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Eat & Drink » Wine

Pairing Wine with Asian Cuisine

Asian Delights: What to drink with kung pao, sweet & sour and moo shu.


I think most of us are guilty of being a bit provincial—or, maybe, just plain lazy—when it comes to discussions of pairing wine with Asian cuisine. With even my most studied wine-expert friends, there is a hint of imperialism when they speak of drinking wine with Chinese, Thai, Indian, Korean, Malaysian, Vietnamese or Japanese foods, as if unless the food is not French or contemporary American, it’s not worthy of a serious wine. And so, predictably, 99 of 100 so-called wine experts will tell you to A. Drink beer with Asian food, or B. If you must drink wine, make it Gew%uFFFDrztraminer or Riesling. Like I said, at the very least, this is lazy thinking.

Granted, pairing wines with Asian flavors can be a challenge. But what do you drink at a restaurant like Ho Ho Gourmet? Most of us have been trained to think about European styles of cooking when it comes to choosing wines with meals, so we’re usually focused on large meat, poultry or fish courses and fatty sauces often made with butter. In Asian cooking, meat, fish and poultry are usually served in sparse quantities, and there is much more of an emphasis on vegetables, accompanied by tricky spices and sauces.

But when you really think about it, Asian cookery actually resembles French nouvelle cuisine and “New American” cooking, with the accent on smaller, delicate portions featuring fresh, seasonal vegetables. So with regard to wine, it’s time to give Asian food the respect it deserves.

Not to bash Gewurztraminer, Riesling or beer—the sweetness and minimal alcohol of those beverages make them good choices for many hot and spicy dishes. But not all Asian dishes are spicy. As with any other type of cuisine, when pairing Asian dishes with wine, it’s important to consider specific dishes, along with their complex flavors and sauce nuances.

Although many Asian dishes do call for white wine as an accompaniment, that’s not always the best choice. For example, rich-tasting but slightly sweet Peking duck would pair nicely with Pinot Noir or a lighter-style, low-tannin Merlot. A peppery Szechwan dish with beef and black beans might go well with an Australian Shiraz or French Syrah. For those who do favor white wine, a mild, nutty dish like chicken and cashews from your favorite Chinese restaurant or Indian chicken korma would be complemented by a California Chardonnay, as would a light Thai coconut curry. With Indian tandoori chicken, I’d probably opt for an nonintrusive Chenin Blanc, or maybe Muscat Blanc. And for sweet & sour soups or claypot cookery, I’d give serious consideration to Amontillado Sherry Fino. Finally, a trusty, all-around, flexible Rosé would work with myriad dishes, from kung pao shrimp to char siu.

Of course, the old standbys of Gewurztraminer, Riesling and beer really are safe choices in most cases. Mosel and Alsatian Rieslings in particular are extremely versatile, and will work well with a majority of Asian dishes. But you might be surprised how well sparkling wines work with Asian cuisine, too. And if you’re really thinking out of the box, why not stray from “safe” lager beer and try a fruit beer from Belgium the next time you order moo shu pork with plum sauce. Unlike the situation with French food and wine pairings, where there are time-honored rules, Asian cuisine is still a “new frontier” when it comes to wine. So, why not experiment? Go out and create some rules of your own. 

Ted Scheffler