Cool Wine to Take the Heat From Indian Food: John Mariani

Chicken Vindaloo
Chicken vindaloo at Rasika West End. This is a very spicy dish that takes well to acid-rich white wines. Photographer: Scott Suchman/Rasika West End via Bloomberg

Samuel Johnson said, “Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.”

Unfortunately, he neglected to say which one goes best with Indian food. Of course, back in the 18th century, London had no curry houses of the kind where in the 1960s I could pay one pound for a full meal, with a bottle of Kingfisher beer for 50 pence.

Years later, while visiting India, I never met anyone who recommended anything but beer or the yogurt drink lassi to go with the spicy, often incendiary food of New Delhi, Mumbai, and Calcutta.

There were no wine lists in the restaurants, and, although India has made wine for at least two millennia, until recently, few Indians enjoyed it with their meals. A prohibition against wine in the 1950s hurt the industry, which is only now recovering.

This myopia is now changing among the more affluent generation in India’s big cities, where wine and alcohol are becoming very much a part of dining out.

“Even two years ago, imported wines were astronomically priced in India,” says Rohini Dey, owner of two Vermilion restaurants, in Chicago and New York. “Today Mumbai is more progressive than other places, and they now have a pop culture, so the young people with money want to try Old World and California wines.”

Global List

At New York’s Vermilion, the wine list is global and pricey: a humdrum 2010 Vie Vite Rose that sells in wine store for $15 costs a whopping $80 here, and a 2010 Nieto Malbec from Argentina, $10 at retail, is $48 on the list.

“My advice is to stay away from high alcohol wines that will accentuate the burn of the food,” Dey says. “Syrupy wines do a disservice to our food. The best choices are wines with low tannins and high acidity.”

I agree with Dey. The wines I found went best with highly spiced dishes, like duck vindaloo with pomegranate molasses and pindi butter chicken with a creamy tomato sauce, were pleasant whites like chenin blanc and a white Rioja whose minerals and acidity did nothing to tamp down the fire but gave a good fruity edge to the food.

I also spoke with Simon Stilwell, one of the rare sommeliers at an Indian restaurant in the U.S., in this case the excellent new Rasika West End in Washington, DC. He likes mineral-rich white Burgundies with rich, creamy dishes like the cheese-based paneer makhani.

Tandoor Oven

As for food cooked in the fierce tandoor oven, Stilwell says, “The high temperature and slight char effect on the food are similar to the results from grilling, like dishes from coastal Spain where a lot of fish is grilled, or Argentina, where they grill so much meat. So, the wines from those countries are well worth investigating.”

Rasika West End carries no Indian wines on its list (“They are difficult to source in DC,” says Stilwell), but he does have some high-end Bordeaux, Burgundy and California cult wines that I thought would be ill-advised choices with Indian food because it would obliterate the subtleties of the wines.

“Not at all!” Stilwell says, “It’s like asking if drinking a great chianti, barlolo, or brunello with pizza or pasta is a bad idea. I think people should eat and drink what makes them most happy -- if that is high-end French wines or cult Cali’s, then please enjoy!”

Stilwell also recommends Old World dessert wines with Indian desserts, which can be intensely sweet.

Sweet Malbecs

“Dessert changes things a little because often the cold temperature of desserts subdues their aromas,” he says. “An intensely sweet Hungarian Tokaji, with its aromas of saffron, apricots and honey are great for dishes like our mango and saffron kulfi or rice pudding. Our ras malai is made into Chocolate Ras Malai with layers of chocolate mousse, ganache, and chocolate cake work great with tawny ports or even sweet malbecs from Cahors, France.”

I’m pretty sure I won’t be serving my First Growth Bordeaux with Indian food -- I’ll save them for the simplest of flavors, like unadorned steak and lamb -- but good, inexpensive white wines from Spain, Provence, and South America make a lot of sense, not least because they are thirst-quenching. And Stilwell is absolutely right about those dessert wines.

Then again, if a beer has a sure degree of creaminess and sweetness to it, I think it makes a great match for Indian desserts.

Until Indian wines get better and more available, the myriad global wine options make a lot of good sense with the kind of food once enjoyed only by Mughal royalty.

(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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