Liquids: Exotic Food & Wine Pairings

By Anthony Giglio | Boston Magazine |

My New Year’s resolution is—as it is every year—to eat less but eat better. I actually managed to pull this off last year for the first time ever—and dropped three pant sizes, though my weight trainer, Mike, says I’d lose even more if I just cut out the wine every night.

Cut out the wine? Preposterous! But I did promise to try turning to more-exotic foods—fiery 20-spice Indian curries, chili-fueled Asian sautés, rose-petal-and-fenugreek-spiked Persian roasts. Why? Because, for me, they’re harder to pair with wine than familiar, relatively tame Western cuisine is.

The food was good. But I missed the wine. (And I began to really hate my trainer.) Then I had an idea: I would learn to pair wines with these bold flavors. I asked my editor to send me on a trek along the ancient Silk Road, where rare spices from East and West were transported and exchanged. Alas, she laughed at me with the same gusto then as I did when my trainer suggested I give up wine. Instead, she sent me along Boston’s own spice route, where I discovered a world of wine-and-food pairings that had been right under my nose. These expert chefs and sommeliers long ago figured out the keys to making daunting matches. And so, in the spirit of Mike the trainer, here are a few rules that kept me on course.

>>HIT THE SAUCE At Lala Rokh on Beacon Hill, chef-owner Azita Bina-Seibel cooks rich, intensely spiced Persian fare that incorporates melons, peaches, and pomegranates native to her home of Azerbaijan. Wines are chosen to match these lush flavors—and not just chicken or beef. “Our sauces are very seasonal, so right now we are using quince, which is sweet and sour in flavor,” she says. To complement that, she selects a light pinot noir—French, of course, “because it’s drier than a California pinot noir and there’s so much fruit in each dish,” she explains.

At Masala Art in Needham, food director and beverage manager Jason D. Pierce has cultivated a following by matching wine with challenging Indian dishes. He, too, relies on pinot noirs to pair with earthy, rich sauces like the one found in murg methi, chicken in a beautiful sauce made with floral fenugreek. The sauce, says Pierce, is the deciding factor. “With a classic curry dish like our chicken vindaloo, you need minerality, and for that I pour Zind-Humbrecht or Trimbach gewürztraminer, pinot gris, and rieslings,” he says. “All those wines go with intense spices and chili peppers; they act more like palate coaters than palate cleansers.”

>>ADJUST THE CONTRAST At Blue Ginger in Wellesley, wine director Nicholas Leveille seeks contrast. “With Asian influences you’re far less likely to find wines with parallel sweetness that would be enjoyable together.” When a dish is spicy, he looks to German riesling, whose sweetness foils fire. “It’s like the old-school example of salty blue cheese and sweet sauternes,” he says. The new school: riesling with chef Ming Tsai’s signature garlic–black pepper lobster. The wine’s sweetness cools the spice and its acidity cuts through the buttery sauce.

Chef Bina-Seibel at Lala Rokh employs the same strategy for her duck with pomegranate and walnuts. She says conventional wisdom would have her choose a red wine, but she proffers riesling because its inherent sweetness and spice play off of the pomegranate’s sweet-and-sour qualities.

For Blue Ginger’s grilled duck with cranberry-yuzu sauce, Leveille mitigates the tartness of the citrusy sauce with the bright fruit of pinot noir. (He prefers New World pinot with Asian cuisine because the power of the fruit stands up to the wine’s own acidity.) “The acid structure of all pinot noirs goes so well with a majority of foods,” he says. It’s a good rule of thumb for when he’s not at your beck and call.

>>DEEP FLAVOR, BIG WINE At Masala Art, tandoori foods marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked in cylindrical clay ovens develop flavors that are deep and intricate, and are served without sauce. With such dishes Pierce suggests first and foremost New World cabernets. Why? “Because these meals have those great volcanic, roasted-coffee/hazelnut-coffee nuances, which need big wines,” he explains. Such as? Dominus, Chateau Montelena, Stag’s Leap (both Artemis and Fay Vineyards), and Woodward Canyon. For whites, Pierce likes the complex Château Carbonnieux white bordeaux, composed of sauvignon blanc and sémillon, because its citrus and mint qualities are a perfect complement and contrast to the spicy marinade.

Back at Blue Ginger, Leveille also turns to big reds for a new Tex-Mex-inspired grilled rib-eye dish that employs a traditional Mexican mole kicked up a notch with dried fruit, fresh Asian pear, and Asian spices. Condado de Haza, a big Spanish red from the Ribera del Duero region, has “a rich, round flavor profile” and its “smoky character and good balance of acidity pair well with the mole,” he says, while the wine’s tannins are mellowed by the rib-eye’s fatty character.

>>WHEN IN DOUBT Masala Art’s Pierce confesses that with 30 wines by the glass and 200 bottles to choose from, the possibilities at his restaurant are pretty wild. So if you’re stuck, choose champagne, which goes with everything exotic because it cleanses the palate. “People think it’s just celebratory,” Pierce laments. Well, I’ll pop a cork to that. This year I’m toasting a whole new world of flavors.