My love affair with Chinese food predates my love affair with wine. When I was young, Chinese food was exotic, enjoyed at interesting restaurants in Chinatown, sipping a Shirley Temple with an umbrella in it while my father drank his Oriental beer. In college, already an experimental chef, I discovered Grace Chu’s bible, The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking, and feasted my friends on her Americanized versions of egg foo yung and sweet-and-sour chicken. We drank beer with it, since that was mostly what we drank, and Mateus Rosé, since that was all we knew, and it didn’t go badly.
Almost ten years ago, at the opening banquet of the Hotel Conrad Hong Kong, the wines were French and first class: red and white Burgundies, red and white Bordeaux. There were also cocktails, Champagne, and 12 courses of exotic items with ingredients like snake’s blood, so what went with what became a bit blurred. It was all delicious. But in Chinese restaurants at home, I continued to find that the wine selections rarely enhanced the food, or even survived it.
More recently, I attended a nine-course banquet at the Mandarin Court restaurant on Mott Street in the heart of New York’s Chinatown, where 12 white wines—mostly French—were on hand for a considered tasting against a primarily seafood menu. Light, fruity, acidic wines and off-dry wines won out for most of the courses, with Sauvignon Blanc (Australian), Sancerre and Riesling leading the pack. Yet we preferred a Graves and a Provençal white with the lobster baked with ginger and scallions, and a Puligny-Montrachet was the preferred choice with the seafood fried rice.
Because of the combination of textures, flavors, sauces, spices and cooking styles used in Chinese food, pairing wine with these dishes is an interesting challenge. Basic rules of pairings apply, but need to be combined. For instance, recipes with sweetness and/or fruit in the sauce can make wine taste bitter, sour, or thin, and overwhelm the fruit flavors in the wine, so the wine should be at least as sweet as the dish. Salty or sour flavors in the food, on the other hand, will bring out fruit flavors in a wine and make it taste less dry than normal. Savory flavors will enhance the wine, making its flavors and alcohol seem stronger. Foods where heat is an important element (deep-fried or spicy) call for something crisp and cold.
4 Most Chinese food emphasizes texture, which generally means you can de-emphasize the texture of the wine. Pairing wine is not too difficult with steamed dishes, but a spicier wine can be called for to match the spice of more complicated Asian cuisine.
Wines most likely to go with one or another Chinese dishes include Vinho Verde from Portugal, Sauvignon Blanc (either varietally labeled, or Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé from France), Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, unoaked or lightly oaked Chardonnays, Chasselas, Grüner Veltliner, Beaujolais and Côtes-du-Rhône. Depending upon the degree of fire you like in your spice, the ingredients you use (since most Chinese dishes have versions starring seafood, chicken, pork or beef) and the veggies you pick for color and crunch, other wines may work as well. It’s trial and error, but since the wines that work well with Chinese food are rarely expensive, finding the perfect pairings for your favorite foods can be affordable fun.
Honey Garlic Shrimp
The garlic helps to offset the plain sweetness of this dish, while the absence of fruit in the sauce allows it to work with a fruity wine. Optional sesame seeds add a bit of extra texture.
Wine suggestions: Rather surprisingly, this dish is quite compatible with a tangy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc; try the 1998 Brancott Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. A more traditional pairing would be a Riesling with enough residual sugar to keep the sweetness of the dish in its place.
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 teaspoons cornstarch
6 tablespoons water
10 jumbo shrimp, shelled
2 cups vegetable oil
3 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons honey
1/2 teaspoon chili sauce
3/4 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon sesame seeds (optional)
Mix together salt, 6 teaspoons cornstarch, and water to make batter. Stir shrimp in batter til well coated. In deep-fryer or wok, heat oil to frying temperature. Fry shrimp for approximately 3 minutes, until golden.
To make sauce, combine garlic, sugar, honey, chili sauce and chicken broth in a medium saucepan. Thicken sauce with 2 tea- spoons cornstarch. Mix sauce with shrimp; arrange on platter or individual plates over white rice. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serves 2.
This is a very simple dish, and the adapted recipe is easy to prepare at home. If you’re feeling ambitious, cut leaf shapes out of additional pastry and make a lotus flower design on top.
Wine suggestions: Of four wines tried with this dish, the favorite was the Baron Philippe de Rothschild 1997 Graves, followed closely by a white Burgundy, the Prosper Maufoux 1997 Santenay Blanc. Try it, too, with an off-dry rosé.
1 whole chicken, about 3 1/2 pounds
4 teaspoons soybean paste
2 teaspoons rosé
1 ounce diced dry scallions
1/2 ounce diced lemongrass
1/2 ounce chopped cilantro
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 sheet puff pastry dough
Rinse and dry the chicken, removing any contents from the cavity. Heat oven to 350 F.
In a small bowl, mix together the soybean paste, rosé, scallions, lemongrass and cilantro. Place the mixture inside the chicken. Rub the skin of the chicken with the salt and pepper. Wrap the chicken in the pastry dough with the edges meeting under the chicken, if you plan to decorate the top, or gather the dough in a paper-bag effect on top. Place the dough-wrapped chicken in a baking pan and bake for 1 hour 15 minutes. Serves 4-6.