Influenced by the austere lifestyle of samurais and Zen Buddhists, Shojin Ryori was basically a vegetarian temple approach to cooking which placed emphasis on food of five colors (green, red, yellow, white and black-purple) and no less than six different tastes (hot, sour, salty, sweet, bitter and “delicate”). Still profoundly influential in Japanese cooking today, Shojin Ryori probably amounts to the most successful formalization of a specific cooking style ever achieved. Think of it. The French had Escoffier, and we've had Julia Child. But how many of the French consciously cook like Escoffier, and how many Americans actually follow Julia? Certainly not a vast majority, like you still find in Japan.
You could surmise that it's the Japanese temperament and culture that lend itself to such formality, but I would proffer an even simpler explanation: Shojin Ryori looks, and tastes, and even feels "right." How many of us have no idea of what we're eating in a Japanese restaurant, butappreciate the beauty of the food nonetheless?
There are many other foods, of course, which exemplify this sense of universal rightness. For Italians it's pasta, tomatoes, olive oil, Parmigiano, porcini, and when the season arrives, truffles. Why do Germans swoon over white asparagus, Russians crave their borscht, and Cajuns pick their brides by how they make roux? Some things are just that important.
The important thing that all of these foods have in common is a taste that is more than sweet, sour, salty and bitter – the four basic sensations felt on the palate – but also round, complex, almost titillating to all the senses, including that of sight, smell and sound. Earthy qualities -- which you certainly find in the intriguing shapes of mushrooms, gnarly oysters, and seaweeds -- tend to be very much a part of this. In fact, more and more foodies are becoming accustomed to the concept of umami, originally coined by a Japanese scientist to define this "fifth taste" (although more pedestrian terms like "savory" and "delicious" are just as accurate), which occurs in foodstuffs or dishes high in amino acids (see my previous post, Deconstructing Umami). But even if you don’t understand it, it is enough to know that umami significantly enhances the sensory perception of foods that do more than sustain the body, but also tweak our curiosity, appeal to our sense of aesthetics, and rock us ‘til the cows come home.
I once read a story by David Rosengarten, who talked about a Frenchman who recommended Sancerre -- the flinty-smoke scented, light and lemony dry white wine of the Loire River region -- with charcuterie, the sausage meats of that region. "But why?" asked Rosengarten. Because it is a priori, said the Frenchman -- it stands before reason. If that is not rightness, I don't know what is.
In Alsace, on the French side of the Rhine, the charcuterie is served with sauerkraut, and the a priori choice of wine would be the dry yet flowery scented, crisply acidic, and often headily alcoholic (in very ripe years) style of riesling produced in that region. It makes sense because the riesling fragrance always hints at sweetness, while the crisp acids and full alcohols of these white wines match the sweet-sourness of the sauerkraut, helping the palate digest the spicy fattiness of sausages. More importantly, all the sensations, given by both wine and food, combine to create a perfectly delicious whole -- better than the parts eaten, or drunk, separately.
Lately I've been finding this phenomenon – that delicious harmony of multiple elements – in places with far less gastronomic history than along the rivers of France. I often used to wonder, for instance, what to drink with sticky sweet, spicy, vinegary, barbecued baby back pork ribs, with which I’ve tried just about everything, except kava and peyote tea. Crisply balanced rieslings have always been a problem because they aren't always strong enough to handle the fatty, gristly ribs. The sweetness of most white zinfandels ends up tasting redundant with sweet-spicy pork ribs. Fruity red zins have worked pretty darned well, but sometimes their tannin levels are too when the marinades are spanking hot or on the sweet side. All of which, for years, left me wanting more…
Then sitting at a hoity-toity chef’s counter in Chicago, I tested out a plate of sticky, spicy baby back ribs with a genshu ("cloudy" or “rough filtered”) style of saké called Rihaku Dreamy Clouds. This authentic, creamy textured Japanese saké was typically full in alcohol (15.6%), lusciously fruity (without being too sweet), buoyantly balanced, and totally without the rough tannin or souring acid of red or white wines. This was a "wine,” all right, but made from rice, not grapes; and perhaps better than most wines made from grapes, it had all the elements needed to take the sticky ribs to places I never thought possible. Maybe it was the time, and maybe just the place. But the combination left me feeling strangely like a samurai, on a path towards a strangely, if not perverse, nonvegetarian state of Shojin Ryorism.
Another odd turn once came up in an Orange County (CA) shopping center, of all places, in a standard issue Italian restaurant where I could not help but be intrigued by a simple dish of risotto cooked in a mildly truffled mushroom broth, topped with pungent shavings of Parmigiano. I thought: this dish is saturated with umami, so why settle for the predictable match of an Italian Chianti Classico or pinot grigio? Why not one of those new, dryish, ice cold styles of ginjo or daiginjo style sakés, which offer just as much of the minerally, silky qualities of white wines made from grapes to match the earthy, creamy taste of mushroom risotto? I happened to have a slightly chilled bottle of saké on me (don’t ask!), so I asked my waiter for a white wine glass (I drink my fine sakés from glass tulips, not wooden boxes). After trying this unorthodox combination, I have to say: works like a charm!
But oh, some wine-foodie experts might say, saké is way too alcoholic and much lower in acid than white wines like arneis and pinot grigio. Aren’t high acid/low alcohol wines the highest percent matches for food? First of all, I see nothing in a brothy, mushroomy risotto that suggests that high acid and moderate alcohol is necessary. In fact, I would suggest that the relatively low acid, full alcohol, and high umami quality of a dry or semi-dry saké give it even more of an advantage in such food contexts. If, of course, saké is “wine” enough for your taste.
Which brings me to a sub-text: few things may be as overrated by contemporary gastronomes as the importance of acid and dryness in wines. There are many foods – from pasta in oils and fish in butter, to sushi, ham hocks and clam bakes -- that are perfectly delicious with decidedly low acid, unabashedly fruity wines such as chardonnay from California, Washington sémillon, müller-thurgau from Germany, Australian marsanne, reds and rosés of Southern France, and yes, sakés from Japan. So the next time you hear an expert pontificating about the need for acidic, dry wines for food, I suggest that you run from the room screaming.
Finally, there is my loosely formed, personal theory of wine/food matching that I call Musashi, or "unorthodox." Miyamoto Musashi was a legendary figure from 1600s Japan whose self-taught style was the opposite of the formal, disciplined, but often superfluous style of established schools of kenjitsu (Japanese sword fighting) of this then war-obsessed culture. But it was precisely this unorthodox, ungainly and unpredictable style that made Musashi Japan's greatest swordsman, unbeaten in every battle and over 60 duels, even those involving impossible odds.
Musashi, in fact, found ultimate virtue in "that which cannot be seen." My culinary interpretation: wine and food matches that make sense precisely because of the element of surprise.
How many of our best food and wine experiences have been like that -- unexpected, totally unpredicted, yet in the end triumphant? Old rules like white-wine-with-fish, and even new rules like red-wine-with-fish, often fall by the wayside when we are actually enjoying such things at the table. Why? I think it is because we have a tendency to want to pigeonhole elements of food and wine combinations, forgetting that the ultimate test is how delicious everything really tastes. Not how it's supposed to taste.
Like the many times we used to put together Hawaiian style poke – raw tuna tossed in soy sauce, sesame oil, chopped sweet white and green onions, coils of fresh seaweed, and splashes of chili pepper water – with a glass of slightly sweet German riesling, next to a glass of full tannin Oregon pinot noir to compare. Every saw, old and new, tells us that German riesling has all the balancing elements needed for decidedly salty, sweet, oily and spicy foods like poke, yet it was the slightly bitter and dry pinot noir that kept saying to my palate, I taste better. This was because red wines like pinot noir are what they are – earthy, harmonious, velvety textured sums of their parts, rather than defined by their parts. More simply put: perfectly delicious.
Or like the proverbial slash of Musashi: unsuspected, yet unfailingly pure, and true.
SOME SURPRISING ASIAN FOOD/WINE MATCHES
Wine may not be indigenous to the cultures and gastronomies of Asia. But there are now more than enough variations of wines made around the world today to find some perfectly delicious, if not surprising, matches for nearly every Asian style dish. If you love wine, and you love Asian foods, all the more reason to try them:
Asian Foods with German Riesling (Dry to Kabinett Level Sweetness)
Quintessential German style rieslings – penetratingly scented, juicy rich, light and fine as silk, with a whispering sweetness balanced by perceptible acidity – are usually the first wines cited for Asian foods. Think of how you might make a healthy stir fry – balancing toothsome squares of tofu or thin strips of meat with at least equal amounts of crisp vegetables, a trace of an oil balanced with soy, lemon or rice vinegar, salt and cracked pepper, a touch of a chili sauce or multi-spice seasonings, and served with fragrant jasmine rice. You can't go wrong when you figure in a fragrant, deftly balanced German riesling, whether bone dry (if balanced with lush fruitiness and minerality), “half-dry” (balancing slivers of sweetness), or slightly sweet (Kabinett style).
It may be understandable why someone would say that Asian cooking is not good for wine. Badly balanced cooking -- and badly balanced wine, for that matter – is not good for anyone. But when principles of harmony and balance are executed in your stir fry, and are intrinsic in your choice of wine, then you’ve got yourself a perfectly delicious, and dramatic, match.
Asian Foods with Viognier
White wines made from the viognier grape are actually an unorthodox choice for Asian style foods for two reasons -- they tend to be low in acid and full in alcohol, somewhat like chardonnay. But unlike chardonnays, viogniers tend to be extremely fragrant -- billowing with exotic fruit and honeysuckle-like perfumes, and suggestions of violet and white pepper. The finer styles of California grown viognier are amplified by plush, mouthwatering, almost sweet (even if the wine is technically dry), dense and silken textured flavors.
Chinese cooking in particular -- such as duck in hoisin plum sauces, chicken in gingery or citrusy syrups, and savory sauced napa cabbage, choy sum, mustard greens, and other toothsome vegetables -- can be tilted towards sweetness balanced by a mild bitterness and saltiness. In Southeast Asia, fish is often coated with curries and coconut milk, strong pastes made from coriander root and peppercorns, or stuffed with scallions, fatty pork, garlic cloves and even spicy hot Serrano chilies. In these food contexts, the aggressively full, hefty, peppery qualities of viognier are often superior to the more feeble alcohol and higher acid qualities of riesling.
Viognier doesn't work, however, in cases where dishes are overly sweet, or numbingly hot -- in other words, badly balanced Asian cooking. But when full flavored Asian dishes are prepared correctly, a good, balanced viognier can contribute an exotic note of its own to the overall experience.
Asian Foods with Zinfandel
The jammy, lusciously raspberryish, black peppery spiced aromas and flavors of first rate California zinfandel – especially those of moderate or at least rounded tannin structure - are a sensible if unorthodox choice with barbecued pork or beef ribs coated in sweet/spicy marinades (especially when Asian chili seasonings or sauces are used). A proper zinfandel has the red wine tannin to handle fatty, charred meats, yet the cushion of fruitiness to enhance, rather than fight, the hot spices.
But peppery spiced zinfandels are also surprising with aggressive forms of Southeast Asian cooking, such as grilled coriander chicken served with sweet/salty/spicy dipping sauces (nam jeem), raw beef with pepper salt, beef stir fried with spicy ginger, and hot pot dishes such as eggplant (cooked with ground pork, coriander, dried shrimp, garlic, and shallots) served with fried beef jerky. Whenever there is a presence of peppercorns, some vinegary zest, or slightly hot garlic, chile and gingery sensations, a zesty, peppery, fruity zinfandel finds another surprising food element.
Asian Foods with Southern French Varietals & Blends (Syrah, Grenache & Mourvèdre)
The entire premise of balancing Southern French style varietals reds and blends – syrah utilized for its floral, spicy, structural fullness, grenache for its plush, mildly peppery red fruitiness, and mourvèdre for its dense, meaty texture – draws comparisons to the balancing of ingredients and sensations in Asian style cooking. Beef pork ribs in sweet, salty, peppery, vinegary, spicy hot, and even downright sticky sauces tend to be problematic for Bordeaux varietals, but not so much for the Southern French.
The advantage of Southern French blends is that their tannin is moderated enough so that they don’t taste so bitter in relation to sweet, sour, salty or spicy sauces, yet retain enough red wine phenolics to digest fatty meats. This opens the door for the peppercorn-like components natural to syrah and grenache to find pleasing flavor bridges in dishes that make use of chiles and other spicy ingredients.
Then there is the factor of umami – specifically, the reaction of salt and acidity when activitated by foods high in amino acids (such as mushrooms, aged cheeses, seaweeds and natural stocks) – which effectively reduces bitter tastes in both wines and dishes.
In the presence of high umami ingredients - like Chinese hotpots of black fungus and chicken - typically spicy, sweetly fruited, earth toned Southern French reds tend to taste “milder,” while dishes become more savory. In fact, pure varietal syrahs – particularly the fruit forward (as opposed to hard and tannic) styles of Australian shiraz, and many of the new style syrahs coming from California’s Central Coast or Southern Oregon – seem to help the palate achieve umami-related sensory adaptations with considerable ease. It’s no surprise that the dominant style of cooking done in Australia today is pervasively Asian, and the Aussies have no problem, philosophically or sensory related, consuming their biggest Southern French varietals and blends with it!
Asian Foods with Rounder Italian Red Varietals (Dolcetto, Barbera & Sangiovese)
The range of red wines made from these grapes not only in Italy but also, now, in California is astounding. Each has its charms – dolcetto a zesty black fruitiness, barbera an even zestier edged, palate sticking fruitiness, and sangiovese (i.e. Chianti, and reds of Montalcino and Montepulciano) a mildly zesty, cherry fruit complexity – and all are marked by qualities of slightly elevated acidity, low to medium tannin, and earth related characteristics manifested in multiple ways, from burning leaves and licorice to roasted meat and leather-like nuances.
Given these structural and aroma/flavor advantages, there are few wines that perform as well with Chinese or Southeast Asian style hot pots of beef or pork; especially when punctuated by peppercorns, garlic, scallions, and the licoricey tastes of star anise, cilantro or coriander, and sacred basil. Then there is the seemingly vast range of small production Italian and California wines that utilize these varietals as blending elements – sangiovese with cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese with tempranillo, barbera with nebbiolo, zinfandel with barbera, et al. While unorthodox, the good thing about these innovative “Italianate” wines is that they fit in with many of the unorthodox styles of fusion cooking being done all around the world.
To wit: if Asian cooking is untraditional with wine, the best wines for Asian foods may very well be the most untraditional, imaginative blends.
Given these structural and aroma/flavor advantages, there are few wines that perform as well with Chinese or Southeast Asian style hot pots of beef or pork; especially when punctuated by peppercorns, garlic, scallions, and the licoricey tastes of star anise, cilantro or coriander, and sacred basil. Then there is the seemingly vast range of small production Italian and California wines that utilize these varietals as blending elements – sangiovese with cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese with tempranillo, barbera with nebbiolo, zinfandel with barbera, et al. While unorthodox, the good thing about these innovative “Italianates” is that they fit in with many of the unorthodox styles of fusion cooking being done all around the world.
Into the Realm of Good Sense
There is no reason to fear wine with Asian foods as long as your choices are based upon the premise that the highest percentage chances of achieving a perfectly delicious match are found in
- Crisply balanced, moderately scaled whites, or
- Sweetly fruit forward reds (whether light or big) that are also round, smoothly textured, and (especially) spice toned.
But when you think about it, if you can find wines to match the most difficult Asian foods, you can probably find just as many to match more of the foods we love to eat; like spicy marinades, salty chips and creamy dips, generously mayo-ed salads, souped up ramen (I add fishcake, sesame oil, nori strips, spinach or even chard), and even fully loaded hot dogs (for me, naked without a meaty chili, sauerkraut and sweet onions), cheeseburgers (either Tabasco and sharp Cheddar, or Maytag blue cheese and sweet relish). If wine is to ever become an American staple, it has to be treated like one: as a sensible part of our lives and meals!