How To Match Wine With Indian Food
Photograph by Mr David Loftus. Courtesy of Trishna
Ms Sue Sethi is owner and wine buyer for some of London’s most respected restaurants, including Trishna, Hoppers and Gymkhana
When matching wine, generally saying “Indian food” or “curries” is too generic because there are so many different factors and flavours that come into play. It becomes quite tricky. But equally, don’t listen to people who say you can’t match wine with curry and you need a beer.
How do we define “curry”? In India the word doesn’t even exist. It’s something we’ve created to define something with spices in a sauce. There is so much difference from one end of India to the other in terms of the profile, the spices, the flavours and cooking techniques of a dish – all of which have such a huge impact on what wine you choose. The country is vast. You can try things in the south that people in the north haven’t even heard of. The key thing to look at with any dish is the protein or vegetable being used. Here is a guide on how to pair wine with curries, biryanis, and more.
If you’ve got a south Indian-style lamb curry which has a lot of curry leaf, mustard seed and cinnamon in it, you want something that will stand up to the meat. A wine that is relatively balanced. If there is a blow-your-head-off chilli level, you would need some sweetness to counter that. But hopefully the dish is made with a balance of spices, so sweetness is not necessarily a requirement. To match with the spices, rather than looking for a sweet wine or something with residual sugar, just look for something that is really fruity. So a really ripe Valpolicella from Italy would work really nicely. It has a medium body but a lot of fruit so it would be able to stand up to the spices. It also sometimes has a pepperiness or sweetness to it which also works.
A North Indian Smoky Salmon Dish
Serve with: a white Burgundy or a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley
In north India, they use the clay oven – a tandoor – quite a lot which adds smokiness. Smokiness can often result in a bit of a clash with certain red wines in particular. Avoid anything with dry tannin. Also, when it comes to spices, avoid anything with too much alcohol. At Trishna we have a salmon dish that’s done in the tandoor. Choose a nice crisp white wine with a little bit of oak – a white Burgundy with a balanced acidity. If you have something that is too piercing, it can play havoc with the spices. It’s harder to go wrong with a white wine when it comes to Indian food. With red, you often find something that will be quite high in alcohol or not as fruit driven as you need. With smokier or spicier dishes, it can cause a clash and a horrible metallic taste in your mouth.
Serve with: a Martinborough Pinot Noir
This is a rice dish that is aromatic and fragrant. There are countless types of biryani, so as a general rule you want a wine that’s also quite aromatic and fragrant. Biryanis are often eaten with a range of different things. You might have vegetables or a yoghurt dish or a dahl. You have to consider something that will cater for everything. In terms of choosing a wine, I would always focus on the main dish. With a biryani – Pinot Noir works well because it is quite light, fragrant and fruity – it won’t overpower the delicate rice dishes. Try something from Martinborough – an area on the southernmost point of the north island of New Zealand. It has a little more body to it than, say, a lighter Marlborough Pinot Noir – so it will stand up to the spices.
A Lamb Chop Dish
Serve with: an Argentinian Malbec or Cabernet Franc
A lamb chop dish is likely to be from north India. They can be quite fiery and spice-rich in the marinade. Often they’re done on the grill so they will always they have that element of smokiness – so be careful with the tannin. You’d need a red as opposed to a white and something super fruity. You want to go a bit bigger on the body with a good level of acidity to cut through any fat as well. I would go towards South America – say, an Argentinian Malbec or an Argentinian Cabernet Franc. The lamb chop dish that we do at Trishna has a mustard radish on the side. So that is something to consider.
A Prawn Curry
Serve with: a Zweigelt
A prawn, coconut based curry is more coastal cuisine. You have curry leaf, coconut milk, and the star anise spice. This is a good example of where you don’t necessarily have to follow the “white wine with fish and red wine with meat” theory. Especially if you have a reasonably rich coconut sauce. A lighter red wine could definitely stand up to something like that but not overpower it. Austria have some great indigenous grape varieties which lend themselves nicely to Indian food. They all have this underlying spice to them – sometimes you get a bit of cinnamon. They don’t use a hell of a lot of oak so there is a lot of purity and fruit to their wines. Zweigelt – which is the grape variety – is a great match for a fish curry that has a bit more depth to it.
Illustrations by Mr Alexander Clouston