I was eating dim sum with friends in New York the other day. One of them, a young Chinese American, asked if I could recommend a book on pairing wine with Chinese dishes. She’d been stumped when arranging a Chinese dinner for her and her boyfriend’s parents. “If we’d been eating Western food, we could have picked nice wines for each course, but we couldn’t figure out what really worked with Chinese food and it was really annoying.” She’d been talking to a friend in investment banking, another sophisticated Chinese American and said he had the same problem, “He’s used to ordering expensive bottles of wine when he’s the host, but for Chinese food, and Chinese guests, he can’t figure out what to choose.”
We talked about the way all the Chinese people we know only want to drink red wine, while almost all Western food writers say that the wine to drink with Chinese food is white, fruity or sweet wines. “I went to a friend’s wedding shower,” said my friend. “She’d carefully chosen a good red and a good white. But no one drank the white – the whole case sat unopened.”
Is it a European prejudice that fermented grape juice intrinsically works with European flavors and not with Asian ones? Do Western people assume that Chinese food goes with white wine because it looks like traditional Chinese rice wine? Do the Chinese favor red wine because the red is the color of good fortune?
There isn’t a great deal written on this subject. The piece that came to mind was one that Anne Mendelson, an author who specializes in Chinese food in America, remembered, too. It was written by Gerald Asher, the wine editor of Gourmet magazine, and appeared in the back of the late Barbara Tropp’s The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. Gerald Asher has given me permission to reprint it. I sincerely thank him, and hope that his astute comments will encourage others to delve into this fascinating subject.
WINE – by Gerald Asher
In the West we sometimes drink to accompany food and sometime just for conviviality. “The Chinese,” explains Lin Yutang, a twentieth-century writers, “have not developed the nicety of serving different drinks with different courses of food.” They drink for fun. Wine is nothing but an excuse for a good time, he tells us without apology, for jokes and jokes and noisy games punctuated every so often by a dish. He admits, too, that in China choice of wine is limited, and almost none of it Would fit our own definition: a beverage made from the fermented juice of freshly gathered grapes.
The rice wine of Shaohsing is invested with as much myth and romance as we have generated over the centuries in our tales of Falernian, Hermitage, Vintage Port, and old Bordeaux—the unique quality of Jian Lake water in which the rice is first steeped and steamed before fermentation, the antiquity of the yeast, continually present for more than two thousand years, the wine’s alleged restorative properties and its more evident capacity to inspire the poets and scholars for which Shaohsing is equally distinguished.
But myth and romance do not adequately substitute for the enormous range of subtle variation possible in wines made from grapes. Had such wines been available to them, the Chinese, who allowed few civilized pleasures to slip past them, would doubtless have mastered the art of matching them to their food centuries ago. We are in the fortunate position of having both Chinese food and Western wines, and lack of traditional associations between them should present creative opportunities rather than obstacles.
Isn’t it odd, though, how often those opportunities are wasted Those who should know better tell us that “Chinese food” needs tea, beer, or white wine, miserably dull and condescendingly omnibus advice that nobody would think of giving in connection with “French food,” “Italian food,” or, indeed, any other European food. One respected gastronomic guidebook says dismissingly, and without further explanation, “Chinese food needs spicy white wine.” Yet even if we ignore regional variations and specialties, Chinese food is at least as delicate, as diverse, and as imaginatively constructed as any other, and therefore deserves at least as much care and sensibility in matching to wine. A con census of opinion on wine and food partnerships that work well together has to be based on harmonies, contrasts, and affinities that apply equally to wine and any food. True, Chinese food is designed to sparkle on the palate in a way that could tease attention from an accompanying great Bordeaux, but most French food is designed to do the same. Shallots, garlic, tarragon, and reductions of all kinds are not the ingredients of bland fare. That is why we prefer a simple filet de boeuf or plain lamb chops with such a wine.
Chinese cooking, to a greater extent than Western, is based on harmony, contrast, and affinity within the dish itself, however, and an accompanying wine must conform to that balance or provide, in taste terms, a silken backdrop for it. We tend to match wine to the principal ingredient, be it fish, lamb, chicken, or whatever, and then take its presence into consideration when planning sauce or garnish. A Chinese dish, on the other hand, constructed, like a good perfume, with evanescent top note, sustaining bottom note, and middle substance, must be thought of as a whole, or the wine becomes an intrusion.
I once made the mistake of assuming that an aromatic wine was needed for a chicken dish tangy with lemon and musky with green coriander. But they were just two notes in a chord that contained many others, and the grapey quality of the Rhine wine I chose could not have been more irrelevant, more out of place. The dish needed a wine solid enough not to be overwhelmed by its piquancy, but restrained enough not to pose. A good Chablis, or a young Meursault, perhaps, would have been a far better choice. I had a similar experience with marinated and stir-fried hoisin lamb. A fruity young Beaujolais that I had imagined would go well with its spicy-sweet seemed to be frivolously out of place. A Beune, fortunately to hand, made a more dignified and a more compatible partner.
It is steamed dishes, in my experience, that allow the greatest latitude, however. A young Saar wine with a crisp Riesling bouquet and flavor that would have added an unnecessary and unwelcome baroque flourish to most dishes was excellent with steamed chicken; a richly flavored 1979 Saint-Veran added dimension to steamed crab; and, un believable though it might seem, I have rarely enjoyed a bottle of my limited stock of 1959 Château Lynch-Bages as much as when it accompanied Hunan-style steamed salmon with ginger threads and black beans (page 252(. But then ginger and garlic, I have discovered, add scale to a dish, and make possible, even obligatory, a wine of more pronounced character than might otherwise be the case. When allied to beef or lamb they require the support of a robust red: Burgundy from a year like 1972 or l979 Hermitage or Saint-Joseph from the northern Rhône; California Petite Sirah; or perhaps vigorous Brunello di Montalcino. With chicken or fish they make full-bodied, flavory white or light, fruity red equally acceptable. The breadth that ginger will add to fish, in particular, provides an answer to those California Chardonnays of such intense fruitiness that they distort or overwhelm most other foods.
If you are serving more than one wine with a Chinese meal, the usual caution is needed with sequence. The first wine should not steal the thunder of the second: a light wine should precede a full-bodied one, young before old (unless the latter is fading and might then seem to be thin), and dry before any wine that might have residual sugar. But though we normally prepare the palate for one wine by serving another, unfamiliar combinations with Chinese food are certain to reveal surprising nuances in wines thought to be old acquaintances. Helen Kan of San Francisco once remarked that Western wines brought out flavors new to her in dishes she had eaten all her life. The reverse is also true, and who knows what further hidden charm a favorite simple rosé might disclose when matched to a lettuce-wrapped spicy chicken page 145? —GERALD ASHER
Another point of view is that of a 30-year-old American working in Beijing: “Chinese food is never going to catch on across the world unless it can be paired with wine.” I don’t take such an absolute position, but am more and more convinced that wine can work beautifully with Chinese dishes and look forward to exploring this and sharing our findings.
The photograph at left was taken a month ago in Beijing, at the Kerry Center Hotel. It’s as glitzy a wine shop as you can imagine, but I never saw anyone in it. On the other hand, I was in a tiny market in a hutong near the Lama Temple, an area where lots of foreigners live, and there was not only a reasonable selection of international wines but a range of French cheeses. Neither is an example of wine really making it in China, though. We’ll be talking to wine distributors and retailers to learn more about how the market is developing.