Christine Parkinson shares what she’s learned about pairing wine with Chinese food – not only Cantonese but other Chinese cuisines – and offers Berkshire Bookworld listeners some new ideas about what to drink and how to learn about what wines work with different Chinese dishes. It’s no surprise that she has been called “one of the most creative wine buyers in the UK” by wine guru Jancis Robinson. Highlights from Karen Christensen’s interview with Christine Parkinson include why chardonnay, white rioja, and champagne (hurrah!) often work with Chinese dishes, what red wine is almost always a good fit, and how to hold your own wine tasting at home, with ideas from Christine’s weekly tastings at Hakkasan.
Christine Parkinson is head of wine for Hakkasan Group, the world-renowned restaurant group specializing in modern Cantonese cuisine, with locations in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the USA, and an advisor on the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines. Back in 2001, Christine created the first wine list for Hakkasan, and she’s held weekly wine tastings since then.
[00:01:15 – Start of Interview]
KAREN: Christine, good morning. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us about wine and Chinese food.
CHRISTINE: Hi Karen. It’s a pleasure.
KAREN: It’s great to have you. I’m in New York now. You’re in London but, you know, I’m glad to catch you between your various trips and I think we’re very lucky today to talk to someone who, I would guess, thinks as much about paring wine with Chinese food as anyone on the planet. So, first, I want to know how you got interested in wine and then, of course, how you developed this very special, really unique expertise.
CHRISTINE: Well, wine is necessarily wasn’t in my family background. My parents never really drank wine. But I became a chef, more or less, by accident. And then I decided I wanted to be a hotel manager. I’m not sure why.
KAREN: Where was that, Christine?
CHRISTINE: That was initially on the South Coast of the UK so down in Canterbury and Broadstairs. And I went off to college to do what we call a Day Release Course, a professional qualification in Hospitality Management. Back then, there weren’t degrees in hospitality management and I think I was quite lucky actually because it was very practically-based course. The very first term, we had a module called beverage studies and wine was a huge part of that. And I was just enthralled. I found it so fascinating. And I was part of a little gang of three. We used to go in our lunch break out to the local wine store and look at all the labels and try and work out what they meant and, you know, just became a fascination.
KAREN: When did you first taste wine? Was it then or had you began drinking wine before you started studying it?
CHRISTINE: I don’t remember drinking it before. I think I might have had sherry. I think my grandmother had sherry. Although the purists would be horrified because she believed that Cape Sherry from South Africa was the only proper kind. So I think I had that, beer, and maybe some kind of a thing called ginger wine but I hadn’t really had wine at all.
KAREN: So it was really a new thing, a whole new world.
CHRISTINE: It was. It was.
KAREN: And how about Chinese food? I think when we’ve talked before, you said you, you know, I guess every village in the UK, every town in the world has some sort of a Chinese food out there.
CHRISTINE: Yes. Yes. I grew up with Chinese take away, not necessarily every week, but probably every couple of weeks by the time I was a teenager. When I was a kid, my dad would take me on school holidays. You could go to Chinese restaurants and you could have something called a Businessman’s Lunch that was very cheap. So he used to take me. I used to sort of sit in the car and go around with him. So I was introduced to Chinese food probably when I was about 6 or 7 years old, I would say.
KAREN: And I suppose with the Chinese food you are eating today and matching wines to is quite different.
CHRISTINE: Oh, Yes. It is. Well, it is. Of course, it is. But I think it is not a completely different thing. There’s a continuum and there’s, perhaps, the cheap Businessman’s lunch of my childhood and there’s the food that Hakkasan serves now and other great restaurants serve, you know, that there is a connection between them even though there’s a huge quality difference.
KAREN: Yes. Well, that really does bring us to the — the next question I have for you is about the flavors and ingredients in Chinese foods. What makes them distinctive especially in terms of wine? And I’m told that makes them particularly challenging to pair wine successfully with Chinese food.
CHRISTINE: The biggest problem we’ve always experienced at Hakkasan is weakness. So many of the Cantonese dishes have a sweet component — honey, some sort of sugar, or malt syrup, or whatever, and that was what caught me out in the beginning. Since I identified sweetness was the problem and could focus on other things, we realized that often there’s a sour component. I know sweet and sour is cliché but it is there. There is often a rice wine vinegar or something like that. There’s often spices and there’s often combinations of vegetables in ways that can challenge wine. We tend to be very compartmentalized with our food in the west and I think in China, sometimes, vegetables are incorporated in dishes, in ways that can challenge wine. But sweetness is the big thing.
KAREN: It’s the big thing. Can you explain — sweetness seems more obvious but the ingredients, especially vegetables, that surprises me. Can you give some examples of things that are difficult?
CHRISTINE: I think it is just that there are often quite green or earthy flavors sitting alongside the sort of savory, umami flavors. And the savory and umami flavors, it is fairly straightforward with wine because a lot wines were developed to work with meat dishes, fish dishes or something like that. But if you think about where wine comes from, you think about the earlier places where wine was made. Like Italy or France, you think of tomatoes, you think of lamb or beef, you think of seafood. And then when you imagine a plate of Chinese food, and I know there are thousands of different Chinese dishes but straight away you appreciate that the flavors are often in a slightly different spectrum. It is often a something earthy or green, or alongside something sweeter. It just has a different balance. It has a different feel with wine.
KAREN: Yes. So you really need to think about it differently. And I gather you also have to experiment quite a bit.
CHRISTINE: Yes. Yes, we do. So we’ve decided — we had the restaurant open 16 years now and we did taste wine with food from the very beginning. But I think it was about 10 or 12 months in when I just took the decision we’re just going to taste everything with food. If we’re interested in wine, if we want to list it, we’re going to sit down food in front of us, different dishes, and we’re just going to see what happens. And the reason I have to do that was because I had made an assumption. I thought I knew what was going on. I sound very naive looking back but I thought I’d take a couple of boxes and I got so caught out. I had come to the conclusion that all new world Pinot Noirs would be delicious with Chinese food. So I’ve gone ahead and listed some, some very good ones. And a quite a well-known journalist, a British journalist writing for one the national newspapers came to see the restaurant and I had lunch with him. And he said to me, well you know, what goes well with the food. And I said, “Oh, New World Pinot Noir works.” And so he chose one from the list, a New Zealand one, and I will never forget that moment when he took some food, he took some wine and he put the glass down and he just looked at me and he said: “But Christine, it doesn’t work, does it?”
KAREN: [laughs] Oh, dear.
CHRISTINE: I was mortified and I said: “Okay, we have to go back and taste…” And at the time, I think, I thought we have to go back and study this more in-depth and understand it better. And 16 years later. What I feel now is we just have to keep tasting wine and food.
KAREN: Well, that’s not such a bad idea – wine and Chinese food. But already you have surprised me by talking about new world Pinot Noirs because I have actually, not only just in talking to friends sort of casual conversations, but I’ve actually red articles interviews with chefs saying what wine should people drink with Chinese food. And I remember reading one that chef after chef after chef said the same thing, a sweet-ish White Wine, a Riesling for example. And I thought apart from it sounds so boring, surely someone has another ideas but you’re suggesting something completely different, was sort of a new list from the beginning.
CHRISTINE: Yes. Yes, it was. And I think it is true there are several styles of wine which usually work and I still stand by what I said then — most new world Pinot Noir does work very well. It is just the old one that doesn’t. And it is definitely true. Riesling with a bit of sugar is usually a great match but you don’t always want to drink that. The good news is there are other styles, not just other wines, but other styles that work superbly. The one that often surprises people with White Wines is oaked White Wines. I find that the food in restaurants loves oak in White Wines. And I think…
KAREN: I’m surprised.
CHRISTINE: Yes. But I think you get a kind of umami character in the wine. You think of an Oak Chardonnay or White Rioja with the oaky character, it has a sort of a savory umami note which sits beautifully beside many Chinese dishes. And I’m generalizing with lots of Chinese cuisines but, you know, it’s a good bet.
KAREN: Yes. Then with Hakkasan, did you start with Cantonese dishes? And I think you have quite a variety of things on the menu.
CHRISTINE: Yes. We did. And we still say that the cuisine is modern Cantonese but there are plenty of other dishes there. We always have some Schezuan dishes and occasionally others. And I remember a conversation at the very beginning of the restaurant life where somebody said: “Think of this like somebody who is living in China or Hong Kong and he’s a keen cook and they’ve learned all their mother’s recipes, all their family recipes but they see new ingredients in the shop and so they tried those new ingredients with the old recipes and bring those in their cooking. And then they know, you know, they carry a great dish from another part of China and they bring that in as well.” And it is just what people do. So that’s what was being, you know, I think the basis of it was: yes, it comes from Cantonese perspective but other ingredients, sometimes other styles, come in. Just as we do at home. I mean, pizza wasn’t originally a British dish but we all eat pizza.
KAREN: All the time. I know. And I understand Chinese food is becoming an increasing market in the UK.
KAREN: Well, what about — well, I ask people about this all the time or look for notes in Chinese cookbooks about wines and I’ve seen some notes that suggest that Champagne or Prosecco would go well with Chinese food. Now people, in New York at least, Rosé is quite the craze. Do you have any thoughts on either of those?
CHRISTINE: Yes, definitely. I think champagne works really well. And you’ve got remember with champagne you’ve got the cold temperature, you’ve got the bubbles and see it got a great textural contrast particularly to hot food, particularly with anything that’s fried. I’ve got the clean acidity so it can be really enjoyable to drink the champagne with hot Chinese often and I often find it works. There is quite an umami component. I know I keep mentioning umami but the way that champagne is aged on the yeast gives it quite a significant umami note which works. And don’t forget, most champagnes contain Pinot Noir which is the black grape that famously goes with things like duck which often turn up on Chinese menus, certainly in restaurants anyway.
KAREN: The next meal I have with Chinese friends, when I’m asked to order the wine, I’m definitely going to be picking — I’m going to look at the champagne list now.
CHRISTINE: Yes. Give Sherry a try as well.
KAREN: Hmmm. We’ve talked about White Wines and reds so I suppose there’s no reason that some Rosés would not work well. Of course the challenge, I suppose, is with really spicy food, Schezuan or Hunanese foods. Would you find that you just have to switch to beer if you’re eating a spicy dish?
CHRISTINE: No. I don’t think so. For me, the challenge is not spice. It is the person eating it because I keep coming across to very different responses to wine with spicy food. So a lot of people enjoy wine with spicy food if the wine has very little alcohol, not too much acidity, maybe a little bit of sweetness in it. It soothes the mouth. You take some spicy food and then you have a lovely, cool soft, slightly sweet wine. It is delightful. But a significant number of people won’t back big Australian Shiraz with tons of alcohol because they want the spice effect to be amplified. So my only problem with wine and spicy food is who is going to drink it.
KAREN: Yes. It is choosing the right wine. And it might not be the most obvious so we need to think about a bit differently.
KAREN: One of the things that, I think, you have considerable experience with is actually serving wine to people from China.
CHRISTINE: Yes. I think in our restaurants, you know, it is nice that we also have a large Chinese component to our guests.
KAREN: and how is that different? Because obviously, western wines are quite different from drinks served in China but there is enormous interest in wine amongst the more international folks from China so I’m sure that that’s part of your experience. What are they looking for? How are they responding to the wine choices that are available?
CHRISTINE: It’s interesting. I think if you go back to the early days of the restaurant, the Chinese guests that we had back then and from many years afterwards, it is a bit of cliché now. They tend to want to buy the label. They wanted to buy a wine that was known and recognized and that their companions or guests on the table with them would feel the wine was prestigious, was adding a component of respect or hospitality to the meal. And I think that we saw that in the early days more with our Chinese guests than we saw it with our western guests. But, make no mistake. The same approach is there with many westerners as well. And I think what we’ve seen more recently is that increasing numbers of our Chinese guests are approaching wine in a way that is more familiar to us and they are focusing more on the taste or what a grade they like or on what they are going to eat. So, I think with the Chinese guests we get who obviously are travelling overseas and perhaps, you know, experimenting more with western approaches, we see a more western approach nowadays. In our restaurant in Shanghai, it is interesting what we’ve seen happen here in the UK over the last 16 years, restaurant in Shanghai has seen happen over a couple of years. So at the very beginning, they had people who wanted to buy very expensive wines or they had guests who wanted to drink wine but didn’t have any particular interest or feel for it and won’t simply choose something cheap. And it has changed futilely . Now, there’s a lot more people who recognize different styles and want to try them and are interested. So I think it is an evolution.
KAREN: I’m told that in California, for example, there are more and more people from mainland China and Hong Kong coming to wineries to actually sample wine. And so we were wondering if over time we might see the wineries actually, instead of always having cheese and crackers and chocolates to taste with the wine, that we’d see Chinese snack pairings. And I guess that leads to a really obvious question that our listeners, I’m sure, will have. Well, if I want to experiment with different wines with Chinese food, how can I do a wine tasting? What Chinese food could I serve rather than meal by meal? But for a tasting, you do tastings, how do you do that?
CHRISTINE: Yes. We do tastings to find out if wine will be enjoyable with the food. So we have a very arbitrary way of doing it. But I think it can be quite fun if you — I’ve done it many times just for fun and it has been as successful. So what we do is we say: “We’re going to try four different dishes and we’ll start with something that we call ‘mild” So, you know, it might be a steamed fish, might be steamed dimsum or something without up spice, without a strong meaty or savory component. Then we’ll move on to something strongly savory and that could be — it could be a barbecued meat, some kind of very savory dish. One of my favorite dessert is a clay pot dish with some tofu and some mushroom and aubergine which is super savory in taste so it is just a bowl full of umami. Then we go for something sweet. We’ll go pick one of the dishes which has a sweet sauce or a strong sweet component and then we end up with something spicy. And I think whenever we’ve done that with — we do it every week as part of selection of the wines. But occasionally, we’ll do it for some guests. Occasionally, we’ll do it with people just to let them experience that tasting and people really love it because I think it really shows food and the wine in a way that they hadn’t considered it before.
KAREN: That sounds like tons of fun and actually really practical. I mean, I’ll think about it now when I plan meals because obviously serving Chinese food is served so differently. So you really, you know, it is sort of designing the meal too to allow us to experiment.
KAREN: Thank you so very much for taking time. You and I have talked before but this was truly enlightening.
CHRISTINE: Okay, Karen. Thank you.
KAREN: You’re welcome.
[00:24:33 – End of interview]