Do wine and food pairings work? The obvious answer is of course they do, else most French restaurants would shut down. I don’t mean to sound risqué, but to me, wine and food pairings have the hit-or-miss quality of that awkward first kiss. You know the kind. He bends. She pouts. A grandmother yells. She turns in panic. His upper lip pasted to her inner ear. Not the most pleasant of circumstances. To continue the metaphor, when wine and food actually connect, they can—like a first kiss—produce something beautiful. But for a nation raised on double scotches before dinner, the obvious question is why pair wine with food? Taste is one reason; tradition, another.
Right from the marching armies of Napoleon and Alexander, humans have always preferred fermented beverages to water with their meal. Better to march drunk than sober, I guess. The first wines, however, were discovered neither in Alexander’s Greece nor Napoleon’s France, but in the Near East. The neolithic people of Iran and Egypt were the first to use soaking, spicing and heating techniques to prepare bread, beer, wine and many of the dishes we enjoy to this day. No surprises there. If my staple grain was barley, I suppose I would want to improve on it.
In 1968, archaeologist Mary Voight discovered six jars with a yellowish residue in the Hajji Firuz Tepe in the Northern Zagros Mountains of Iran. This scaly residue, Chateau Hajji Firuz or Chateau Zagros, as oenologists called it, was the world’s first wine. They knew it was wine thanks to a recently evolved field called archaeological chemistry. Imagine, we can now pinpoint what our ancestors in Mohenjodaro ate, drank and ahem… you get the picture. The six wine jars that Voight discovered contained residues with calcium tartrate (tartaric acid occurs naturally in large amounts in grapes), which was why it was deemed to be wine.
India has a 5,000-year-long history with wine. The Mughals were obsessed with it and Jahan Ara, Shah Jahan’s daughter, made her own wine, according to Annemarie Schimmel’s book, The Empire of the Great Mughals. The colonial British, too, enjoyed their hookah and Shiraz. So, it was only after Independence that scotch and whisky became the spirits of choice with Indians.
In India, scotch or whisky is the aperitif of choice, which leaves only dinner for wines. With this comes the misconception that wine does not really go well with spicy food. Even though I love Andhra food as much as the next Bangalorean, I have to say I agree with this. Heavy spices simply kill the flavour of wine. Wines are a product of a temperate climate and require temperate food in attendance. Common wisdom is that you pair Indian food with the New World wines, mostly whites: say a bone-dry Muscadet or a crisp New Zealand Reisling, or even a young Beaujolais or Gewürztraminer. These are compromise choices in my mind, made by people who must have wine with their meal. The best accompaniment for our fiery meats, spicy biryanis and dals is what the average Indian reaches for: a cold beer or lassi.
My problem is that I don’t like mass-market beers. I am still waiting for boutique breweries to enter India. That leaves wine or chaas (buttermilk) with my meal. I find that the older wines are simply wasted on the strong flavours of our cuisine. The subtleties of aged Bordeaux wines are lost when I pair them with an aromatic kebab or biryani.
Most of the high-end Indian restaurants, especially the ones in the UK and US, have now started toning down their spices so that the dishes complement the wine. This to me is an excellent decision. Most people call this ‘Indian fusion’ because it cuts down the robust flavours that are part of our cuisine in order to make it accessible to the western palate.
Fair enough, but the two types of restaurants are completely different animals in my mind. If I want authentic Indian food, I’ll go to a Swati Snacks, an MTR, Swagath or Moti Mahal. I’ll forget about food-and-wine pairings and eat to my heart’s content. But on the odd occasion when I am fed up with home-cooked flavours and want to have some wine with my meal, I’ll go to these fusion restaurants where it is possible to pair wine with my meal.
When these food-and-wine pairings work, they sing. For instance, it is possible to have a fusion Indian dish with flavours like cloves and cinnamon that complement a Cotes-du-Rhone varietal, enhancing both. A mild biryani works beautifully.
Regardless of whether I am looking for an Aussie Shiraz or a Rhone varietal, I find that one drink works unfailingly with most of my Indian dishes: champagne.
Shoba Narayan believes in wine-and-food pairinthe power of a first kiss. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org