The secrets of matching Indian food with wine
Asian cuisines get scant consideration when it comes to wine.
If you ask about which wine to pair with Indian food, expect a one-word answer. Usually Gewurztraminer. Perhaps Riesling. Maybe Syrah.
An entire culture's cuisine to be paired with a single varietal? Ridiculous.
Among Asian cuisines, Indian food probably has the greatest notoriety for being hard to match with wine. Its complex layering of spices and chile heat makes for a tricky challenge.
Let's begin with the obvious: Beer makes for an excellent pairing with most Indian food. (Which beer, and which food, is grist for another day.) If that's your preference, go with it. Whiskey, as enjoyed in India with hors d'oeuvres, is fine, too.
For the wine lover, though, finding an ideal match is more complicated.
It will not be found with Gewurztraminer. That varietal's spicy profile can work every now and then, but it usually collides with the nuances of Indian food. Almost every Indian dish begins with a blend of spices, so our challenge was to find out which spices warm up to which wines.
We called on Ruta Kahate, an Indian culinary teacher and author based in the East Bay, for guidance. The three of us met to consider her list of the 10 most crucial spices in Indian cuisine -- mustard seeds, cardamom, turmeric, cumin, black pepper, mace/nutmeg, ginger, bay leaves, cloves and cinnamon. Cayenne we put in a class of its own, making 11. Then we devised a list of about 80 wines -- as obvious as Syrah and as esoteric as Muller-Thurgau.
Kahate pointed out that almost all spices are used in combination, especially in what's known as "curry" -- which is a range of specific spice blends, or masalas. Northern Indian spice mixes can be cooked in a base such as yogurt or light cream, while Southern Indian masalas are sometimes cooked with coconut milk. Sauces also might contain acidic elements such as tomato or tamarind juice. And don't forget the great quantities of fresh ginger, garlic and onions that are essential to Indian fare.
Rather than seek out specific wines to match specific dishes, we decided to think in terms of flavor families -- mostly based on sauces. The dominant flavors in Indian dishes often come from the sauce and spice rather than the main meat or vegetable.
In the end, we distilled Indian cuisine down to five sauce/spice groups:
1. Simple Spice. Dishes that rely on just a few spices, at most three, as seasoning.
2. Light Sauce. Lighter dishes, many of them with dried peas, beans and legumes such as lentil and garbanzo beans.
3. Heavy Sauce. The dishes most often called "curries," including popular cream-based picks such as tikka masala.
4. Tandoori. Marinated meats that have been roasted in a clay oven.
5. Fresh and Green. Dishes with fresh greens or herbs as a primary ingredient, such as the spinach-based saag paneer.
But there is a vast gap between home-cooked dishes and what might be found in your local Indian joint. Wine requires dishes with a more restrained use of spice, so if you want to dial the heat up to 11, beer is really the way to go.
To test our theories in the field, we ordered a wide range of takeout dishes from both sides of the bay. And we also headed to Ajanta in Berkeley for a sit-down meal.
Chef-owner Lachu Moorjani offers a wine list of nearly 50 wines that includes thoughtful options such as Merlot from Washington state and rosé from Bandol along with, yes, Gewurztraminer (a best-seller).
Moorjani joined us as we tried to match both popular dishes like tandoori chicken and regional specialties like kozi milagu chettinad, a Madras specialty pungent with black pepper. Though Moorjani, a devoted wine lover, serves as impromptu sommelier for his diners, he finds it tough going.
"One person out of four will speak up and say, 'I think beer goes better with Indian food than wine,' " says Moorjani. "And boom, they'll all get beer, which is very discouraging to me if I want to put together a good wine list."
Slowly, conclusions began to emerge from our cardamom-and-cumin haze.
-- Toss out conventional wisdom about pairing with whites and reds. Because sauce and spice are so crucial, dishes that seem like a sure bet for red wine -- like the heavy, creamy lamb korma -- are often better with white, and vice versa. "That was a revelation to me," says Moorjani.
-- Among red wines, aromatic varieties work best, especially those without too many dark fruit flavors. Less use of oak seems to avoid clashes with complex flavors, though in some cases -- as when woody coriander is present -- a more oaky wine, like a Spanish Rioja, can work well. On the other hand, between big tannins and heavy spices, it's almost impossible for Cabernet Sauvignon not to clash.
-- For white wines, again, less oak is better -- although some aging in old oak barrels can provide a silky texture that bolsters rich sauces. Acidity is important, but too much can be jarring, unless it's balanced by another element in the wine. That's one reason sweeter Rieslings seemed to work better than dry.
-- Alcohol levels are important because more alcohol tends to magnify the heat in a dish and steamroll over flavors. Wines at 14 percent alcohol or less seemed to work better. That said, one of our favorite pairings came from a 14.3 percent Pinot Noir.
-- Match less complex wines with more complex dishes. Too many different aromas and flavors can collide. But that's a rule made to be broken: A deeply nuanced Pinot Noir harmonized perfectly with the kadhai gosht, a lamb dish that featured more than 10 flavor components.
-- Keep an eye out for the use of cream and yogurt. They can flatten the flavors of red wines, and may clash with tart white wines.
All fine, but how do you choose a wine, especially if you're dining out and have to choose a single bottle for the whole meal?
For whites, some expected winners -- like Gruner Veltliner -- fell a bit short. But several varieties native to Alsace (besides Gewurztraminer) worked beautifully for most types of dishes -- Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Sylvaner. Ditto the aromatic white wines of Italy's Alto Adige region, like Kerner and Muller-Thurgau. In both cases, the wines balance bright acidity with lush texture. Pinot Blanc, in particular, was a sleeper hit. What often is a liability for these wines -- little overt fruit and a more rounded texture -- proved to be an asset. But they're a hard sell. "It took me a year to sell a single case of Pinot Blanc," says Moorjani.
For reds, the best results came from fragrant wines with mellow red fruit flavors and soft tannins. Syrah is often cited as a top choice for Indian food, perhaps because the Indian winery Sula Vineyards makes an increasingly popular Shiraz. Syrah with little oak can work beautifully, though too much oak can ruin the party. Consider Cabernet Franc, Grenache, cooler-climate Syrah and Rhone-style blends either from France or cooler Central Coast spots. Austrian Zweigelt and Lagrein from northern Italy worked beautifully, too. In all cases, balanced acidity and modest alcohol levels are crucial. The secret weapon may be rosés -- especially those made from Cabernet Franc -- which are versatile and match a wide range of dishes.
Sparkling wine, despite our theories, was less versatile than expected, perhaps due to the high acid levels.
To get really specific, we've suggested pairings for each of our five categories as well as for recipes from Ajanta restaurant and from Ruta Kahate's recently released book "5 Spices, 50 Dishes," ($19.95, Chronicle Books).
See what works best and don't fear the cork next time you have curry on the brain.