“Traditional wine pairings don’t apply when it comes to Indian food,” says Alpana Singh.
At 26, Singh became the first woman of South Asian descent to receive the Master Sommelier certification. She believes there’s potential to pair wine with Indian dishes, despite incorrect assumptions some people make about the country’s cuisines.
“I feel this is a general stereotype that’s attached to food that comes from regions that aren’t associated with wine production,” she says. She believes Indian cuisine “doesn’t get the same attention as Eurocentric dishes or dishes that come from traditional wine-producing areas.”
Scott Carney, dean of wine studies at New York’s International Culinary Center, notes that wine isn’t always part of the experience in the U.S. “There are certain cultures that will routinely drink beer with their dishes,” he says.
Formerly the sommelier at Junoon, an Indian restaurant in New York City, Carney believes that some people are hesitant to pair wines with Indian food out of respect for the cuisine’s flavors, figuring that “beverage has to take a secondary role to the complexity of the spices,” he says. However, he found that “guests were willing to try pairings” at Junoon.
There are several ways for wine to complement the cumin, cardamom, coriander and yes, even red chili spices present in dishes like chicken tikka, dal makhani and lamb vindaloo. Here are four key tips from Indian food and wine experts.
Pay Attention to Sauces and Spices
When it comes to finding the right wine for an Indian dish, the spices will generally take precedent over the protein.
“The elements to consider when pairing Indian food are the spices, sauce and the seasoning,” says Singh. “We are talking about very aggressive spices like cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger and garlic.” Finding a wine that stands up to these flavors is key.
Because of the residual sugar, Singh says a German Riesling Kabinett pairs well with dishes like palak paneer, a dish with cubes of mild cheese and creamy spinach sauce.
Sandra Guibord, a wine educator, agrees. “The freshness and acidity of a Riesling won’t overpower the spinach and will complement the creaminess,” says Guibord.
Tannins can increase the perception of spice and may overpower spicy dishes as well as accentuate bitterness. “You want to find a way to balance the essentials like the sweetness, sourness, tanginess, heat and the spice, and the texture,” adds Singh.
Pair dishes like chicken tikka masala with a Merlot, says Guibord, since “the smoky flavor from the tandoor cooking and subtle spices shine when matched with a softer tannin, fruit-forward wine.”
Fruit-forward wines with lower tannins may also complement spiciness of Indian dishes, says Brent Karlicek, certified advanced sommelier and beverage director for Upward Projects. Look for fruit-forward reds like Cru Beaujolais or try a Gewürztraminer or Pinot Gris. “Maybe Gamay wines might be better when the heat is higher because of the ripeness of the fruit,” he says.
Be Mindful of Alcohol Content
According to Singh, spicy dishes like lamb vindaloo, which features coconut, vinegar and abundant hot chili peppers, shouldn’t be paired with a wine that has a high alcohol content. The alcohol will amplify your perception of the spice. This combo will mute the taste of the other key ingredients.
Instead, Guibord advises a Grüner Veltliner. The “acidity of this wine will tone down the heat without overpowering the spices and flavors,” she says.
Red Wine Pairings for Indian Foods
A common misconception is that all Indian dishes feature red chili as the dominant seasoning. But many Indian dishes do not have an overabundance of heat.
“Coriander, cumin and garam masala aren’t necessarily hot,” says Singh. “If you’re going to do a lamb dish with garam masala flavors to it, a Malbec is absolutely delicious with it.”
Keep in mind, though, to stay away from a high-alcohol Malbec if you’re going to add chili peppers.
“Palak paneer can be paired with either a deep earthy Tempranillo or a peppery Zinfandel,” says Sidney Roberts, owner and chef of Austin-based Indian restaurants G’Raj Mahal and Mumtaz Table & Bar. “Nothing stands up and balances the pepper in a curry like Jalfrezi better than a Zinfandel. It is just so warm and zesty.”
While you won’t find many pork dishes on Indian menus, Roberts believes that Tempranillo is the right choice for the mellow flavors of Mumtaz’s pork rechaad, a warmly spiced stew served with braised cabbage and candied pineapple.
American barbecue can provide some guidance for kebabs or boti meats. Try them with a Syrah or Côtes du Rhône. “Anytime the protein is chewy you need a wine that is chewy,” says Singh.
When in Doubt, Try Prosecco or Rosé
“I love Prosecco with Indian food, for several reasons,” says Singh. It tends to be lower in alcohol than still reds or whites, for example, and the green apple and stone fruit notes can be refreshing. “It helps neutralize the heat and I love the cleansing effect of the bubbles,” she says.
Singh finds Prosecco pairs especially well with samosas and anything with rich, creamy sauces, like makhana or butter chicken.
Roberts likes rosé with chaats and tomato-cream sauces like tikka masala or makhana.
“We have had incredible luck with crisp, dry rosés to provide a nice balance to so many dishes on the menu,” she says.