Whether indulging in your grandmother’s kitchen or at a restaurant, eating is only a part of the soul food experience. Ancestors wrap their arms around every dish, and, like other cuisines, soul food deserves to be appreciated to the fullest. Pairing your meal with the perfect wine can do just that.
The roots of soul food run through Africa and the Americas, including the Caribbean, with occasional nods to other cultures.
Philadelphia-based sommelier Edward Murray believes that rich, full-flavored soul food favorites are enhanced by wines that offer a counterbalance. He serves spicy dishes with low- to moderate-alcohol wines since alcohol can amplify heat, and he says that food that is texturally nuanced pairs wonderfully with similarly textured wines.
Wine pairings are a great way to not only accentuate the flavors in this cuisine, but they can also invite you to enjoy the foods you grew up on in new ways. After all, soul food can be a journey.
Here are 11 popular soul food dishes with wine pairing recommendations from experts.
Shrimp and Grits
This dish hails from the American South but is loved across the country. It typically features scallions, bacon and stone-ground, cheesy grits.
Murray suggests pairing it with a bright, substantial wine like a Spanish Cava or Sauvignon Blanc from the U.S. “Both wines have the texture to cut through the cheesy, buttery grits, yet stand up to the richness of the shrimp,” he says.
Étouffée comes from the French word for “smother.” It is basically a seafood stew made with a thick roux instead of broth.
“Soul food to me means a celebration of heritage and a taste of home,” says Kamal Hoyte, the executive chef at Manhattan’s Pekarna NYC. “I pair crawfish étouffée with a South African Pinotage. Specifically, I like the Barista Pinotage as the smoky, leathery and earthy notes are the perfect complement to the herbs and spices fundamental to the dish.”
Smothered Pork Chops
Smothered pork chops are typically pan-fried then coated in a mushroom or onion gravy. HGTV’s Table Wars competitor Yaz Quiles likes to pair her favorite soul food dish with something sparkly. Her go-to is Black-owned Stuyvesant Grand Reserve Brut Champagne.
Murray calls this dish “unifying,” though many jollof fans will argue with you over whether cooks in Ghana or Nigeria make it best. Jollof is typically tomato-based, with onions and spices.
“This West African dish that is finding a home in the African diaspora in America is wonderful with Cru Beaujolais to complement the dish’s tomato and curry flavors,” says Murray.
If you’d prefer a white wine, you have options. Jollof rice often “leans on the spicy side, and it would pair well with a Pinot Grigio to tone down the heat some,” he adds.
Spaghetti with Meatballs or Meat Sauce
Every Black person can name offhand a relative who makes the best spaghetti they’ve ever had. For Skyler Mapes, the founder of EXAU Olive Oil, that person could be either her Italian or Caribbean grandmother.
A third-generation Californian who is passionate about wine, Mapes launched EXAU with her husband, Giuseppe, in 2020. “I love an Italian soulful dish,” she says. “We love Tagliatelle alla Bolognese and usually pair it with a young Gaglioppo from Calabria.”
Fried Fish (Whiting or Catfish)
Murray recommends a white wine for frying fish, since it’s typically eaten with a good hot sauce.
Try a “Pinot Grigio or German Riesling that fills the nooks of fried cornbread coating,” says Murray. “The fish needs a low-alcohol wine to clean up the heat and add nuance.”
Macaroni and Cheese
Baked macaroni and cheese is another soul food dish that you must be called to make. If that person isn’t you, then bring along a good wine to accompany it.
Mapes recommends a “fruity or minerally wine” to go with the dish. “Pairing mac and cheese with a Malbec, Merlot, Beaujolais or a young Gaglioppo provides enough dryness to cut through the cheese and tingle the tongue, but it’s still fruity enough to keep things light and fun,” she says.
A baked cured ham with a spiced glaze is a mainstay at many holiday tables.
“When I think of holiday ham, I think of warm spices like cinnamon and clove as well as a sweet glaze,” says blogger Geo Banks-Weston. “For this dish I think a little bubbly is in order. A sparkling rosé would be lovely.” He recommends Black Girl Magic Sparkling Brut Rose or Wachira Wine Black Label Sparkling.
Fried Chicken and Collard Greens
While fried chicken batters vary, Mapes specifies that the greens should have ham hocks. Regardless of how yours are prepared, she likes to pair this classic dish with Merlot, Pinot Noir or Magliocco.
“It’s about balance,” she says. “Greens can be very bitter, and a wine like Pinot Noir can bring back some sweetness.”
Murray agrees, and recommends an Oregon Pinot Noir or Beaujolais Villages. “Serve the wine at cellar temperature to showcase the lovely aromatics and dry fruit flavors—the perfect foil to all that richness on the plate,” he says.
Black Eyed Peas and Collard Greens
Many people save this dish to ring in the new year, and, if that’s the case, a wine pairing will come in handy. Murray recommends “Prosecco, Rioja Joven or Albariño. These wines will pair with the salty, smoky, rich, earthy flavors of this dish.”
Whether you’re finishing your meal with a slice of pound cake or yellow cake with chocolate icing, wine pairings for desserts can be tricky. Banks-Weston says to go with what you love.
“While we could lean into dessert wines for this category, I tend to pair my sweet with deep, rich flavors,” he says. “I especially love red wines with chocolate cake. That’s why I would go with a nice Cabernet Sauvignon or red wine blend.” Two of his favorites are Longevity Cabernet Sauvignon and Black Girl Magic Red Blend.