Wine opinion: Asian cuisines find their perfect match

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 June, 2014, 12:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 June, 2014, 12:15pm

Fairy tales are pervasive. Who doesn't love the tale of the pauper who marries the princess? Many wine drinkers enjoy the same fantasy in their wine pairing where we hear regularly of the likes of noble 1950s Jayer being shared over a humble plate of yi mien noodles.

However, with many casual Asian meals, the issue with many attempted pairings is that the dishes are rarely content to play the role of scruffy street urchin to the Comtesse.

Their fancy footwork and flamboyant twirling might just throw her off her feet. In fact, the extreme range of flavours of some Asian dishes suggests they might be best partnered with the type of streetwise girl that many connoisseurs might dismiss as "not serious". A little tart sauvignon blanc perhaps?

Still, matching wine to Asian dishes is a fascinating topic, though perhaps obsessed about much more by the wine trade itself trying to find new consumption occasions for its product than consumers themselves. Nothing raises our hackles more than hearing producers imperiously declare, "My wine goes with Asian food". Asian food, like European food, runs the gamut, from the delicately perfumed nobleman that is Cantonese cuisine to the feisty merchant prince of Singapore.

Singaporeans interviewed for our Guide to the Singapore Wine Trade said they have a very challenging time matching wine with their local food, and even the F&B pros we interviewed stated that, while people are starting to bring their wine to the hawker stands that represent some of the city's richest culinary heritage, the wine choices themselves tend to be quite simple.

The bottles on view are often varietal new world picks with simple fruit and uncomplicated appeal, washing down nicely with the fast talking chilli crab and carrot cake on the table.

Looking at the opposite extreme of subtle Japanese cuisine, it seems a shame to wed these dishes of purity together with a brash loudmouth or brooding intellectual who might steal the show.

In Japan's Sakura Awards, a wine competition judged entirely by female sommeliers and wine professionals, the judges voted a southern French rosé as the best match for sushi. The tag line for it was "crisp and refreshing" - nary a mention of complexity or nuance.

An encouraging trend is wine being presented by winemakers at Cantonese restaurants. The challenge with these wine matching events is that the winemaker naturally wants a dish that will show the wine to best advantage, which often results in a menu sequence unfamiliar to local diners.

This happened at a recent evening where the PR firm rearranged a Cantonese banquet so that the steamed grouper was served first with the white wine, fried rice immediately after to match a rosé, followed by courses normally served as starters.

Not to mention that chefs often choose to ennoble local dishes in a way that is difficult for consumers to replicate in other settings, making the lessons irrelevant.

Matching traditions were born mostly in Europe where pairing was based on the key protein of the meal, such as meat or fish. Increasingly, we're concluding it is the sauce flavours that dominate matching choices.

Take fish dishes - in our part of the world these range from steamed Cantonese grouper, to kari ikan (Malaysian fish curry), to grilled achari fish tikka (Indian tandoori fish) or pla sam rot (Thai deep-fried fish with a sweet, tangy and spicy tamarind sauce). So how can we abide by old European commandments, such as "white wine with fish"?

The clearest vindication for the casual country lass trying to make it work with the urban sophisticate is our own competition (Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition) results from 2013, in which not one but three of the winning wines for food matching came from the portfolio of Jacob's Creek.

While there was a little discomfort when the winners were revealed, later tastes - not blind this time - were enough to quell those fears, as much like the fairy tale couples whose love wins the approval of all, the matches spoke for themselves.

The chilli-laden kung pao chicken, always one of the most challenging, had perhaps the most populist match of them all. The Jacob's Creek Sparkling Moscato Rosé was the girl whose foot fitted the glass slipper.

Debra Meiburg is a master of wine