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What Wine Do You Serve with General Tso’s Chicken?

When a cuisine isn't tied to a strong wine tradition, pairing takes on new aspects

Posted: Apr 17, 2014 1:40pm ET

By Jennifer Fiedler

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?

Maryann Worobiec
Napa, California —  April 17, 2014 1:50pm ET
Champagne! I love Chinese food with bubbly.
Chriatian Witte
Johannisberg  —  April 18, 2014 10:29am ET
Riesling is of course the best match, that's why most German wineries have a strong Export to Asia. The Rules are very Simple as more spice, heat or saltier the dish is,as sweeter needs to be the wine. The sweetness will take away the heat or spiciness and the wine at the same time will taste much dryer. (don’t fear sweetness, it's well balanced with a good acidity). The last thing you want is high alcohol dry wine,that does the opposite to the food. Try winds with the word feinherb on the label,that means finley dry or off dry, that matches most dishes and will suit dry wine drinkers palate...
Schloss Johannisberg Riesling Gelblack feinherb is such a wine.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 18, 2014 12:24pm ET
I have often told the tale of my Chinese food and wine aha moment many years ago, when Cecilia Chiang (who founded the Mandarin in San Francisco) served Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon with Peking Duck and proved to all present that classy wines can go with classy food of all ethnic origins.

I also agree with Chriatian, that soft or lightly sweet wines make great matches with spicier dishes (not just Chinese ones).

The tricky part is that a Chinese meal is seldom served one dish at a time. There are usually three or four contrasting dishes on the table at once, which means precise pairings are beside the point. In my experience you either go for an all-purpose wine that defers its individual personality to the food, or drink whatever you like and forget about trying to make a great match. If the match doesn't work I can always take a sip of water in between the food and the wine, and enjoy all the flavors.
Tim Faust
United States —  April 18, 2014 11:13pm ET
There is another option, Harvey. Line up about four glasses and match each of the entrees with a different wine. This works for Thanksgiving dinner, too.
Peter Vangsness
East Longmeadow, MA —  April 21, 2014 12:47pm ET
When we frequented a local Asian eatery (years ago) that had no liquor license and permitted "bring your own", we enjoyed Cline Vin Blanc. It was inexpensive (about $10) and readily available back then. Almost gooey in texture, but went very well with all things Asian. It was typically a blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Palomino and many others.
Not sure it's made any longer - haven't seen it on the shelf for years.
We miss it!!
Philip Barr
Lincoln, RI —  April 21, 2014 8:19pm ET
My first choice with Peking Duck is always Champagne!

For garlicky and mildly spicy dishes, my favorites are Tavel or Lirac.

When a dish really brings the heat, I'm into Alberinho, Reisling, or Gruner Veltliner, well chilled.

For bland American Chinese dishes like chow mein, I'm more likely to choose a big, round, fat, oaky chardonnay that will take center stage and dominate the meal.
Hubert Montgomery
Montgomery AL —  April 22, 2014 2:15pm ET
Interesting suggestions. I think a nice Torrontes from Mendoza should also pair well.
Jennifer Fiedler
New York —  April 22, 2014 6:45pm ET
Thanks for the suggestions, everyone! I look forward to experimenting at home.

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