The thing about pairing food and wine is that it’s a highly subjective exercise. Any such endeavour is liable to yield as many opinions as there are people present in a room. And when the cuisine happens to be Indian, the possibilities and permutations can seem even further endless. Nevertheless, here are five basic caveats while pairing Indian food and wine:
Cuisines with an ‘s’
India is a vast country. Each state is an entirely different demographic—from the language spoken to the clothes worn, from the traditions and customs practiced to the food locally grown and consumed. Each state in this subcontinent has one, if not two completely different cuisines. From the coast to the inland, the tropics to the foothills of the Himalayas, the ingredients and preparations thereof change drastically. To, therefore, pair wine with ‘Indian cuisine’ as a singular unified entity is too general a statement to hold any water. So, first and foremost, next time someone tells you about their Indian meal, ask them what specific cuisine could they be referring to.
Not just the main ingredient
The whole ‘white wine with white meat’ theory was highly erroneous to begin with. When applied to our cuisines, it is further flawed, as the main ingredient in our dishes doesn’t define how the overall dish will turn out. A simple ingredient like prawns can be served mildly spiced in a moilee curry, where a white wine would sit well besides, but the same seafood could take on stronger flavours in a Chettinad-style preparation. The lamb can be delicate when minced and prepared keema-style or rich like in a rogan josh. It’s never about what the main ingredient is, more about how it’s cooked. The accompanying sauce or curry and the spices used to prepare it are more important pointers as to what can pair with a dish.
Whites need not always start a meal, reds needn’t always follow. A sparkling rosé can turn out to be a great match for the main course. In other words, no formal rules apply to the wine order to be deployed with an Indian meal. If the kebabs come first, start with the rich reds, follow it up with generous whites as the curries come along. Finish with a sweet Muscat alongside the desserts. Order is too staid for something as diverse as Indian food.
The eating process
The way one eats Indian food can also influence the pairing. The ideal way is to eat everything with either rice or some sort of bread. This helps tone down the spices a bit, thereby making everything a lot more amenable to paring with wine. But start spooning a curry directly into your mouth and, suddenly, the palate feels as if it has been set aflame. So, for a proper pairing experience, it’s essential to eat food the ‘Indian way’: with hands and always with bread or rice mixed with the lentil (dal) or vegetable (subji) preparation.
Ideally, an Indian meal isn’t eaten in courses, so it can get a bit daunting to try and pair a wine with every dish. Nobody would like to have five glasses set out in front of them with each one specifically meant to pair with only one dish on the thaali. So, it’s always better to follow a path of means. Otherwise put, stick to rich lush whites and fruity yet structured reds, and you can’t really go wrong. So oily Chardonnays—from Australia to Chile, California to Chassagne-Montrachet—they all work very well.
And for reds, it could be Blaufrankisch from Austria, Pinot from New Zealand and Oregon, or Malbec from Argentina. Reserve the rich Shiraz and Cabernet cache for the kebabs. Contrary to western belief, Gewurztraminer isn’t the only aromatic grape that can be deployed with spicy food. Grüner Veltliner, Alvariño, Torrontes and Riesling work much better, but they should never be too sweet. And sparkling wine is always a great versatile pairing for most Indian cuisines.
All this tackled, you are now on your way to enjoy a sublime wine and food experience, not one to be compared with what the West has to offer, but instead, something decidedly different and varied. Cheers!
The writer is a sommelier