Spicy Ethnic Fare: The Wine Challenge

It is the age-old question among foodies: What type of wine should one serve with spicy ethnic fare?

A handful of suggestions commonly are proffered—so much so that they have become “go-to” wines in many Indian, Korean, Vietnamese and Basque restaurants…and even some Tex-Mex eateries.

These include Gewurztraminer, dry or off-dry Riesling, rosé-style wines and sparkling wines. The trait they share is a solid acid backbone that can refresh the palate while it’s being “assaulted” by the spiciness of the food.

But are these the only choices? No, according to some restaurateurs. It’s also possible to match spicy fare with dry wines. The key is to differentiate between “spicy” and “hot.”

In Tex-Mex cuisine, for example, among the popular ingredients are peppers—which tend to be hot on the palate, ranging from mildly so to “five-alarm.” Especially with the ultra-hot varieties, finding a complementary wine—one whose flavors aren’t totally blown away by the heat—is next to impossible. An ice-cold beer is a much better adult beverage choice.

But Indian food can be an entirely different matter. Indian cuisine isn’t about heat; it’s defined by the spices used. And very few spices could be considered hot. “Exotic” would be a better word. One must still pay attention to the flavor of the spice when selecting an appropriate wine, but the pairings are not limited to the aforementioned “go-to” bottlings.

In her “Wine Notes” column for the (Portland) Oregonian newspaper, Katherine Cole once cited a dish being served by a local Indian restaurant: rack of lamb marinated in yogurt, garlic, ginger and mint, and then roasted over coals in a tandoor oven. It was served with a puree of minty spinach, a mint chutney and wild mushrooms.

The recommended wine? A California Cabernet Sauvignon.

Wrote Cole: “The mushroom and lamb complement Cab’s darker side—earth, leather, chocolate, pencil shavings—while all that mint highlights the wine’s brighter notes of green bell pepper and aromatic herbs. The charred flavor from the tandoor oven brings out toasted barrel oak to seal the deal.”

You now have another wine option when dining at an Indian restaurant. Understanding that “spicy” does not equate with “hot” opens the door to many pairing possibilities.

Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes
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