Of all the popular food-and-drink combinations out there, few seem more intuitively sensible than Indian with lager. The food is spicy, the beer is cold. And, hey, they have breweries in India. In curry-mad England, the pairing is as emblematic of the nation's gastronomic identity as tea and crumpets or Gordon Ramsay and foul language.
But as with the United Kingdom itself there are problems with the union. Indian food is not one dish but a marvellously rich, regionally diverse cuisine that merits more options than Stella and Kingfisher. Lager, meanwhile, even when it's not boring tends to be filling, and that may not be your gastrointestinal system's idea of happy times next to all those butter-laden sauces and spices.
You see where this is going, I'm sure. Wine brings way more to the party, I think, as long as you're willing to venture from the safe harbour of a favourite malbec or pinot grigio. Top restaurants in London, such as Michelin-starred Rasoi, have begun to change perceptions about the suitability of Indian with wine. Chef Vineet Bhatia told me years ago, as I sipped a glass of Alsatian riesling at his restaurant, that suds are too filling and gassy to work with Indian food.
Harsh Chawla, co-owner of Pukka, a new upscale restaurant on Toronto's St. Clair Street West, is another believer. "I don't remember any of my family's friends drinking beer with the Indian meal," said the Chandigarh native. "Beer before? Amazing. An hour after Indian food? Beautiful. With the food? Never."
On a recent visit to Pukka, I annexed three tables (and a forest of stemware) with my dining companion, Peter Boyd, a veteran beverage consultant and sommelier. I was eager to advance my wine-with-Indian education with more empirical testing. Boyd, to be upfront, runs Pukka's wine program and conceded that his Indian expedition, too, is a work in progress.
We noshed. We sipped. We must have bored neighbouring patrons silly with pretentious palaver about this sauce with that wine. But I stumbled away, into a cab, with fresh insights.
Pukka's cuisine, like Rasoi's, is, in fairness, lighter than your typical curry joint's. But it's no less Indian, just as nouvelle cuisine is no less French without the rivers of butter and cream. Prior experimentation had already taught me – Boyd too – that certain bone-dry, earthy European wines, such as Barolo, Tuscan sangiovese and young red Bordeaux, tend to wage an olfactory mixed-martial-arts assault in this heavily aromatic context. So, we narrowed our candidates. Most fell into the "aromatic white" camp of strongly fruity and perfumed wines.
Selections included but were not limited to gewürztraminer, auxerrois (the latter an offbeat variety common to Alsace), a superbly fruity northern Italian pinot bianco (one of Boyd's brilliant finds from the co-operative producer Nals Margreid), a sweet-tart Vouvray made from chenin blanc and a grapefruit-like New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Boyd also reached outside the aromatic safety zone for an oaked chardonnay from small Niagara producer Kew, while I, hoping to throw a spanner in the works, came armed with a light, dry British Columbia pinot noir from Haywire as well as a full-bodied, jammy, high-alcohol red from California, Ravenswood Sonoma County Old Vines Zinfandel.
The food spanned various textures and regional styles: piquant tandoori-smoked eggplant "tartare"; sweet-potato samosas with two chutneys (sweet-spicy tamarind and cool mint); butter chicken bathed in classic tomato-infused sauce; lamb-chop "lollipops" adorned with turmeric-coriander-and-mint curry; sea bass bathed in coconut curry; and giant prawns dry-dusted with a south-Indian "gunpowder" spice mix involving ground lentils and cumin. (There was more food, actually; I'm sticking to the Reader's Digest version – and I use the term "digest" ironically.)
We also ordered four sauces on the side for fun: fiery coconut-chili madras; aromatic turmeric-coriander; sweet onion-cinnamon; and rich pistachio-based korma.
Immediately one thing became apparent: No wine was succeeding or failing consistently across all plates. The Vouvray's honeyed sweetness and acid lift, for example, worked cheerfully against the wonderfully intense eggplant. But the wine sounded a bitter gong with the samosa dipped in tamarind chutney as well as with the shrimp. Pinot noir, normally not a bad match for grilled lamb, turned similarly bitter against the gamy meat's turmeric-coriander-cream dipping sauce. The berry-forward wine redeemed itself later by singing a sweet melody with modern-style duck breast served with a pomegranate glaze.
"There's no wine that will go with everything," Boyd wisely summarized, contrasting the challenge with the relative ease of, say, pairing a single wine to various courses of continental cuisine. "It's not like moving from the oysters to the Dover sole and having the same wine work."
Still, I had a secret mission. I wanted to suss out which styles might work better than others, because most wine drinkers justifiably prefer to stick to one bottle over the course of a meal rather than juggle four or five glasses.
My verdict: Luscious, ginger-scented Alsatian gewürztraminer, grapefruity New Zealand sauvignon and thick, jammy red California zinfandel all had much to recommend them.
"Fruit seems to trump everything," Boyd said. In other words, vibrant acidity worked with some lively food elements, rich viscosity helped tame the more piquant spicing and caressed certain creamy textures, but aromatic, punchy fruitiness seemed to shake hands and make friends with pretty much everything on the table.
Least impressive to me were chardonnay and pinot noir. The former seemed not fruity enough and perhaps too astringently oaky for the spice, while the latter was too fragile.
I learned another, counterintuitive lesson. Don't serve whites too cold with Indian fare. In each case, the wines mingled better as they warmed in the glass. After several minutes, the textures seemed fatter and aromatics more lifted, ready to embrace the spicy, perfumed food.
Maybe that's another reason to avoid lager: You've got to chug the stuff quickly, while it's cold, or it will taste insipid soon enough.
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The Flavour Principle, by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol, was named best Canadian Food & Drinks Book in the 2014 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Published by HarperCollins.