Wine with Unfamiliar Flavors

Finding vinous harmony with spicy Japanese, Indian and Mexican dishes
Apr 19, 2011

It may not be quite so revolutionary as it once was to suggest wine with spicy cuisines such as Indian and Mexican, but picking a good one can still flummox someone nurtured on traditional wine-friendly dishes. I did my part for the wine element in a presentation called "Mainstreaming Global Flavors: Seasoning the American Palate," part of a three-day event in Napa Valley presented by FoodArts (one of Wine Spectator's sister magazines). The event, for an audience of people who run corporate hotels, restaurants and cruise ships, was held at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone in Saint Helena.

My assignment was to select wines and talk about wine with dishes prepared by three chefs who are shaping the cuisines of their own cultures for an American audience. From what I tasted, I can vouch for how well they do it without sacrificing authenticity, retaining the essence of the food's flavor profile, but adding their own chef's touches.

For example, consider this dish from Floyd Cardoz, chef of Tabla in New York and soon to head the kitchen of North End Grill in Manhattan's Battery Park City. (He is also competing on the current season of Top Chef Masters on Bravo TV.) He called the dish "Coconut Upma Polenta with Wild Mushrooms," and said it was based on a dish his mother in India used to make for him when he came home from school. But, he added, "She might not recognize it. She only used water, and I use chicken stock and coconut milk." She probably didn't use wild mushrooms either.

Upma is an Indian brand similar to Cream of Wheat, he admitted with a smile. "But I can't call it Cream of Wheat. Who would buy that?" Well, having sampled it, I would. He toasts the semolina in oil and seasons it with shallots, Serrano chilies, a spice oil and lots of ginger. The mushrooms, seasoned similarly and cooked with white Port, make a great topping.

From the recipe, I expected the dish to be hot and spicy, but it wasn't. It came off as mild, with only a slight kick on the finish. The primary flavor came from fresh ginger. It didn't matter. The two wines I picked for it both worked great: Bodegas Palacios Rémondo Rioja White Plácet 2007 and Poet's Leap Riesling Columbia Valley 2009.

I picked the Rioja because I expected its oak flavors to match up well with coconut, an important flavor in the dish. I learned about that food-wine link from François Chartier, the Quebec-based sommelier and author of the book Tastes Buds and Molecules. His theory, and in my view he is absolutely right, is that lactones in the coconut have an affinity for the lactones in oak-aged wines. The Riesling figured to balance any heat in the dish with its light sweetness, and the terpenes in the grape's flavor profile match up with similar chemicals in ginger's.

So, how did they do? As Floyd demonstrated how the dish was made, I tasted the prepared sample with both wines. The dish smoothed out the Rioja, which was a bit sharp on its own. The food mellowed the wine, made it rounder and more inviting, deepened the flavor. The Riesling went from a lovely sipper to a spectacularly complex mouthful, the ginger in the dish setting up a terrific resonance with the flavors in the wine. The wine also polished off that little bit of heat on the dish's finish.

Craig Koketsu, chef of the Hurricane Club in New York, offered two dishes flavored with yuzu kosho, a Japanese paste that seasons the tart juice of the citrus (yuzu) with pepper. The plate I had to match with wine was rib eye steak crusted with yuzu kosho, garlic, cumin and a Turkish pepper, served with a soy-Sherry vinegar gastrique. I expected this to be seriously spicy, but on the palate it came off quite mild, which made it a great match with Yalumba Grenache Barossa Bush Vine 2008. The wine's fruit and roundness got even more pronounced with the meat, while it also rounded out and mellowed. For me it did better than the Emilio Lustau Fino I picked to link with the Sherry gastrique. Having tasted the match, I should have gone with a richer Sherry, perhaps a dry Oloroso.

The final dish was a cochinita Pibil taco made by chef Mateo Granados, who has run kitchens for the likes of Julian Serrano and Charlie Palmer and now caters events matching Sonoma wines with his Yucatán cuisine. The recipe looked very mellow, the pork getting its character from cooking with banana leaves. The seasonings were mild, Granados having reshaped the traditional recipe to make it more amenable to wine.

I chose two reds from opposite ends of the spectrum, the delicate and refined A to Z Pinot Noir Oregon 2009 and the rich, full-bodied Seghesio Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Old Vine 2008. It's a compliment to Granados to say that both worked splendidly, which suggests that almost any red with enough fruit character would do nicely. I liked the extra heft of the Zinfandel with this dish, but only by a small margin.

The point of the session, organized by FoodArts senior editor Jim Poris, was to demonstrate how ethnic flavors such these are joining the mainstream of how we eat in America. This has been going on for a generation now, and it's good to see the barriers come down for wine. Too often I've wanted to drink some vino with these cuisines only to find nothing worth drinking on the restaurant's wine list. Not that I mind sipping a margarita or a beer with my Mexican dinner, but why miss something as good as that Zin with the cochinita?


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