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Pairing, the Indian way

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MUKUND PADMANABHAN

It would be a far better strategy if attempts at pairing were directed at complementing wines with short-eats

Can Indian food be paired with wine? A slew of wine experts and expert chefs seem to think so and, heck, they ought to know. But every time I read someone waxing about how the nicely integrated oak of a buttery Chardonnay from Sonoma complements the creamy coconut base of a Meen Moily, I can't help shaking my head in gentle disbelief. Restaurants here and abroad will tell you otherwise, but I still find it hard to accept that we have found that match for Punjabi Kadi with Pakoras or Vendakka Poriyal.

The medley of spices in Indian dishes is not the main problem, but this poses the first challenge. Pairing is arrived at in two basic ways — by complement (a process of striving for similar flavours) and less commonly by contrast (by finding a wine that lends something extra to the dish, like an additional seasoning). Complementarity is virtually impossible to achieve when dishes are highly spiced, particularly when fortified with lots of chilli. This is why most recommendations on pairing chilli-laden dishes are based on contrast; the default option is to select chill off-dry whites, Gewurztraminers, Chenin Blancs, Rieslings made in the Alsace or German style, or, if you must, bubbly.

The contrast between spice and cold/sweet is why curry washes down well with such things as beer, coke and iced tea. If off-dry whites do just as well, it is because of this general contrast and not because, for example, the herbaceousness of a Sauvignon Blanc subtly harmonises with the coriander in some dish or another.

The bigger problem is not related to the nature of Indian food but the manner in which we eat it. Unless you are having kebabs (which is really North-Western rather than Indian), a typical desi meal has no dominant dish. Many dishes compete for attention at the same time and, to make things even more complicated, every mouthful can be — and usually is — packed with different flavours. For one mouthful, you may choose to dip your naan into a dal, then wrap it around a piece of meat, and then pat it on a dab of hot pickle. For the next, you might want to temper the heat by plunging your naan in a bowl of curd. An Indian meal is only partly determined by the chef; in the end, it is we who make it what it is.

See the problem? It's not merely about the medley of spices. It's about the assortment of dishes and variety of wonderfully open-ended ways we can — and do — enjoy them.

The huge interest in pairing with Indian food in the wine industry is understandable. I recall one Western wine expert telling me that finding the right matches is the most exciting challenge. “If we can do this, we will be in a position to persuade millions of Indians to regularly drink wine with their food — we can open a huge new market,” he gushed enthusiastically.

Once again, I'm not so sure. Like eating habits, the desi approach to drinking is also idiosyncratic. Most Indians prefer to drink before they eat and will not touch a drop once they have had their fill of food. We also don't require a drink to wash down our food, because — unlike Western cuisine — most of our dishes are wet or gravy-based.

I tried suggesting to the wine expert that it would be a far better strategy if attempts at pairing were directed at complementing wines with short-eats, that Indians eat in huge quantities before settling down to their nosh. Which wine with which samosa? Or which pakori?

He thought about it for a bit. But as I had anticipated, he wasn't convinced in the end.

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