Asian grapevine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 November, 2011, 12:00am


During university, I nearly became a philosophy major; I certainly took enough philosophy courses to justify it. However, under my parents' encouragement, I chose to study international relations, a subject far more practical that dealt with policies and issues that had concrete solutions and answers, even if the solutions were flawed. At least, they argued, the subject asked questions and raised concerns that had to be solved and were practical, whether one looked back in history or into the future.

I enjoyed studying geopolitics and international security issues, but I preferred the bigger questions that philosophy raised: what is the meaning of our existence, what should be our core values in life and for society, what is morality, which type of government is best, what does it all mean? My tendency to be attracted to the big questions is probably why I was excited and thrilled to research the big question in wine: what is the Asian palate?

When people ask me to define the Asian palate, I offer an answer that is probably unsatisfying for many: it is a nebulous concept that we are trying to define and understand. First of all, 'Asia', or what is 'Asian', is an imprecise concept depending on how it is defined, geographically or historically, and who is defining it - a politician, economist or cartographer would all have different views. Then there is the term 'palate', which is also equally ambiguous because it can mean preference or taste for something that is not easily quantifiable.

Despite the obvious challenges, I felt it would be a shame not to deal with this big question. For me, it is by far the most important question if we are to understand the growing appreciation for wine in Asia.

For the past several years, I explored the palate preferences for different flavours in food to gain some insight on preferences for wine styles. Rather than digging deep into one cuisine or dining culture, I chose to explore the food and dining culture of 10 major cities in Asia. I aimed to better understand the local palates so I could suggest wines that consider the palate preferences for certain flavours.

For example, for a grilled fish dish in Thailand, I might recommend an off-dry or sweet wine because sweetness is often found at the dining table in the form of coconut milk, palm sugar or fresh fruits. But for the same grilled fish in South Korea, I would not recommend sweet styles as that cuisine rarely employs sweetness.

As part of my research, I spent weeks in each city, trying to understand not just the ingredients, the methods of cooking, seasonings, spices and techniques, but also the way that people eat and enjoy their meals. In each cuisine, there emerges a combination of repeated flavours and preferences for different levels of spices, umami, sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness.

What was also fascinating was how cultures defined 'delicious'. The Cantonese love rubbery, chewy textures in dishes such as jellyfish, abalone and chicken feet. The Japanese love subtle textures and purity of flavours. In South Korea, it is all about intensity and spices; its foods are laden with chilli and garlic. Given each country, city and region has its own food and eating culture, the Asian palate is extremely diverse and multifaceted. After months of research, travelling and eating sometimes five meals a day, I gained an insight into both the similarities and the differences.

The aspects that unite the Asian palate in the 10 cities included a love and true appreciation for texture in food, whether soft and creamy, gooey, crunchy, chewy, firm or sticky. Thai dishes always have an element of crunchiness, from chopped peanuts, crispy fried shallots or garlic, fresh sliced cucumber or fruits. I grew up eating noodles with kimchi, Korean fermented cabbage, so when I eat noodles, I look for some type of pickled vegetables or other crunchy element to balance the soft texture of the noodles.

There are other aspects, too, that unite us - our love for variety of ingredients and flavours. Our tables are filled with condiments that can completely alter the dish. We can combine the right amount of XO sauce, vinegar, chillies or soy sauce and blend them into our food as we wish. We acknowledge the diversity of palates and the wide range of food preferences.

While I may not have answered the question 'what is the Asian palate', I hope my research is one step closer to understanding the diversity, depth and complexity of the question. Approaching the Asian palate through food, wine and eating culture is just one facet of a fascinating question that I was excited and thrilled to explore. I will leave the really tough job of pinning down the definition to the next generation.

Jeannie Cho Lee is the first Asian Master of Wine. E-mail her at Find her at