Basic guidelines to matching the Asian palate & fusion dishes

In the early 1990s a well-meaning consumer had the temerity to take some of Hawai`i's new fusion chefs to task in the editorial pages of one of Honolulu’s daily newspapers. "Pacific Rim food is over-done," he opined, "and fusion cooking (is)… a ridiculous experiment gone awry... bizarre... complicated... frou frou!”

Although I personally worked with, and encouraged, pretty much the best of Hawai`i's Asian and fusion chefs, I can't say that I found those comments particularly hurtful. For one thing, it was often true; new Island cooking could be bizarre. Then again, this was the kind of cooking that captured the fancy of Island visitors and locals alike -- not to mention the lion's share of international press – and it would have been foolish for even modestly talented chefs and restaurateurs not to incorporate these new ideas.

The ironic thing, as most food culturists observe, is that there is virtually no cuisine in this world that does not represent some kind of fusion. The Italian cooking that we know today has evolved at an incredible pace since the 19th century, influenced by foodstuffs and techniques borrowed from all over the Mediterranean, and from faraway as China and America. The various cuisines of India, China, Thailand, Vietnam, and throughout Asia grew from cultures of people utilizing everything at their disposal, including all they could absorb from neighboring countries and cultures.

In American shopping malls, sushi, spring rolls, streudel, pizza, pierogi, falafel, rellenos and Polish dogs are sold side by side with nary a blink; and there's a good reason why many of these foodstuffs bear little resemblance to foods of the same name in their original countries: they've been thoroughly melted, or Americanized, into a larger pot. And it is always a matter of time before foods begin to "fuse" into something different, to the point where the untraditional becomes something of an “old” tradition… or so it always seems.

What I found particularly interesting about the occasional criticism of Hawaii's evolving cuisine was the degree of response to similar developments in other parts of the world. When I first visited Australia in 1992, for instance, I expected to find classy wine and maybe some classically defined foods with an Anglo-Aussie bent. Instead, what I found was scores of well trained, disciplined chefs applying a host of East-West, North-South, cross-cultural approaches to an enviable range of meats, seafoods, and produce for a justifiably proud and appreciative populace.

And why not? For a country once known for little beyond roast lamb and a black yeast paste called vegemite, dishes like Tasmanian rock oyster in ginger black bean beurre blanc, or wallaby roulade with native warrigal spinach chips, amount to exciting progressions in imagination and regional self-realization.

At the same time on the opposite side of the globe, Californian, Asian, and Mediterranean influences came together to form an even more peculiar culinary movement known as Modern British Cuisine. A Decanter magazine once quoted one of its ringleaders, Anthony Worral Thompson (his prawn mango ceviche, pictured left), to say: "Most Modern British chefs have trained at a serious French level and gained a good understanding of food, what works together and how it works, and when you've got that you can experiment." Basically, according to Thompson, this movement grew out of a "plundering" of ideas and ingredients -- Thai spices, Japanese soy, Irish oysters, Italian Parmesan, French truffles, Old English puddings, Baltic herring, etc. -- until it became only “a question of time before 'theirs' becomes 'ours.'" Call it progress, or gastronomic plagiarism -- the important thing for Thompson was that it was “great to have an identity and restaurants we can be proud of.”

Sound familiar? In disparate places, a building upon different (or indifferent) traditions, bringing new levels of culinary self-respect and resulting commercial success.

So are the world's newly defined "regional" cooking styles half-baked or over-done? I'm not sure if either is possible. While perhaps not as eclectic as Hawaii, virtually the entire North American continent is, after all, a melting pot. Americans have never really needed to "plunder" other traditions; they live and breathe them as we speak. I recently saw a book on Southern Appalachian cooking called Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread & Scuppernong Wine that described itself as "a celebration of foodlore handed down from Scotland, England, Ireland, Germany and the Cherokee Nation." If that's not fusion cooking, I don't know what is. Dramatic cultural crossings beyond previously known bounds have been the norm for such a long time, we'd be remiss if we didn't celebrate it!

From the wine perspective, the cultural and commercial ramifications associated with the latest and most visible culinary variations have resulted in two things:
  • A stronger need to expand our taste for globally sourced wines to match this growing culinary diversity
  • Gravitation towards wines tailored towards new foods rather than just for power, finesse, regional or varietal definition, big scores, or any other factors
If you’ve looked at the wine lists in some of today’s hipper restaurants, you are already aware of the astounding range of wines now being aggressively merchandised alongside the usual cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays: teroldego from Trentino, riesling halbtrocken from the Saar, spätburgunder from the Pfalz, lemberger (a.k.a. blaufränkisch) from Austria or Columbia Valley, cabernet franc from Chinon or Bourgueil, malbec from Cahors or Mendoza, and grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, roussanne, marsanne and viognier from everywhere from Australia’s McLaren Vale to Maipo in Spain, from California’s Central Coast to France’s Languedoc-Roussillon.

So why are restaurateurs subjecting consumers to such new fangled regions and grapes? It's easier to understand when you know why they’re needed: to match new fangled foods, particular those entailing Asian/fusion ingredients and cooking techniques. These emerging culinary styles can be bewilderingly varied – utilizing Thai spices, Japanese seasonings, Chinese vegetables, Italian herbs, and French style sauce reductions, often in one dish! In these contexts, even the most unusual wines become, well, usual – appropriate out of pure, sensory necessity.

So here are some observations on such new complications, along with a few remedies:

Lemberger (a.k.a. blaufränkisch)

The Asian/Fusion vs. European Palate

Wine, of course, is a product indigenous to European culture and gastronomy. Since wine is not natural or traditional in Asian settings, the combination may be problematic. But it is not an impossible one. What it takes is a little more imagination. It also takes a special effort to understand the problematics because nothing in the world will discourage everyday consumers from wanting to enjoy wine with Asian or Asian/Fusion foods, “natural match” or not

The major difference dishes prepared with Asian/fusion thought, and dishes prepared in traditional European styles, is the fact that Asian/fusion chefs endeavor to touch all parts of the palate as equally and intensely as possible. A good introduction to how Asians approach cooking can be found in Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's beautifully illustrated book called Hot Sour Salty Sweet, a "Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia." According to Alford and Duguid,

The basic (Southeast Asian) palate is hot, sour, salty, sweet, and sometimes bitter. If you order a green papaya salad from a street vendor in Thailand, the last thing the vendor will do before serving the salad is to give you a small spoonful of the salad, asking for your opinion. If you'd like it hotter, more chiles will be added; if you want it saltier, more fish sauce; more sour, lime juice will be added; sweeter, more palm sugar... And while this balancing act takes place in an individual dish like a green papaya salad, it also shapes a meal, determining what dishes should be served alongside others…

To the Duguids’ list of sensations you can also add umami (re my earlier post, Deconstructing Umami), significant in cooking styles all over the world. While the many strands of Asian foods do not make classic wine matches because of the emphasis on multiple sensations, Asian cuisines are classic and traditional in their own right – just in different ways from European cuisines. These ways entail different ingredients, of course, but also differences in the exacting of balance and harmony in the cooking. It is not enough, for an Asian or fusion chef, to achieve intensity of sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness, umami or hot spiciness. A balance of those sensations is even more important.

Which is precisely the types of wines to which Asian/fusion style dishes respond most readily: wines that emphasize a sense of balance of all sensations, as opposed to sheer intensity of any one sensation – be it body or tannin, sweetness or acidity, oakiness or no oakiness. This is why the classic "power" wines of the world – made from grapes like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay – are not so easily matched with Asian/Fusion foods. Not when their appeal is built upon strength of, say, alcohol (contributing to body or weight), tannin and/or oak at the expense of other qualities, like crisp acidity and restrained proportions of alcohol, tannin and/or oak.

Although strong oak qualities are associated with powerful wines, oak in itself is not the issue because there are many barrel fermented or oak aged wines that are perfectly smooth, moderately scaled, crisply balanced, and therefore Asian/fusion food compatible. But when it comes to food flexibility, the most important qualities in a wine are always harmony and balance; which naturally are more likely to be found in moderately (as opposed to aggressively) oaked wines.

The same thing for sweetness: although in many camps, rieslings with a balance of crisp acidity and sweet fruitiness are thought to be ideal for foods with sweet, sour, hot and salty sensations, we have found that rieslings that are bone dry yet still crisply balanced with fresh fruitiness can work just as well, or better, with sweet, sour, hot, and salty foods.

With or without oakiness, and with or without sweetness, the best wines for Asian/dusion foods are those that are proportionate, and generally (but not always) on the lighter side in terms of weight or body.

Shichimi togarashi

Asian/Fusion Spices

New Asian/fusion cooking is often tilted towards chile spices and other hot sensations resulting from use of peppers, curries, shichimi (Japanese "seven-spice"), wasabi, rayu (spicy sesame oil), sriracha (Vietnamese and Thai chili pastes), kung pao (Chinese chili sauce), and peppercorns. These are often combined with salty, sweet and sour ingredients such as soy, miso, hoisin, lemon grass, pickled ginger, green papaya, coconut milk, oyster sauce, mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine) and ponzu (citrus vinegars), seaweeds, shrimp pastes (such as bagoong), fish sauces (patis and nuoc mam), as well as fresh fruits and/or palm sugar (a more aggressive palm sap derived sweetener) infused marinades and pronounced shellfish stock reductions.

Red Bordeaux (dominated by cabernet sauvignon and merlot) and white Burgundy (chardonnay) types may present difficulties for dishes that balance spicy hot sensations with salty, sweet and sour ones. But the choices of wines that can assimilate these multiple sensations are plentiful: beginning with whites carrying a balance of sugar and acidity (rieslings from around the world the chenin blanc-based whites from France’s Loire River, or the feathery, tropical torrontés from Argentina), or whites that are dry yet fairly light, crisp and fruity (dry style rieslings, grüner veltliner, albariño, and pinot gris). There are probably even more reds that fulfill the need for light, fruit driven, soft tannin qualities (pinot noir, lemberger, cabernet franc, many sangiovese based reds of Italy, and easier styles of syrah) for spice driven foods; and the small number of pink wines with lightly acidic edges (both rosés and vin gris of pinot noir, sangiovese, or blends of black skinned grapes) should not be overlooked either.

The operative terms are lightness (moderated alcohol), tartness (favoring combinations of higher acid varieties grown in cool climate regions), and fruitiness (for both dry whites and lower tannin reds). But it is also possible to overemphasize the factors such as body, acidity, and even fruitiness. For instance, in hot spiced food settings, gewürztraminer and muscat (a.k.a. moscato) – grapes commonly lauded for their fruity “spice” components – can be poor performers because of their propensity towards bitter phenolic and hot tasting alcohol levels, especially when fermented dry. Yet the sweet scented, spicy fruitiness of even the biggest, thickest reds such as Australian shiraz often works quite nicely with chili or wasabi laced dishes. In the latter case, when spice components in a high fat/protein meat dish are smartly balanced by sweet, salty and/or sour ingredients, a good sized, peppery shiraz (or even cabernet sauvignons laced with shiraz) often make a pleasing, and surprising, match.

By the same token, while you would expect higher acid, fruit scented dry whites made from sauvignon blanc and pinot gris to work easily with spicy dishes, they are often too severe in their acidity, or too neutral in their dryness, to make more than an “okay” match; lacking, say, the pizzaz of floral, tropical fruit qualities that an off-dry or dry riesling, an Argentine torrontés or even a simple moscato might bring to a plate of spicy food.

The same thing with merlot and even gamay noir: although fruity and low enough in tannin to make a theoretical match, the varietal characteristics of these grapes lack the inherent spiciness that make other grapes – pinot noir, cabernet franc, and even fairly high tannin zinfandels, syrahs and petite sirahs – an easier fit with aggressively spiced foods. Fusion food friendly reds are not defined by just ample fruitiness and soft tannin; some degree of spiciness in both wine and dish goes a long way towards establishing common ground and hence a good match.

Austria’s grüner veltliner

Asian/Fusion White Fish & Shellfish

Softer textured white fish and sweet/briny/meaty shellfish of all types set in Asian/Fusion contexts such as milder (sans heat) spices, lush tropical fruit, coconut milk, soy sauce, aggressively Asian seasonings (including kaffir lime, cilantro, Chinese five-spice, mirin, fish sauces, star anise, and licorice basils), slightly bitter vegetables (mesclun, eggplant, Chinese mustards and cabbages, etc.), and even traditional Mediterranean elements (balsamics, oils, tomato, basil, etc.) tend to be diametrically opposed to all but the most crisp and subtle chardonnay based whites. We have usually found far easier matches in, say, crisp-edged, moderately weighted dry whites such as pinot gris (or pinot grigio), Spain’s albariño and verdejo, Austria’s grüner veltliner, Italy’s arneis, cortese (the gavi of Piemonte) and grechetto, Southern France’s picpoul and the Loire River’s muscadet, Argentina's torrontés, and of course, sauvignon blancs and rieslings from around the world.

To the extent that many fusion style preparations of fish are finished with oils and vinegars rather than butter or cream, even mildly acidic, more densely structured or fuller alcohol white varieties may work: particularly authentic pinot blanc and pinot gris from Alsace; Northern Italy’s tocai friulano (now called just “friulano”); Switzerland’s fendant; and from France, the U.S. and Australia, marsanne, roussanne, viognier, sémillon, and the great variety of blends thereof (marsanne/roussanne, marsanne/viognier, chardonnay/grechetto, sémillon/sauvignon blanc, chardonnay/sémillon, et al.). One of the keys to these matches is moderate use (or else non-use) of oak, which can be frivolous in the context of Asian influenced fish dishes; in which case, pronounced fruitiness and complexity of aroma/flavor (terroir, mineral, floral and spice nuances) can easily accomplish the task of assimilating variant food sensations.

Meaty Red Fish In Asian/Fusion Contexts

The meaty, fleshy qualities of fish such as tuna (especially Hawaiian ‘ahi), salmon, and swordfish in Asian/fusion contexts usually make such foods more suitable to lighter, lower tannin reds than to almost any white. This has led to a significant presence of more types of varietally bottled wines such as pinot noir, cabernet franc, sangiovese, and softer styles of syrah and zinfandel on our wine lists; extending out to less familiar yet unique, interesting red wines such as Loire River cabernet francs (like Chinon and Bourgueil), tempranillo (as in lighter Riojas) and mencia from Spain, dolcetto and teroldego from Northern Italy, zweigelt and blaufränkisch from Austria, lusher styles of grenache from Australia, France (such as Gigondas and Vacqueyras) and Spain (when bottled as garnacha), and the occasional old-vine, own-rooted carignane from South-West France, Spain or California.

While not entirely present in every wine, the key components in most of these red-wine-with-fish matches are rounded tannins, moderate acidity, and moderate degrees of fruit/spice qualities. Imbued with one combination or another, red wines that enter the palate a little more softly tend to carry a much bigger stick in fleshier fusion fish contexts.

Asian/Fusion Use of Meats

The growing and more judicious use of less fatty cuts of beef, lamb, pork, poultry and game in Asian/fusion settings – often involving marinades, braising (toward caramelized sensations), and/or natural stock reductions infused with ingredients like soy, ginger, garlic, star anise, tamarind, scallion, palm sugar, lemon grass, cilantro, curry, coconut milk, tropical fruits, syrups, vinegars, and plum pastes – are particularly apropos with lower tannin or sweetly fruited reds of virtually all types. This would include softer versions of single variety red wines such as gamay noir (re France’s Beaujolais), pinot noir, merlot, cabernet franc, syrah and shiraz, zinfandel, Italy’s sangiovese based reds (not just in Chianti, but also Vino Nobile di Montepulicano, Carmignano and Rosso di Montalcino), and tempranillo (Rioja and Ribera del Duero) as well as garnacha (especially Montsant - pictured above-left - and softer styles of Priorat) from Spain or cannonau (i.e. grenache) from Sardinia.

This also creates lots of possibilities for a great variety of blends that portray a balance of rounded, juicy fruit qualities ("suggesting" sweetness without actual residual sugar) as well as exotic spice/pepper/herbal/smoky qualities over qualities of sheer power and structure. We are talking about more than just the classic blends of grenache/syrah/mourvèdre (common in Southern France and American “Rhône Rangers”), Australia’s cabernet/shiraz, sangiovese/cabernet sauvignon/merlot (alla Toscana, or Supertuscans), or tempranillo/garnacha bottlings of Ribera del Duero; but also in many of the more imaginative, even if bewildering, combinations of grapes found in many contemporary wines.

Some of the more fun, and finer, examples of these blends to be found:
  • Pinot noir with syrah and zinfandel: Sokol Blosser’s Meditrina (Oregon/California)
  • Cabernet franc and merlot: Justin's Paso Robles Justification and Sleight of Hand’s Walla Walla Valley Archimage
  • Sangiovese, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon: Falesco Vitiano (Umbria, Italy)
  • Zinfandel with merlot and cabernet sauvignon: Duckhorn's Napa Valley Paraduxx
  • Cabernet sauvignon with sangiovese and syrah: Long Shadows’ Columbia Valley Saggi
  • Zinfandel, petite sirah, charbono, tempranillo,sangiovese, lagrein, valdiquié and touriga nacional: Beaulieu’s Napa Valley Beauzeaux
  • Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah: Treana (Paso Robles) and Bennett Lane’s Napa Valley Maximus
  • Merlot with pinot noir: Sportoletti's Villa Fidelia (Assisi, Italy)
  • Nero d’avola with frappato: Planeta’s Cerasuolo (Sicily, Italy)
  • Malbec with merlot: Domaine Pineraie (Cahors, France)
  • Malbec with tannat and merlot: Clos la Coutale (Cahors, France)
  • Mourvèdre with merlot and tempranillo: Carchelo (Jumilla, Spain)
  • Tempranillo with cabernet sauvignon: Abadia Retuerto (Ribera del Duero, Spain)
  • Cabernet sauvignon with gaglioppo: Librandi’s Gravello (Calabria, Italy)
  • Carmenère with merlot and cabernet sauvignon: Veramonte's Primus (Valle Centrale, Chile)
  • Syrah with cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot: L’Adventure’s Optimus (Paso Robles)
  • Syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot: Va Piano’s Bruno’s Blend (Walla Walla Valley)
  • Syrah, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon: Fox Creek's JSM (McLaren Vale)
  • Blaufränkisch, cabernet sauvignon, zweigelt, and merlot: Pichler's Arachon Evolution (Austria)
  • Tinta roriz and touriga nacional: Quinta do Crasto (Portugal)
  • Touriga nacional, touriga franca and tinta roriz: Quinta de Roriz’s Reserva and Jose Maria de Fonseca’s Domini (Portugal)
  • Garnacha with cariñena, cabernet sauvignon and syrah: Clos Abella’s Porrera (Priorat, Spain)
  • Garnacha, cariñena, tempranillo, lledoner pelut noir, cabernet sauvignon and syrah: Heron’s Sexto (Catalonia, Spain)
  • Callet with montenegro-fongoneu and syrah: An/2’s Anima Negra (Mallorca, Spain)
  • Grenache, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and cinsault: Boekenhoutskloof’s The Chocolate Block (South Africa)
… and many more from all around the world, existing for two good reasons: their great commercial appeal, and because of our rapidly expanding culinary needs.

The bottom line is that fusion style chefs around the world are cooking up a storm. This style of cuisine is alive and kicking, becoming marks of sophistication to which consumers are responding accordingly. We may be just beginning to understand the specifics of the ideal wine matches; but the possibilities will probably remain as endless as the evolution of wines and foods, and as varied as our ever-changing definitions of wine quality and culinary appreciation.


When either cooking in Asian/fusion styles for many of these contemporary wines, or selecting wines for the endless variations of Asian/fusion dishes, it is important to keep these useful guidelines in mind, beginning with a reiteration of the basic “Asian/fusion palate”:
  • Asian/fusion foods tend to utilize the entire palate of taste and tactile sensations (unlike Western foods).
  • Because harmony and balance of multiple sensations is essential to the quality of Asian/fusion food preparation, wines that emphasize harmony and balance rather than pure power or strength tend to have the highest percentage chance of matching these foods.
  • Fruit forward wines – whether completely dry or a little sweet, or whether white, red or pink – have the highest percentage chance of matching foods with elevated hot, sour, salty, sweet, bitter and umami intense sensations.
  • Soft or lower alcohol/tannin/oak wines tend to “feel” smoother and thus also have a higher percentage chance of working in Asian/fusion contexts.
  • Although not necessary, sweetness in both food preparation and wines can offer a balancing contrast to saltiness, as well as hot spiced, sour, or high fat components in foods.
  • Fruity wines can suggest sweetness (through “sweet” aromas and flavors) without actual residual sugar content (i.e. fruity yet dry wines).
  • “Fruit driven” wines of any sort tend to match dishes with sweet components.
  • Spicy aroma/flavor components in wines respond positively to similar “spice” components in foods (i.e. use of chiles, varieties of peppercorn, chili powders and pastes).
  • Higher acid (“crisp”) wines respond positively to dishes with similar sensations (i.e. with use of mildly acidic vinegars, citrus fruits, sour greens, etc.).
  • Lower acid (“soft”) wines respond to dishes with similar sensations (i.e. use of butter, oils, and creams).
  • Barrel fermented whites (i.e. typical chardonnays) tend to have creamy or buttery textures, and thus respond positively to dishes with similar sensations (i.e. use of butter and creams).
  • Strongly oaked (“smoky”) wines, whether white or red, have their place with foods with smoky sensations (i.e. wood or charcoal grilled, roasted, smoked, or charred).
  • High tannin (“big” or “hard”) reds prefer high fat/protein foods, or some use of peppers, radishes or mustards to balance the bitter sensations of tannin.
  • Low tannin (“soft” or “round”) reds prefer lower food fats and proteins (especially “white” meats or dishes incorporating small portions of lean red meat).
  • Soft, elegant, complex and/or well matured wines are ideal with high umami foods (i.e. use of mushrooms, truffle, seaweeds, aged cheeses, vine ripe tomatoes, braises, natural stock reductions, etc.)
  • Unbalanced wines and foods (i.e. bad cooking and lousy wines) are unlikely to go with anything!


Back Burners

The state of Syrah, its ideal food matches, and a short list of inspiring American producers

Chicken (recipes & wine matches) everybody loves

The acid test: sauvignon blanc food matches of our dreams

Is Pinot Noir the ultimate food wine?

Cabernet sauvignons past & present, and the foods we love to eat with them

Culinary matching 101: wines for classic blackened tuna

The underappreciated joys of Zinfandel and cheese matching

Is Riesling the ultimate white wine for food?

Not your daddy's zin (zinfandel's amazing food affinities)

Reconsidering the oyster (and its sensible wine matches)