Is the common perception that Indian food doesn’t really pair very well with wine true or false?
Well it is true that Indian food does have a real diversity of flavours, which can be a real challenge in food and wine matching. Add into the mix that we often have a selection of dishes with varying ‘heat’ on the table to try/select from, the build up of spices on the palate can be problematic.
Firstly, as highlighted in our ‘Is there a holy grail to food and wine matching?’ blog dated 28th August 2013, it’s always important to remember that we all have different preferences and sensitivities to various flavours and aromas. Also, don’t forget that when we eat, our taste buds adapt, which can subsequently alter the perception of the salt, acidity, sugar etc levels of the next thing we eat.
Indian cuisine involves lot of staple foods such as pearl millet, rice, lentils, chickpeas and potatoes as well as spices, herbs, clarified butter, yoghurt and so on that are often marinated overnight so the dishes tend to be quite layered and complex. Spices feature highly as an ingredient unsurprisingly with India’s historically significant ‘Age of Discovery’ spice trade with Europe. Bearing in mind the mountain of spices that are often used, the ‘heat’ level can vary dramatically dish to dish.
So how do you know how hot the peppers you’re eating or including in your cooking are? Well, chillies are graded according to their level of capsaicin, the chemical compound that produces the characteristic heat sensation in the mouth. Thanks to Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacist, he created a test in 1912 to reveal the scale of the pungency of chilli peppers and other spicy foods by measuring the amount of concentration of alcohol extract of the capsaicin oil of the dried pepper, then incrementally adding a solution of sugar and water until the ‘heat’ was just barely detected by a team of tasters. The degree of dilution is called the Scoville Scale. To give you an indication of some of the commonly known chilli peppers ratings, her are just some of them: –
- Green bell pepper has a ‘O’ SHU rating (no significant heat/contains no capsaicin)
- Pimento has a 100 – 900 SHU rating
- Jalapeno has a 3,500 – 8,000 SHU rating
- Cayenne or Tabasco Pepper has a 30,000 – 50,000 SHU rating
- Piri Piri has a 50,000 – 100,000 SHU rating
- Scotch Bonnet has a 100,000 – 350,000 SHU rating
- Trinidad Moruga Scorpion has a 2,000,000 – 2,200,000 SHU rating (sounds lethal too!)
Pure capsaicin is an incredible 16 million Scoville Heat Units!!
Recipes vary significantly as a result of the wide variety of regional cuisines and dishes. Even the oils are inclined to vary region to region too e.g. peanut oil is very popular in northern and western India, coconut oil along the western coast, more sesame in the south and mustard oil in the east yet sunflower and soybean oils have generally become more popular throughout India.
So, which wines should we select? Rather than the meat (beef, chicken, lamb etc.), it’s recommended that you consider the sauce first. Heat in food intensifies a wine’s perception of bitterness, astringency, acidity and alcohol, therefore, avoid high abv (alcohol by volume) wines and target refreshing white wines or red wines with lower tannin as well as wines with good fruit and some sweetness levels. Creamy rich dishes need a wine with good acidity (look for wines from cooler climates).
Ideas? Aromatic wines compliment the spicy elements in a dish; acidity helps balance the richness (there’s often a lot of clarified butter in Indian food); sweetness to balance the spice; and body to match the weight.
White Wines – ideally choose more off dry wines to cut down the heat
- German Rieslings – aged Mosel Riesling would be perfect
- Alsace Pinot Gris – whilst these are drier they have good body and creaminess, which really complements a lot of Indian cuisines
- Alsace Gewürztraminer – can even cope with a Vindaloo!!
- Jurançon – SW France wine made with Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng grapes
- Vouvray – Touraine region of the Loire Valley made with Chenin Blanc grape
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Cabernet d’Anjou – Anjou region of Loire Valley made with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon
- Grenache – Navarra in Spain or Provence in France and great with Korma
Red Wines – lighter weight, chilled, fruity and spicy reds
- Beaujolais Villages – Burgundy region made with Gamay grape
- Valpolicella – Veneto region of Italy using Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes
- Pinot Noir – Red Burgundy
- Zinfandel – USA
The Brits appetite has come a long way from its first dedicated Indian Restaurant, the Hindostanee Coffee House in London in the 1800s. Initially Indian recipes here were quite mild using a lot more herbs than spices before moving to more ginger, cayenne, turmeric, cumin and so on.
So the nuts and bolts? You can pair Indian food with wine, but you just have to think sauce, then wine.