My first bite of kimchi was when I was barely two. For fun, many Korean parents place a spicy fermented piece of cabbage on their toddle’s plate to see how early the child can take the chili, garlic and salty, fermented flavours which are the trademarks of Korean food. According to my mother, I reached for water immediately after eating the small piece of kimchi but then promptly asked for another piece. She knew I was addicted to chili and spices when at five years old, I downed an entire bowl of very spicy cold buckwheat noodles with tears dripping and nose running the entire time. Despite my tongue being on fire and the constant stream of uncontrollable tears, my palate loved the burn and I kept on eating. Flash-forward a few decades later when wine enters my life on a regular basis: How does chili, garlic and fermented flavours marry with wine? It’s a tumultuous rapport but like any good relationship, one that can work when there is a certain level of respect and love involved. I love wine too much to have any food overwhelm its flavours and I love Korean food too much to change its inherent flavours just to pair with wine. The challenge is that food and wine pairing in an Asian context is never about one confined set of food flavours paired with wine’s flavours. Our meals are communal and the food flavours in each bite is different from the last. A plated meal is a repetition of flavours. For example, meat, potatoes and some vegetable combination throughout the entire meal. It’s easy to suggest wines that can pair well with these limited flavours. A rice bowl meal consists of different combination of flavours brought together by the roaming chopsticks that reach for rice and fish in one bite while in the next, it might be rice and chicken, rice and beef or rice and vegetables. Once you throw in condiments like chili sauce, soy sauce, XO sauce or fish sauce, it poses further challenges to wine. Korean food is especially tricky because there are an enormous variety of flavours at the table. A typical meal in a Korean home is one where not a speck of the table can be seen, the entire table is covered with small side dishes (banchan) that always includes at least one type of kimchi. In most Korean restaurants, these side dishes are free and replenished throughout the meal. With typical Korean meals that incorporate a wide range of flavours, versatile wines with refreshing acidity work best as an all-around complementary wine. Don’t expect one wine to go with all the dishes but a versatile wine that has lively bold flavours that echo Korean food’s boldness will work with the majority of the dishes. The heavy-handed use of spices require a refreshing element in the wine and the wide range in textures and ingredients mean that versatile wines like Sauvignon Blanc or New Zealand Pinot Noir, rose from the Rhone Valley and other fruity cool climate wines can work very well. For Korean barbecue lovers, try New World Merlot or a Pomerol – a stunning combination! Sweet wines and intensely aromatic varieties such as Muscat and Gewurztraminer are not recommended with typical Korean meals: Sweetness is not a common, obvious flavour on our dining table and added sweetness detracts from the integrity of the savoury dishes. Intensely aromatic wines can introduce an unwanted sweet and/or fruity dimension in a cuisine laden with pungent, earthy aromatics. Overt sweetness and intense floral aromatics can detract from the integrity of the food flavours as it was meant to be enjoyed. The toughest part of studying for the Master of Wine exam was not the blind tastings and the memorizing of soil types, suphur levels, etc. It was the four months leading up to the exam where I avoided kimchi and took a break from chili-infused dishes. In the three-day blind tasting component of the exam, I wanted my palate to be finely tuned; I needed to be able to differentiate within minutes the nuances between barrel-fermented Chardonnay from an oak-chipped one and to identify the vintages for the top wines around the world. Tongue-numbing spicy food could impede upon the sensitivity of my palate and I didn’t want to take any chances. With the exam behind me, my chili-avoiding days are over and I am happily slurping down spicy noodles on a regular basis, experimenting with different wines, all under the guise of ‘work in progress’.
Reprinted with permission from the South China Morning Post