The most highly regarded cuisines, which would certainly include French, Cantonese, and Sichuanese, are feted for their ability to cleverly incorporate "borrowed" or "introduced" ingredients and techniques.
The embracing of chilli peppers in Sichuan province, brought from South America, would be an obvious but very good example of this phenomena. But does such dynamism in cooking upset the often delicate food and wine matching process? The panel assembled to debate this consisted of three people with very strong wine backgrounds.
Beverly Koo is a lawyer by day, but is involved with her family's vineyard in Bordeaux. Wine educator Kevin Tang has been in the wine industry for 17 years, and is a former restaurant owner. Sarah Wong works for the family business and does wine on the side, though it is quite a large side.
The venue was Shang Palace in the Kowloon Shangri-La hotel, where chef Mok Kit-keung confesses that he loves to "borrow" and was off to Taiwan the following day to investigate more of that "borrowing".
On the menu, we could easily ring several items that are outside mainstream Cantonese. Fig sauce, rack of lamb, Japanese pumpkin and foie gras are among them. In charge of finding some wine-pairing options was Ringo Lam, the hotel's sommelier, who put together an innovative, eclectic succession of labels.
First up was a funky dim sum plate comprising barbecued Japanese pork with fig sauce, steamed scallop dumpling formed into the shape of a cute, little pink rabbit, and crispy prawn with cereals, all of which Lam matched with Bruno Paillard, Première Cuvée Rosé NV Champagne.
She figured its body and acidity would pair well with the platter. Wong found the wine "linear" and Tang said it was "very smart, very lean." The rabbit was pink because of the "borrowing" of beetroot, the cereal was crispy and from Singapore, and the plate included pretty little edible shiso flowers from Japan. In other words, there was a huge amount going on with this plate, and there was also panel dissent.
The Champagne was deemed in some quarters to complement the fig sauce because of its touch of sweetness, but the sweetness and richness of the prawn might have matched better with a sparkling wine from the New World with a slightly higher sugar level, though its oiliness was good with the Paillard. There was a general discussion about the overall suitability of Champagne with food, and how too many people "chuck it down" before food, with obvious consequences. It is "something to enjoy slowly with food", Koo said.
The next dish was braised pumpkin - a sweet one from Japan - made into a cream with imperial bird's nest and Alaskan crabmeat in baby pumpkin (a local one), which Lam had not specifically matched with a wine. We thought that perhaps it went even better with the Champagne than the appetiser platter.
We were very pleased to see a Burgundy from a lesser-known, but what Wong considers as an up-and-coming region: Savigny-lès-Beaune, Les Vermots Dessus 2007, from Domaine Vincent Girardin, a great producer. Koo said that it "feels a bit young, the oak still very apparent", while Wong found it "elegant. The oak works here." Tang used the word "intense".
We tried it with stir-fried egg white with diced silver cod and urchin and it was deemed a great match even though "uni [urchin] is not easy", Koo said, and Wong added that "cod is difficult because it is rich, with oils". "It works well with egg white and cod. Doesn't feel oaky. Nice acid and even fruit," Koo said. Tang noted how the wine helped to bring out the sea-freshness of the dish.
Next, we found ourselves with foie gras and red wine, a normal pairing for Koo's family but something more often deemed unusual. The wine was the rich, beautifully structured, densely perfumed Gigondas, Cuvée Tradition, Domaine Santa Duc 2005 and the dish was, somewhat controversially, roast rack of lamb with goose liver and black pepper. "Where's the Chinese part of this? - But it is very good," Koo said.
Although the lamb had been both pan-fried and baked, we discovered later from chef Mok that the meat had been marinated Chinese-style in light and dark soy with garlic. Tang found the matching "seamless" and he loved the wine - "not rustic, but fine". Wong echoed his sentiments: "Both [lamb and liver] are very rich and high [in] fat, but the Gigondas goes really well. Marriage match! Tannins work well with this food." The last wine was quite fascinating - a second Rhône label, but this time a botrytis-affected Viognier. Wong commented how it was amazing to see this wine style from such a hot and dry region.
Condrieu Ayguets 2006 from marvellous producer Yves Cuilleron was brilliantly put together; a knife-edge balance of fruit, oak, alcohol and acid with a slightly burnt finish - "crème brûlée", Wong said. Lam had matched it with the dessert of baked chestnut pastry and chilled coconut puff with beetroot and sweet corn. Tang commented on how the wine's just-there acidity balanced the sweetness of the chestnut. "Very good matching." Lam liked it as a wine which teamed up with the pastry without overpowering it.