John Corbett finds some solutions to the problem of what wines to serve with Asian cuisines.

Back in the day, Alimentary worked for the best part of a decade in Southeast Asia, specifically in Malaysia and Singapore. We count it as a uniquely pleasurable and rewarding time in our life because, as anybody who has been there knows, life in the Asian tropics is the complete antithesis of the temperate West. The sun, the heat, the colours, the lush vegetation – and the smells! – are all intense, and the food is delicious.

Chilli squid at End of the World Restaurant, Teluk Bahang, Penang

Chilli squid at End of the World Restaurant, Teluk Bahang, Penang

In those days we didn’t drink wine or spirits much. Wine was, and is still, alarmingly expensive in many parts of Asia (you blanch at paying $45 in KL or Singapore for a brand you can get on special at the supermarket in New Zealand for $12) so beer became our everyday tipple, usually Anchor or Tiger. And although we hardly needed any encouragement to drink it, a medical lady of our acquaintance at the time told us that beer is a good choice in hot climates.

“It’s hydrating. It goes in one hole and out through a million,” she said, referring of course to one’s mouth and pores. “And it’s very good for the kidneys.” A further bonus is that beer goes very well with Malaysian and Singaporean cuisines.

At this point we hear you pause and ask: What about spirits? What about a classic, refreshing G&T, sipped under a ceiling fan on a torpid afternoon? To which we reply, that’s all very nice – but, as with Dorothy Parker’s famous advice about martinis*, stick to two at the most. In the past, the combination of a demanding equatorial climate and a ready supply of 40-proof liquor proved the downfall of many a European expat; as one of the last local relics of the British Raj once informed us in her chic, colonial-era “Black & White’”cottage in Singapore’s poshest suburb of Bukit Timah: “The spirits got a lot of ‘em.’” Whisky, gin, vodka and rum etcetera are also expensive in Asia.

Chicken with Coconut Cream - part of the sumptuous buffet offerings at Club Med Cherating, Malaysia

Chicken with Coconut Cream – part of the sumptuous buffet offerings at Club Med Cherating, Malaysia

On the odd occasions that we did drink wine in the tropics – and as Singapore in particular became increasingly affluent and wine drinking caught on – we stuck to the predictable match of Champagne (when we could afford it or were given it at some do or other), or quality New World bubbles. We also worked out that aromatic wines such as pinot gris and gewürztraminer and some sweeter rieslings worked just fine – and that dry white wines were almost always a disaster. The reason for that is dry wines don’t have sufficient residual sugars to counter the heat and sweetness and sourness of many Asian dishes, so the wine ends up tasting tart.

Nevertheless, there are many wines (including – surprise, surprise: reds) that you can drink with Asian cuisines, with delicious results. It’s also handy to remember that the higher alcohol content of wine compared with beer efficiently metabolises chilli oil from the mouth, thus making it a good partner for Asian cuisines. Here then, are some of the results of our explorations – and apologies if some of the matches seem a bit generic: we were thinking about a lot of dining occasions and trying to cover a lot of bases.

Oriental cunning
There is of course more than one way of approaching the subject of matching wine with spicy foods. Some people try to gauge the level of the sweetness of the food that is being served, and then select a wine to complement it. This approach can be deceptive, as you can imagine, and we must say that we’ve never had much success with it. Far more useful in our experience, because the heat and spiciness of most Asian dishes are nearly always the predominating factors, is to look at the level of residual sweetness in the wine.

It’s a truism that sweet wines such as auslese (non-dry) rieslings go very well with Asian cuisines – but it’s a little-known fact that you can actually push the sweetness level of wines quite high with some dishes – way further, in fact, than you would usually think of doing – with very good results. But let’s start quietly.

The Hard Rock Hotel & Resort Penang's elegant version of Nasi Lemak - Malaysia's national breakfast. It's great at any time of the day.

The Hard Rock Hotel & Resort Penang’s elegant version of Nasi Lemak – Malaysia’s national breakfast. It’s great at any time of the day.

If you are looking to match a wine with a vegetarian-predominant dish such as stir-fried vegetables and tofu (and assuming you haven’t soused it in chilli), try a pinot grigio or something similar. The crisp, restrained, minerally acidity of the wine will be a good foil for the natural sweetness of the vegetables.

For a mild chicken curry or a Thai chicken salad such as Larb Gai, try a sweet riesling. You’ll find that the wine’s aroma and mouth-filling flavours will lose some of their sweetness and show any spice characters when they come up against the spicy food. It’s an interesting and popular match. A good friend of ours also swears by gewürztraminers from Alsace – and she’s right. A further tip: try serving sweet wines quite cold to enhance their freshness: they can take it.

Red wine (perhaps a not too aggressive Cabernet Sauvignon or a Shiraz) paired with a Pad Thai lamb dish? Your first response is probably: No. But the answer is actually: Yes. What happens here is that these wines are nearly always a good match with lamb, but secondly, and just as importantly, the pairing of the food and the wine softens the tannins in the wine that you might assume would fight with the spice in the dish. It can be a very nice match, which is always the first thing to look for in a wine and food matching.

When a match does seem good, it’s an interesting process to analyse what is actually going on, and why you like it. A simple process for doing this is to taste the wine, eat, and then taste the wine again.

Sweet enough?
Let’s take it a bit further and try say, a pork dish with a plum sauce and match it with a wine that has a frizzante (mildly sparkling) finish like Brown Brothers’ Dolcetto & Syrah. Or even further, try a green chicken curry or Butter Chicken or coconut prawns or Vietnamese Beef with a spätlese (late-harvest) (Brown Brothers’ Spätlese Lexia is a good choice). Here, the wine cuts through the heat and sweetness of the dish, which in turn makes the wine taste even fuller. A good sweet riesling would also go well here.

Baked black rice custard with candied banana and gula melaka - one of the excellent desserts at the Hard Rock Hotel and Resort, Penang, Malaysia

Baked black rice custard with candied banana and gula melaka – one of the excellent desserts at the Hard Rock Hotel and Resort, Penang, Malaysia

Fresh fruit platters commonly conclude many Asian meals and are a nice contrast with the spicy fare that often precedes them. Here, try serving a Muscat-type dessert wine or a Sec Champagne or bubbly with a medley of sliced watermelon, melon, star fruit and pineapple (you choose). You’ll find it a refreshing experience.

Last word
If you get into  trouble with super-hot chillis, the best thing to do is drink some milk. It works far better at relieving your discomfort than water or beer or wine. Some people also recommend eating something sugary. When you are in this situation, you try anything!

Editor’s note: Alimentary travelled to Club Med Cherating and Penang, Malaysia with the assistance of Club Med, Hard Rock Hotel & Resort, Penang and 4PR. Alimentary would also like to tip its hat to Steve Kline, the estimable Wine Education Manager at Brown Bros Australia, who passed on some of these tips.

Photos: John Corbett.

* Dorothy Parker on martinis:
I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
After four I’m under my host.’