Tried & Tested: Wines for Asian cuisine

Cantonese, Thai, Indian, Japanese….(unedited notes from a series of tastings conducted with Peak- G Magazine in 2011)


Modern Cantonese Cuisine

Panelists:Michael Tay, Carrie Chen, Tan Kah Hin and Edwin Soon

Task: Taste 23 wines and determine their suitability to Cantonese cuisine; identify a best overall wine for such a cuisine.
Venue: Majestic Restaurant was chosen for it’s fine interpretation of food from the semi-tropical region of China, so rich in seafood, livestock and vegetables. Tradition dictates that food should be prepared steamed, poached, or undergo a quick stir-fry to best bring out the freshness of the raw ingredients.
The first dish to emerge from the kitchen turned out to be a combination of three starters. Early on, we had our work cut out for us. For oysters encased in a crispy batter, few red wines made the match. The high iron content in the red wine interacted with the seafood and brought out a not-so pleasant metallic taste. That said however, a Russian sparkling wine, the Abrau Durso ‘Imperial Collection’ Brut, with its tangy acidity contrasted the salt of the oysters whilst the wines bubbly consistency was a foil to the crunchy robe of the oyster. Finally we found our match!  For the beancurd roll and prawns with slivers of fresh mango, Argentinan Chardonnay from Bodegas Y Vinedos Graffigna with it’s citrus flavours were the perfect foil for the prawns. The wine mirrored the mango flavours decadently whilst its texture was a welcome contrast to the crisp and soft beancurd.
Vegetables can always be a challenge for wine pairings simply because of their chlorophyll and fresh green flavours. Fortunately, the next dish, a sauteed kai lan on a crispy nest came with a trio of mushrooms and macadamia nuts. The nuts served as the first bridging ingredient with wine. The wok hei-infused mushrooms and garlic brimmed with umami. These earthy, nutty and umami flavours called out for wines with fine tannins and flavours of forest fruit and earth. The trio of fine German wines submitted for this tasting – Rudolf Furst, Jean Stodden, Friedrich Becker rose to the occasion. New Zealand Pinot Noirs (Nautilus Estate, Brancott and Mt. Riley) didn’t fare to badly either.
Next came a seared Wagyu ribeye, lightly marinated in soy, honey, coriander and yellow bean. The pillows of sweet meat paired tastefully with the lightly sweet Mt. Riley Pinot Noir. But what if one insisted on imbibing the kim chee that came served with the ribeye? The wine of choice would once again be the Russian sparkling wine.

Roast suckling pig with fragrant glutinous rice and hoisin sauce presented a predicament.
Logic tells us that the sweet hoisin sauce can only be matched with a wine that is equally sweet. The meat we knew would be best matched with dry wines.
A spatlese was found to be too tangy so it was finally down to a pair of Italian Moscato d’Asti’s –from Marchesi di Barolo and from Michele Chiarlo. The panelists felt that the dish was no less delicious if one left out the sauce. In such a case, the Capanelle Chardonnay and the Louis Jadot Montrachet complimented the dish but it was Simon – Buerule, Auerbacher Hoellberg Chardonnay from Germany that made the match.
Recommendations – Moscato is the easiest choice for Chinese food. Then again, you can’t go far wrong with Chardonnay either. The clean, dry, soft and well-defined wine is always a winner with pork dishes, a key meat dish in Cantonese cuisine.
The ultimate wine for Cantonese cuisine must certainly be a Pinot Noir. Sure, complex and expensive Pinot Noirs will be very enjoyable but a simple, inexpensive Pinot Noir such as Mt Riley will do just as well. Thanks to the wine’s affinity to ginger, garlic and soy.


North Indian Cuisine
Complexity: The cuisine of India, country of countries, is diverse – from Mughal pullaos to Goan seafood. One commonality that all Indian cuisine shares is its plethora of spices – for seasoning, enhancing, and flavouring food.

Panelists:  Sarah Mayo, Tan Su Yen, Tan Kah Hin, Daniel Chia and Edwin Soon went about to discover just what wines would make the cut with Punjab cuisine.

Venue: The newly opened Punjab Grill at Marina Bay Sands played host to our pairing quest. Some 20 wines (including Australian Shiraz, Chilean Cabernet, Portuguese rosé and American Merlot) were uncorked for the exercise.
For starters, a Tandoori Guchchi Salad composed of char grilled goats cheese and morel mushrooms with a Burrhani salad dressing were presented. Two wines stood out for their ability to enhance the dish.
A Bisol Crede Prosecco di Valdobbiaidene DOC, a sparkling white wine, mirrored the tanginess of the goat’s cheese and brought out a lingering nutty flavour in the mouth.
A Valduero Crianza red went one step further. The soft tannins and vanilla nuances perfectly set off the char grill flavours of the cheese. The longer one enjoyed this wine, the more apparent the savouriness of the dish became. To confirm both wines suitability for oven baked meats, Tandoori chicken was ordered up and indeed both wines passed with flying colours.
A Spatlese Riesling from Dr. H Thanisch (Muller – Burggraef) was just what the next dish – dill-flavoured Norwegian Salmon Tikka, needed. The wine’s touch of sweetness provided a lovely balance for the savory-tasting fish.
If red is what you prefer, might we suggest Lucbaudet-Mas-Neuf Armonio, a Grenache/ Merlot/Cabernet blend. The wine’s soft tannins works well to eliminate any bitter spice reactions in the food.
The traditional lamb mince of Raunaqeen Seekhan was given an extraordinary play of tastes at the Punjab Grill – with a filling of Chevre cheese.
Served with coriander, mint and spring onions, it called out for a wine with good sweetness to counter this complex medley of tastes which included some piquant chilli. Here a Yalumba Bush Vine Grenache fit the bill, as did the Valduero Crianza.
An aromatic basmati rice dish – a Samundari Pilaf on dum arrived on our table served with a perfectly-prepared sea bass, succulent tiger prawns and sweet green mussels. Alongside was a palak paneer. Grenaches, Merlots, Syrahs and even Nero d’Avolas weren’t a bad match but ultimately it was a Spanish red wine that come up tops for us. Valduero Crianza, proved once again, to be the all-rounder. The wine brought out the delightful flavours in the dish but still managed to keep the piquant heat at bay.
For sweet endings, a dessert rice soufflé called Phirni was presented. As always, sweet matches sweet and a Spatlese Riesling played its role perfectly.
Findings – With Indian fare, you need fruity low tannin reds or any wine with residual sweetness to counter any piquant spice in the food. If unsure, serve both a soft red and a lightly sweet white wine. Beware of wines with high alcohol as the alcohol will tend to build on the chilli spice and you might end up feeling like a blowtorch has been applied to your mouth. Other wines to try with northern Indian cuisine, are Pinot Grigios, Viogniers, Gruner Veltliners , Chateauneuf du Papes and aged Tuscan Sangiovese based wines.
The best overall wine for Punjab cuisine is the Valduero Crianza from Ribera del Duero. With its soft tannins, broad spectrum of flavours, it is the wine to accompany different tangents and spices found in Northern Indian food.


Thai Cuisine

Cuisine: Whether it’s a meat, seafood or vegetable dish, it’s the bright, zesty herbs – lime leaf, basil and lemongrass – that set Thai food apart from other Asian cuisines. Tangy turmeric, mint, nutmeg, ginger, garlic, cloves, coriander, peppercorns, sweet shallots, spring onions and chilli complete the plethora of flavourings. For texture and taste there is salty fish sauce and silky-textured coconut milk. Thai cuisine, harmoniously combines disparate flavours and delivers more than the searing piquancy of chilli. In essence, it’s a balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot tastes – with the sweet predominating in Royal Thai cuisine.

Venue & Panelists: So, onto wines. And it was at the Kha restaurant that panelists Stephanie Rigourd, Janice Koh, Tan Su Yen, Michael Tay, Gerald Lu and Edwin Soon were tasked to determine the best overall wine for Thai cuisine. But first – the best matches for each dish.

For a duo of starters – Tod Man Pla and Grilled Red Curry Rubbed Wagyu Beef, a wine had to be characterful enough to stand up to the Kaffir lime, nuts and raw sweet onions served with the fish cake. Moreover, it also had to be creamy enough to match the texture of the beef yet crisp enough to cut through the fat of the meat. Lo and behold, Gewurztraminers turned out to be the ideal wines here. The Bott-Geyl Gewurztraminer from France and the Italian Gewurztraminer, from Elena Walch, made the best matches for the starters.
Additionally, the highly aromatic Schloss Castell, a Gewurtzraminer-Silvaner blend from Germany went a step further. It enhanced the herbal flavours of the Tod Man Pla.
Pairing wines with soups is no mean feat. Tom Yum Goong is no exception. This dish features prawns, lemongrass and is hot and sour to taste. The deLoach Zinfandel, with its vanilla flavours, initially seemed a possible match but soon found difficulties with the lemongrass. The Elena Walch Gewurztraminer prolonged the aromatics of the soup and brought out a freshness in the pairing. The Gewurztraminer-Silvaner had the effect of quelling the piquancy in the soup. A Pinot Gris from Johanninger brought out a delicious sweetness in the prawns, and also cleansed the palate with every sip, entreating one to take more spoonfuls of soup.
The same Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminers complimented equally the next dishes of Kheaw Wan Gai, Wok Fried Tiger Prawns with Crispy Quail Eggs. The former wine was a refreshing contrast to the Green Curry but it was the Gewurztraminer that had enough acidity and sweetness to cool down the spice and prolong the flavour. To finish, a rich Pad Thai found a character match with a equally rich and full-bodied French Gewurztraminer.
A caramel Ma Muang Suk was served last at Kha. A Beni di Batasiolo Moscato di Asti, furnished by the restaurant was a refreshing partner to the end of a lovely meal.
For Thai food, wine recommendations are to pick a neutral wine that helps to cleanse the palate and tame the chilli. Alternatively, choose a wine with a strong personality but one that adds pleasant tastes to the food flavours. Pinot Gris from Germany and Gewurztraminer from Italy are the best pics. All other wines including Soave, dry Furmint, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, and even a Merlot, make good matches but the Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer made heavenly pairings.


Japanese Cuisine
Cuisine: Unlike other Asian cuisines that involve blends of sauces, herbs and spices to create flavorsome dishes, Japanese food celebrates the taste of one main ingredient. Each dish is created through measured portions, meticulous preparation, and a juxtaposition of textures, shapes and colors. With such meticulous detail and discipline, any wine called to match would also have to serve several requirements – to be crisp and pointed enough to pair with raw and cooked seafood; to be savoury enough to marry the salty tastes of soy, teriyaki and sesame; and to be quiet enough so as not to interfere with the pure flavours of each dish.

Panelists & Venue: Carrie Chen, Lam Fook Ping, Tan Ying Hsienand Edwin Soon challenged themselves to the finer point of Japanese food and wine matching at Nadaman Resturant.

For the assorted summer appetizers of boiled Matsutake mushroom, scallop and lettuce; Salty squid, prawn with caviar, lotus roots, asparagus and Enoki mushroom, cucumber, white radish with vinegar – two wines were shortlisted. The Duval-Leroy Champagne served as a good palate cleanser but it was a Pierre Peters Grand Gru Blanc de Blancs that made the best match. This champagne contrasted with the fried salty asparagus yet had good acids to handle the squid and vinegar. It stood its ground with complex with toasty notes and did not interfere with the flavours of the dishes.
Raw fish found many friendly consorts. Chardonnays added a smoky edge to the pairing of sashimi of flat fish, yellow tail and red tuna. Dry white wines with tangy citrus flavours worked like a squeeze of lemon on white fish. Champagnes had the same effect but also highlighted the textures in the fish. With the sushi of prime tuna, salmon and sea bream, a Gevrey Chambertin by Rossignol-Trapet highlighted the creaminess of the sushi. Shiso leaf paired well with spicy red Burgundies. Both were a match for each other in flavour and taste intensities.
Given the pure and pristine tastes of the seafood, the best wine to match turned out to be a Grand Cru Clos de Vougeot by Thibault Liger-Belair. The complex tasting wine was enhanced by the various food tastes whilst the wine itself highlighted the various textures of the sushi and sashimi.

Next came a Japanese rolled omelette with grilled eel that had a smoky edge. A lightly sweet Spatlese Riesling from Von Hovel (the panelist’s safe option) enveloped all the flavours and added some sweetness to the dish. The Clos de Vougeot however, combined effortlessly with the food. It not only bound all the flavours of the dish, making the dish more complete, but also matched well the sides of seaweed, abalone and mushrooms.

For fried battered dishes like Tempura prawn, rolled white meat fish with shiso leaf eggplant, sweet potato and sweet green pepper, champagnes were found to be too assertive. Chardonnay did work but it was a white burgundy, a Roux Pere and Fils Saint Aubin that made fast found friends with fish, prawn and vegetables. The Clos de Vougeot red was also a winner.

Finally, at end, came some Australian Wagyu beef “Sukiyaki” style. Any wine would be tasked to stand up to the sweet soy sauce. Panelists tried the Von Hovel Spatlese Riesling and nodded approvingly but the surprise was that although none of the dry wines worked, a Mumm Cordon Rouge bucked the trend. It handled the salty sweet soy tastes and the beef flavours like everything had been predestined. This is the perfect wine for this dish.

For Japanese cuisine the favourite wine was unanimously the Clos de Vougeot grand Cru red Burgundy from Thibault Liger-Belair. Having a dry white wine as an alternative is recommended when serving Japanese cuisine.


Singapore Hawker Fare
Food: Hawker food is a mixed bag of dishes, with different origins, cooking methods and ingredients. If there is one unifying theme of hawker food is that flavours are bold. Should a wine take the secondary role as a thirst quencher or could a wine add to a dish’s flavours when a food-wine matching is attempted?

Panelists : Janice Koh, Gerald Lu, Lam Fook Ping and Tan Ying Hsien
Satay – Grilled turmeric-marinated meat, dipped into a spicy sweet peanut sauce calls out for smooth, sweet white wines. After considering wines such as Malbecs, Chateauneuf du Papes and even an Auslese Riesling, it was a C.H. Berres Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Spatlese, with it slightly sweet taste that worked best with the sauce and also stronger tasting meats such as the mutton satay.
Laksa features the use of strong tasting ingredients – shrimp paste, coriander, coconut milk and laksa leaf. An Anne Gros et Jean-Paul Tollot Minervois (Grenache, Syrah, Carigan, Cinsault) brought soft tannins and dark fruit flavours to the pairing. A Zaccagnini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cerasuolo also made a good match but panelists opted for a white wine that intensified the spiciness of the Laksa – the Domaine Long Depaquit Chablis Premier Cru – Les Vaucopins.
Carrot Cake is oily, with smoky flavours, savoury tastes and a chewy texture. The best wine for this dish was the blended wine from the Minervois.
Rojak, with pungent flavours of black prawn paste, lime, peanuts, ginger flower, sugar and tamarind, needs a wine that can stand up to big flavours. The Bodegas Y Vinedos Graffigna Malbec made the grade but in the end it was the C.H. Berres Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Spatlese that came out tops. It had the sweetness and acidity to blend in with the dish.
Hokkien Mee is a robust flavoured dish of egg, lard, seafood, deep-fried shallots, spring onions, soy, sambal and fresh lime. Wines like the Vina Maipo Limited Edition Syrah and the Minervois made reasonable matches. However, the best match was the Trivento Golden Reserve Malbec as it simply paired well with the seafood, matched beautifully with the wok hei in this exuberant dish.
Conclusion – no one wine works best with hawker food since the range of dishes is wide. Sweet wines work with most dishes that feature chilli since the sweetness in the wine tends to quell any of the piquant burn of chilli. Avoid high alcohol wines that tend to accentuate the chilli burn. Also keep away from high tannin red wines – the friendly red wines will have some sweet dark or red fruit that brings to the match nice flavours.

SUMMARY – Best wines for Asian Cuisine
Singapore Hawker dishes: Sweet wines and soft tannin, low alcohol red wines, preferably chilled should make reasonable pairings for most dishes.
Indian Punjab cuisine: Choose any low tannin or smooth tannin red wine with juicy characters, such as a Grenache or a Spanish red (Tempranillo). White wines that are lightly sweet will tame any spice and heat but may not pair well with all dishes.
Chinese Cantonese Cuisine: You can’t go wrong with lightly sweet Moscatos but a better match is found in a New World Pinot Noir.
Thai cuisine: Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer make excellent wine pairings. Pinot Gris tends to refresh whilst Gewurztraminer tends to cool down the spice and add some sweetness to the dish.
Japanese Cuisine: Having a red and a white Burgundy at the table will ensure that most food and wine matches will work. The better the wine, the better the pairing.