate, I might suggest a crisp white.
The tolerance for sweetness in various cities across Asia differs, but in many cuisines in north Asia such as Cantonese and Korean, overt sweetness in food is considered for an immature palate, reserved for the young and unrefined. Sweet and sour dishes are usually served to children or for the Western guest and rarely ordered by food aficionados. The best Chinese, Korean or Japanese dishes have carefully measured sweetness levels and any addition of sweetness at the dining table would detract from the integrity of the dish. Thus, the long-held belief about off-dry wines or strong personality varieties such as Gewurztraminer being the best pairing with many Asian cuisines is a myth that needs to be dispelled for many North Asian palates.