Oysters with champagne, meat with red wine: decrees about food and wine pairings come from a Western paradigm, but the distinctive world of Chinese cuisine means the old rules do not always apply. These tips by a sommelier might be helpful the next time you want to pair Chinese food with wine.
Ingredients start off on an equal footing, but Chinese cooking can turn them into wholly unique dishes that baffle the traditional parameters of wine pairing. Take duck, for example, which is commonly matched with pinot noir, a high-acid, low-tannin wine that cuts through the meat’s fattiness without overpowering its delicate taste.
However, give a duck to a Teochew cook, and they braise it with herbs and spices. Someone from Beijing would roast the duck and eat the skin in a pancake wrap. In the hands of a Cantonese chef, it is marinated with spices, smoked with tea, and served with crisp tea leaves.
Alessandro Furfaro is charting a new path for Chinese food and wine pairing. The trained sommelier and Italian native has been working in the food and beverage industry for over 13 years and is now overseas in the wine programme at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Singapore. He is also regularly at the one-Michelin-starred Summer Pavilion, where he offers suggestions on how to pair the restaurant’s refined Cantonese fare with wine.
While this is Furfaro’s first time working in a Chinese restaurant, he drew certain parallels between Italian and Chinese dining. “When I think about both cuisines, I think about big tables. A lot of familiar faces. A reunion with family,” he said. “I think about regional dishes all on the table. It’s something very familiar to me.”
Furfaro even found the cooking recognisable. “There is a lot of fresh vegetables in Cantonese food, similar to Italy,” he said. “Then you have Shanghainese cuisine, which cooks pork in a very thick sweet sauce, also very typical in northeast Italy. And the extreme variety of protein, from seafood to poultry to lamb, pork, and beef: it’s the same in Italy. We don’t throw anything away. It feels like home.”
From contrasting a dish with wine to drinking it with hotpot, here are Furfaro’s five tips on how to pair Chinese food with wine.
Five tips on how to pair Chinese food with wine
Create a blank slate
A fundamental way of thinking about any pairing is looking at the wine’s role in dining. “Wine is consumed with food because it resets your palate,” Furfaro said. “The tannins, acidity, and different aromas contrast against the dish, and it cleans your tastebuds so you can enjoy the food again.” For instance, a crisp sauvignon blanc tempers the chewiness of braised abalone, while a fruit-forward cabernet sauvignon offsets the intensity of tea-smoked duck.
Keep the party going
Another school of thought is to complement the primary component. “Sometimes, a contrasting wine will dilute the dish’s flavours,” Furfaro said. “In this case, I prefer to highlight its main qualities.” In Summer Pavilion’s lobster pao fan, the sweet crustacean sits on top of smooth and crunchy rice and is surrounded by an intensely saline broth. “A classic pinot noir from Burgundy highlights all the flavours,” he said. “It will continue the experience long after you put your spoon down.”
Some general rules for hotpot
Hotpot is a limitless combination of flavours, textures, and ingredients, which makes wine pairing challenging. “There is a wine for every dish, but not a dish for every wine,” Furfaro said. “Hotpot is like that. It’s possible, but it’s difficult.”
Still, he has some guidelines. For seafood or pork hotpot, chardonnay works, but “champagne is the safer option,” he said. Vegetable-laden broths do well with sauvignon blanc, while a lamb or beef base would benefit from a supple red wine like Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or McLaren Vale Shiraz. If there are plenty of chillis bobbing in the broth, a weighty aromatic white like Australian riesling or Gewurztraminer stands up to the heat.
Not everything has to be paired
Sometimes, a dish is utterly faultless in that it does not need a wine pairing. One of them is soup. “Asian soups are like a palate cleanser,” Furfaro said. “They are also quite complete in flavour, so there is no point in pairing wine with something that is already beautiful.”
Experiment outside the box
The wine list at Chinese restaurants in Singapore is heavily populated with champagne and burgundy, mirroring people’s impressions that these wines do best with the food. “It has almost become a tradition,” Furfaro said. “They work well, but nowadays wine is so international in its flavour that it is difficult to tell regions apart. A better guide to pairing is how a wine tastes, rather than where it comes from.”
This story first appeared here.
(Hero and featured images credit: The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore)