Pairings: Heat of the Moment

Americans love dishes that are hot, spicy, pungent and tangy. What wines and beers harmonize when the chef turns up the volume?


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Heat of the Moment

Americans love dishes that are hot, spicy, pungent or tangy—or all of the above. What wines and beers best harmonize when the chef turns up the volume?

Choosing a perfect quaffer for the mannered preparations of your favorite French chef is about as complicated as grabbing a beer to go with a ballpark hot dog. And it's hard to make a bad match when, say, spaghetti and meatballs are on the menu. Tradition precedes us and serves us well. The cuisines of Europe have evolved in step with its viticulture. When it comes to wine pairing, there is no better rule than to look first to the region. Foods and wines from the same place are notoriously compatible.

But what about those other cuisines, the lusty creations from regions and cultures with a particular fondness for fiery flavors? When a cook turns up the volume on spice, it can mute a wine. And with our apparently endless passion for pungency—salsa now outsells ketchup, once America's most popular condiment—there is increasing interest in just what we should be using to refresh our taste buds between bites. Not to worry. Armed with simple guidelines, you can scamper up the Scoville scale (the most common measure of heat; see sidebar, page 52) and drink well all the way to the top.

Aroma v. Texture
Pungency plays a pivotal role in many cuisines and the hotter the climate the higher up the Scoville scale the flames go. There's a physical logic to this as well as an agricultural one: Hot food makes us sweat, which in turns cools us, and chiles thrive in hot weather. There is warmth in some cooler cuisines, too, but it is often aromatic instead of tactile. When heat is experienced in the sinuses rather than on the palate, there is little interference with flavors.

The Japanese have evolved a cool-climate cuisine. Dried chilies appear in some dishes, but in modest amounts, with modest results. Most of the heat in Japanese food is generated by wasabi, a rhizome that grows only in cool regions. Wasabi is subtle and sneaky, vaporizing in the sinuses in a rush of intoxicating warmth that fades quickly. It does not make you sweat, but it may make you swoon.

Most Americans know only the green paste that accompanies sushi and sashimi. It is actually not wasabi, but rather a mixture of dried horseradish, mustard and food coloring. Even so, the rush it provides is true enough, especially if you don't know the real thing. Fresh wasabi, which is now grown in Oregon, has an earthy sweetness and gentle aromatic warmth. With wasabi, less is more; it takes just a bit to fill the sinuses with its exotic pleasure.

Because the heat of wasabi, like that of Chinese mustard and Dijon mustard, is aromatic, choosing a beverage is easy. Other ingredients—especially soy sauce and sugar—should influence your selection. Dry rosé works well and a sparkler is always a treat with raw fish. Traditional saké pairs beautifully with almost any Japanese dish, as do pilsners and lagers. For wine, look to high-acid whites such as Sauvignon Blanc and Arnais, and low-tannin reds such as Beaujolais and Pinot Noir.

As we move south, the intensity and quality of heat changes. Cultures in Southeast Asia bring us some of the hottest foods in the world. With the cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam, both of which have been imported to the U.S. with tremendous success, pleasing matches are a bit tricky but not impossible. In dishes with fresh chilies, a profound heat often dominates, offering a shout-out to your taste buds with every bite. Many dishes include sweet notes, too, usually provided by a sauce such as the classic Vietnamese Nuoc Cham, a mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, serrano chilies, garlic and sugar. Lagers and pilsners always work with these dishes; the brightness of the flavors makes sparkling wines a good choice, too. In Thailand, whiskey is enjoyed as often as beer. When it comes to still wine, whites with high-acid, floral aromas and suggestions of sweetness—think Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne—engage beautifully with the particular quality of heat in these dishes. Such wines also pair well with the coconut milk-based curries of Southeast Asia, as do Gewürztraminer and Riesling. All but the very lightest red wines pose problems, because sweetness and heat experienced on the palate heighten our perception of tannins, and decrease our ability to taste the wine's other characteristics.

Given the size and culinary diversity of India, you might think it would be impossible to generalize about beverages, yet it is remarkably easy. Although there is tremendous regional variation—coconut milk-based curries in some areas, tomato-based curries in others, no onions, garlic or chilies in some regions—a common theme makes it easy to select a companionable wine. Gewürztraminer and Riesling both resonate with the chorus of spices—black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, cumin, fennel, ginger, mace, nutmeg and turmeric—that shape nearly all Indian cuisines. These two wines can follow you up the Scoville scale with nary a stumble. Light lagers and pilsners work, too, but you should avoid ales for the same reason you shouldn't waste a big red wine; heat and spice accent bitterness.

New World Noise
What's better than a soft corn tortilla filled with buttery pork and an avocado sauce with some kick, savored outside under a full moon, a soft sea breeze cooling your brow, a mariachi band playing in the distance? That same taco, with an ice-cold beer. As diverse as Mexican cuisine is—there are seven traditional moles in the state of Oaxaca alone—beer is the common denominator. It goes with everything from rich birria (goat stew) and tamales to chile verde and enchiladas. Although you might want a shot of Tequila or a Margarita with your chips and salsa, a light Mexican beer such as Bohemia or a dark one, such as Negro Modelo, will not only make your taste buds sing—it will make them dance.
Throughout Mexico, Latin America and South America, ceviche reigns as one of the most renowned dishes, both in terms of popularity and Scoville heat. It is the national dish of Peru, where there are so many versions it is impossible to generalize about what you should drink with it. But most feature seafood that is cooked in acid, generally the Peruvian lemon, and seasoned with aji amarillo and rocoto chilies, both of which will make you break out in a sweat. A wine that works with lemon juice—Sancerre, Italian Frescati and California Blanc de Blanc—will get you by, but cold beer and iced Tequila will hold their own more successfully.

Jerk, which refers to a mixture of spices from the Caribbean, has become extremely popular in the U.S., no surprise given our love of barbecue. It is used most often as a rub for chicken and pork that is then grilled. Jerk is aromatic, sweet and hot, with allspice, anise, black pepper, cayenne, cinnamon, clove, cumin, ginger and nutmeg among the most commonly used spices. You won't go wrong if you sip native rum with your jerked meat. When it comes to other barbecue—from South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas or Kansas City—beer is the classic accompaniment but Zinfandels, especially those of Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley, often make stunning companions.

In the U.S., no cuisine makes more noise than that of New Orleans, where Cajun and Creole intersect in a delightfully rowdy celebration of the senses. Cajun cuisine is lusty country cooking that originated in the south of France and migrated through Nova Scotia to southern Louisiana, where it was transformed by regional ingredients such as Tabasco, cayenne, banana and birds-eye chilies. The most casual dishes—red beans, sausage and rice, for example, and jambalaya—are best flattered by cold beer.

Creole cooking was born and raised in the city, in the kitchens of wealthy landowners and earl restaurants. It is an amalgam of influences, from French, Spanish and Italian to Native American and African. It is more sophisticated than Cajun cooking and thus both less hot and easier to pair with wine. Sparklers and white wines such as Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Grüner Veltliner work well with both cuisines. When it comes to reds, think rustic, such as inexpensive quaffers from Provençe, the Rhône, Portugal and Spain.
Whether you crave heat in your food or can only take it in small doses, a solid knowledge of which beverages complement certain sources of heat is essential—that's the only way to be sure you enjoy flavor, and not just flames.

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