As Chinese cuisine gains popularity in the West, one problem insistently rears its head for the oenophile: how to complement Western wines with a food aesthetic that, in many ways, is the opposite of European cuisine, and yet is so sophisticated that it cries out for the delicious cosseting that only a good glass of red or white can offer. Noted wine connoisseur and author Gerald Asher has some suggestions.
FOR CHINESE FOODS
Wine authority Gerald Asher shares his expertise.
“I don’t subscribe to the idea that you can avoid the whole issue and just drink white wine as if it were a substitute for rice wine,” he said during an interview in his San Francisco home. “However delicately put together, there are so many Chinese dishes which nevertheless make quite a statement. And a wine that similarly has a statement to make will go quite well with them, provided you don’t overpower the food.”
This is where he parts ways with accepted dogma on how to marry wine with Chinese food. Rather than reaching for the Gewürztraminer, he says that we “need wines with a little more character” when we drink them alongside the majority of Chinese foods.
Asher considers dishes as a whole before deciding what to drink with them and says the foods of China require singular reflection. “Most Chinese dishes that I’ve eaten have seemed to be both intricate and balanced. To my palate, a Chinese dish always has everything it needs within in it.”
Hearty flavors, hearty wine
But heartier flavors call for a wine to match: “If there is something very sturdy in a dish, then I think you need a somewhat more sturdy wine,” Asher says, “otherwise, it will seem too fleeting.”
What about the great reds, then? “I can’t off the top of my head think of any Chinese dish that I would eat with a Châteauneuf-du-Pape or any overwhelming kind of wine. Here, we have such a wine with a broiled steak or something similar. I don’t think Chinese food comes cooked in that way.”
Northern China and Mongolia offer some hearty meat dishes that center on large pieces of beef or lamb, but Asher still thinks that “really robust Rhône wine” would most likely overpower anything that was not very hearty.
For these flavorful Northern meat dishes, “I think I would go for a red wine, but something more elegant,” he says. “If we’re talking about France, I would go for a Bordeaux or one of the Beaujolais cru, something like a Brouilly, a Mont de Brouilly or a Chenas” — in other words, a wine “with some backbone.”
China’s northern regions are harsh and dry, and deserts cover much of the area. Muslims settled there long ago, bringing with them many of the warm spices of the Middle East, heavy aromatics such as cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, fennel and ginger. These complicated flavors are very unlike the seasonings used in the gentle Cantonese dishes that most Americans think of as Chinese food.
However, the distant cultural roots of North China provide clues for successful wine pairings with its nomadically-influenced cuisines. Asher believes that wines that go well with Moroccan food can be considered here, suggesting as an example a California Chardonnay or a simple, young Zinfandel, “because the wine is discreet, presenting an immediacy of fruit rather than complexities that develop in the bottle.” It is this “overt fruit quality” that provides the necessary structure.
The ways in which foods are prepared and presented also have a distinct impact on the choice of wine. When it comes to stir-fries, “the very way in which most Chinese food is cooked — minimally and quickly — is intended to combine and balance the flavors and textures of the ingredients in ways that contribute to a final effect that is incompatible with the fleeting, changing nature of many wines,” noted Asher.
California styles work, too
“That’s why I think California wines, provided they’re not too bold, not too assertive — I’m avoiding the word ‘overbearing,’ but that’s what I really mean — associate quite happily with this kind of food.”
At home, Asher serves Zinfandels and Pinot Noirs with his own stir-fries, and he holds that when it comes to a Chinese dish with meat in it, “a fresh, youngish Zinfandel … would probably go quite nicely.”
He also directs our attention to the “the elegant kind” of Pinot Noirs that are from “the real Sonoma coast and from Carneros [in Napa and Sonoma] and Santa Rita Hills [in the Santa Ynez area of Santa Barbara]. Wines from these areas are really quite delicate.” But, he adds, “I’m not using ‘delicate’ as a euphemism for thin. I mean nice wines but not bulky: the kind of wines that go very well with the kind of Chinese food I eat.”
Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.
Photo: Red wine in a Chinese cup. Credit: Carolyn J. Phillips