This upcoming weekend marks the premiere of The Search for General Tso, a new documentary about Chinese food in America, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. (Disclosure: I know the filmmakers.) It tells the story of why there's a Chinese restaurant in almost every small town in the United States by tracing the roots of this popular fried chicken takeout dish back to Taiwan. Be forewarned: It will make you hungry.
While wine doesn't play a role in the movie, the film touches on the ideas of migration, adaptation and authenticity—all concepts that philosophically minded wine lovers can extrapolate to the wine world—and the occasion of its release seems like a good time to talk about pairing wine with "Chinese food."
One of the easiest "rules" of wine pairing is to match wines with the traditional cuisine of their region. While this works just fine for dishes from, say, southwest France (see: cassoulet and the region's rustic reds), it falls apart quickly when you move into places without a strong wine heritage. As it is, the notions of tradition and authenticity are moving targets when it comes to wine and food. Wine styles can change according to the whims of current taste, while dishes are reinterpreted from chef to chef, town to town.
Take, for example, the recipe for General Tso's Chicken. The original Taiwanese dish, created in the mid-20th century, was savory with a spicy, garlicky, ginger sauce. When brought to the United States in the 1970s, it was reinterpreted with sugar and less spice, turning into a distinctly Chinese-American dish. (Wine people might make a comparison between Old World and New World wines here: When a grape variety lands on a foreign shore, it can become something new entirely.)
When we think of pairings then, it's good to be aware of the variables that arise in interpreting a cuisine, or a wine style.
To get some perspective on how American Chinese restaurants approach wine selections, I checked in with wine director Jason Smith, who oversees the list at Jasmine, in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. The Cantonese-style restaurant's wine list earned a Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator.
The core of the menu, by executive chef Hiew Gun Khong, is Hong Kong–style Cantonese, designed to appeal to the hotel's Chinese clientele, who make up around 50 percent of the customer base, Smith estimates. But popular American Chinese dishes, including General Tso's Chicken (here called "General Chicken"), also make an appearance and are frequently ordered by American guests.
Smith said the list was built on two pillars: statement wines to serve the high-rolling Vegas guests (blue-chip Bordeaux and Napa Cabernet) and wines to pair well with the food. Off-dry whites hold up to spice and sweetness, while American Pinot Noir goes with soy and savory flavors that come from searing in a wok.
According to Smith, the restaurant's version of General Tso's Chicken is more elegant than your usual Chinese American take-out, with less sauce and a mild amount of heat, which he says helps with making a pairing: "Too much heat doesn't work as well winewise." Here, then, a good example of the evolution of a dish to hew to wine culture.
For this version of General Tso's, Smith recommended a demi-sec Chenin Blanc or Alsatian Pinot Gris that can handle the sweetness. Or, for those not attached to wine, he says, "You can't go wrong with beer."
Notice, though, that these recommendations don't stray far from the typical wine suggestions for Chinese American food: aromatic, fruity whites such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. The sweetness that became a core element of the American version of General Tso's makes the dish work with this family of wines. As long as Chinese American food stays sweet and spicy, these wines are now the new "traditional" matches.
Would the original sugar-less Taiwanese dish be able to handle a drier wine? It seems possible, as long as the heat was kept in check. Without the sugar, on paper, the recipe comes across as potently spiced fried chicken, which opens up plenty of pairing options, from a jammy red that can absorb the spice to a sparkling wine to cut the oil in the fried skin.
Or, turning to the second pillar of Jasmine's list, you could simply pour a wine you want to drink and be done with it. Maybe not all dishes need a perfect wine match.
I'll be trying out some matches in my own kitchen soon, but I'm curious, what have your experiences been with Chinese-American food and wine?