Last Saturday evening, a friend of mine invited me and several of my co-workers to dinner at her cozy little apartment.
My friend is an artist, and her work and her exploratory nature have taken her all over the Pacific Rim. Along the way she washed dishes in tiny island restaurants, trading her scrubbing skills for recipes, winding up as a sous chef and then chief cook at a restaurant in New Zealand.
As a result, she has a strong inclination toward Asian-influenced dishes, and I was excited to try and find wines that would work well with her varied cuisine.
The meal included dishes rooted in Thai, Korean and Japanese traditions, and I knew there would be a fair spiciness and perhaps some sweetness to the tastes: an interesting challenge for a fan of wines who must match them with food.
The dinner began with Korean-inspired steamed pork dumplings with dried shitake, tofu, pork mince, spring onion and sweet spices all ground together, rolled into golf-ball sized offerings, and steamed. The smooth, slightly sweet flavour was a treat to the senses.
Vegetables included Japan-inspired, barely cooked spinach with soy and bonito shavings, and zucchini stirfried in sesame oil, served with miso sesame dressing. The spinach was minimally cooked, preserving the crisp texture and strong but pleasingly fresh flavour of the lovely vegetable.
And the mild zucchinis were jazzed up with the slightly salty flavour of the miso sesame dressing.
Accompanying these treats was a Thai-inspired Tom Yum seafood curry, made with coconut milk, lemon grass, chili and cilantro.
Imagine all that creamy, slightly sweet coconut milk sauce, infused with the depth of flavour of the lemon grass, and spiced up with the chili, then almost taken in a slightly Méxican direction with the cilantro. Stir this over lightly and perfectly stir-fried shrimp and scallops and you have: Yum!
These complex and varying Asian flavours are a challenge to match with traditional Occidental grape wines, but I came armed with four very different ones that I thought might work. All are available at the Liquor Corp. store, and range in price from $14 to $24.
Bottle one was a German Lingenfelder Bird Label Riesling for $19.70. The shelf label at the store ranks it as a 1 on the sweetness scale … just a little sweeter than a dry white wine.
This is a new offering at the Liquor Store, and I had wanted to try it. It’s a refreshing and tasty Riesling, and it seemed that I could taste notes like cantaloupe melon and a little honey in it.
It worked pretty well with the steamed pork dumplings, but was overwhelmed by the rich, multi-note flavours of the vegetables and Thai seafood curry. The spiciness of the curry just seemed to overwhelm it. While likely an excellent wine on its own, or with milder accompaniments, I’d rule it out as an accompaniment for spicy Asian dishes.
Choice two is an old favourite of mine that I have served with spicy grilled salmon, and I was pleased to learn that it held its own in the Asian food realm: Calona Vineyards Artist Series Sovereign Opal, at $14.95, worked well with both the dumplings and the curry, with less sweetness than the Riesling (though both have a sweetness rating of “1” on the shelf tag), but pronounced notes of apple and pear that really worked.
This British Columbia VQA wine continues to surprise and please both my guests and me, impressing me with the variety of dishes that it goes well with.
Sovereign Opal is the name of the hybrid grape developed by Agriculture Canada that the wine is made from, and although I am generally a fan of old school/old world grapes, you can’t argue with success.
The last two wines were dark horse candidates, and ended up being our surprise favourites.
The first was Il Moscatto Frizzante, $18.95, an Italian, slightly sweet sparkling wine. It is made by the Mionetto Vineyard, whose Prosecco dry sparkling wine was rated best Prosecco by The Wall Street Journal wine columnists several years ago.
The combination of the sweetness and the bubbly texture was a delightful accompaniment to both the pork dumplings and the coconut milk curry, and each flavour complemented the other. Definitely two thumbs up.
Finally, I brought a second, VERY dark horse. A fortified, almost Port style VQA wine from the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, called Odyssey III ($23.90), from Gray Monk Vineyards. As a fortified wine, it is stronger than a regular wine, and has dark fruit notes like black cherry and a bit of a bite, like a very dark chocolate.
Again, it stood up very well to the wonderful creamy spiciness of the Thai seafood, and worked well with the other dishes.
So what did I learn about trying to match wines with Asian dishes? Probably that there are no hard and fast rules, but that it pays to go out on a limb with non-conventional wines.
In general, the sweetness worked with the Asian spices and flavours. Slightly offbeat wines worked better than more conventional ones.
Perhaps the next time you try an offbeat wine, think about what it might go well with and experiment when you have the chance. And if you can, do it with friends who are all over the idea of exploration and just having fun playing with the food and wines.
I can pretty much guarantee a fun evening.