Pairing Indian Food With Wine
"Here With A Loaf Of Bread Beneath The Bough. A Flask Of Wine, A Book Of Verse And Thou Beside Me Singing In The Wilderness. And Wilderness Is Paradise now." - Omar Khayyam, Rubaiyat Demystifying wine for an Indian palate is never easy. The idea that our curries and pulaos can be enjoyed with something as ‘swanky’ as wine is unfathomable to most people, but it is possible, and is being done worldwide with Indian restaurants not far behind. The upswing of foreign wines to local shores has had an impact on one’s lifestyle.
With wine importers like Pernod, Brindco, Finewinesnmore and Diageo bringing in a range of imported wines to India, we are spoilt for choice. What started out as a couple of glasses at a plush party or meal is now fast becoming a daily norm in today’s upper echelons of society. The tendency towards drinking spirits, whisky, rum or white spirits with some oily snacks, and then moving to the dinner table has changed. Rather than being looked down upon as just a substitute for that glass of water at the dinner table, wine is slowly and surely gaining the interest, respect and adoration it deserves.
Given the versatility of the art of Indian cooking, its composition, comprehension and diversity, it would take a lifetime to assimilate. In a land where tradition holds firm, change is very slow. Delving in to gain an insight into Indian food, one has to realise what spice and flavours is all about. It’s not about a slap dash of curry powder thrown into a dish as most westerners would like to believe. The Indian kitchen is a complexity of spices and flavours in a land where spice is king. Every herb or spice plays a pivotal role in the build-up of a dish; each spice follows a particular order before being put into a dish.
Combined with the proper cooking technique, this ensures that the required flavours are brought out and also that nothing is left out. Learning to differentiate the cooking processes of dried and fresh herbs to creating a harmonious blend is something that takes years of practice. In order to pair wine with Indian food, or any food for that matter, it is necessary to understand these complex combinations and the interplay of flavours.
For, the wine you drink is supposed to complement and enhance your dining experience, and not just quench your thirst. Moreover, it’s about individual preferences, too. Trial-and-error is the name of the game at times, till you zero in on the kind of wine you would like to have with a particular flavour. I say flavour - mind you – not dish. There is absolutely no dearth of information on the subject. With nouvelle cuisine having changed the concept of TV dinners, the world of spice and new foods has changed the interpretation of Indian food.
With new-age media like television and the internet, the interpretation of a dish has changed. Gourmet food is no longer patronized only by the elite and well-to-do of society. The knowledge of good food and wine has become an intellectual property of all at large. Most wine companies and connoisseurs are also coming up with useful guides for wine enthusiasts about how to pair them with familiar foods. Wine being a “living” drink, it relates to food in an unimaginable way. It’s mainly a question of training one’s palate to understand the nuances and flavours that are brought about by different wines when they clash with a particular spice. As is with most things in life, food prepared without passion often results in disaster.
Moving away from the old ways of drowning delicate flavours with strong sauces and gravies, or relying on pre-cooked and packaged food does much to destroy the sensitive palate. It’s not enough to just cook food in a manner where a customer becomes complacent. The revolution amongst younger chefs who know their basics is bringing about a culinary change, albeit on foreign shores where their expertise is recognised. Given that a few Indian chefs have been awarded Michelin stars, it goes to show that Indian food is indeed evolving and people are welcoming the change. Junoon, the Indian Michelin restaurant with Chef Vikas Khanna, has its own wine connoisseur and boasts of over 250 brands in its cellar. Likewise, the UK-based Bombay Brasserie (where I did a stint for a year) and Les Porte Des Indes have all evolved into promoting wine.
The large floor-to-ceiling wine showcases in 5 star hotels are an attestation to the current changes taking place. While “culinary styles” are perceived as the forerunners of Indian cuisine, perhaps the best Indian cuisine comes from Rajasthan, Punjab, Maharashtra, Hyderabad, Goa, Kashmir and Kerala that have made an impact globally because of tourism. So in an effort to pair wine with food, one has to go with the flow of the foods and spices of these regions and pair the foods not only with some of India’s leading wine companies, but also pair them with some international brands, too. Similarly, there are so many local wines being produced using local ingredients.
To pair Indian food with those wines, too, would do well for those wine industries as well. There is no golden rule to it as such. More often than not, one needs to go with one’s own palate when it comes to pairing a wine. If you like it with a particular food then go for it. Again, as I said before, the most magical part about a wine is that it is a living beverage and its flavours change with the mood. And, yes, a fine wine is best enjoyed in good company.