Charcoal barbecued meat with Tsingtao beer, steamed seafood with Millet wine, braised pork with rice liquor are the most widely seen pairings at a Chinese consumer’s dining table. These pairings have become conventions on my table too, but I haven’t thought about the rationales behind these until the WSET Level 2 course inspired me to figure out equilibriums between food and beverages. Chinese food, after all, can go perfectly with wines when following some simple principles.
The taste of food and the taste of wine may interact and impact one another but it is food that often dominates the dinner table. In this case, one can decide what to eat first, and then choose a matching wine.
Dish with salt and umami, like braised bamboo shoot
Salt in food enhances wine’s fullness, sweetness and softens the bitterness and acidity in wine. In this case, salt in food is a very nice match to almost all wines. However, Chinese cuisine often carries salt and umami at the same time. While salt is wine-friendly, umami is less inclusive. Umami often reduces the sweetness, fruitiness and fullness of a wine. If umami is the dominant taste of a dish, it is best to choose low-tannin, low-acidity, fruity young wines. In this case, stir-fried mushrooms with Moscatod’Asti, and braised bamboo shoots with Merlot are both nice matches.
Bitter dishes like bitter gourd
Bitter food such as bitter gourd are indispensable in the Chinese diet because they have plenty of vitamins. Some bitter foods taste refreshing, while others taste … just bitter. Bitterness in food could cause the taste buds to focus on the bitterness in wine. In this case, low-tannin wines, such as white Burgundy, are a good match.
Sweet dishes like red bean rice dumpling soup
Sweetness in food always brings satisfaction but it reduces the sweetness, fruitiness and fullness in wine. It also magnifies the bitterness, acidity and burning effect of alcohol in wine. Sweet dishes paired with a less sweet wine will make the beverage taste like plain water, and will make high-acidity wines taste too sour. Sweet food and sweet, fruity wine, such as Hungary’s Tokaji, are sweetheart partners.
Chilli and spicy food like mapo tofu
Some people just can’t survive without chilli and spices. When I visited south China’s Hunan province, I found local people eat toast with shining red chilli sauce for breakfast. Local people also like mapo tofu and barbecued green pepper, and they pour shimmering chilli oil on top of a bowl of rice or noodles, the right way to consume the staple food. Chilli, like sugar, magnifies the bitter, burning effect of alcohol, increases acidity and reduces the sweetness and fruitiness in wine. So I would recommend a low-tannin red or sweet white for chilli-lovers.
Dishes with high fat and oil such as braised pork
Braised dishes such as braised pork carry a lot of calories from fat and cooking oil, and they look really rich with the dark-coloured soy sauce and sugar. Wines with high acidity will help to reduce the oily feeling on the palate, and the refreshing taste will complement the richness of braised meat.
Dishes with strong flavours like beef curry
Dishes with seasonings such as cumin, coconut milk and curry powder often steal the show on the dinner table with their strong flavours. Lightly flavoured, refreshing wines can go well with these foods as they help create layers of taste.
Lightly flavoured dishes
If the food is lightly flavoured, such as some vegetarian dishes, wines with stronger flavours and complexities can come under the spotlight, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer. Such pairings can be quite surprising because they reveal the layers of the wines.
Globalisation of food and wines extends possibilities to combine the food of one place with wine from another. Whisk(e)y with sushi, Bordeaux red with Turkish kebab, or Korean rice wine, Makgeolli, with macaroons can all be innovative and surprisingly delicious pairings. Experiment with different wines and flavours to find your own perfect match.
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