Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bi-Coastal Chinese Food & Wine Pairing

All it took was one link, a picture or two of pork belly, and I was hooked.

I found RedCook blog's through Matt Bites' blogroll. As if it wasn't cool enough to just be included on Matt Bites Matt Bite's blogroll (Matt Bites as in the Matt Bites that is on Martha Stewart's blogroll), RedCook's blog delivers a whole lot of cooking love, beautiful photos, and provides insights into a Chinese kitchen and home.

The focus of RedCook is Chinese home cooking, or Chinese cuisine versus the food dished up in most Chinese-American restaurants. Kian, the blog's author, focuses on the traditional cuisine he ate while growing up in Singapore and China, and tells the stories behind the recipes he posts and the ingredients within them in fantastic detail, which befits many a average cook in the United States unfamiliar with Chinese produce, sauces, and fish and meat cuts and preparations. While most posts introduce recipes, when Kian focuses entirely on cooking methods, or shares his amazing experiences cooking for New York chefs in his own home, or his recent role as translator and cook at the Dumplings & Dynasties James Beard dinner, the results are just as educational and inviting.

Why the name Red Cook, instead of Kian Cooks, or Cooking Chinese not in China but Instead from Kian's Harlem Apartment, you ask? The "red" part of the name is used to describe a cooking method common to Chinese home cuisine that utilizes warm spices like star anise, clove, and peppercorns to impart rich red and brown hues to the tender meat that's sitting simmering in the braising liquid. This cooking method in particular expresses what is so compelling about Kian's blog. Through showing us what was on his parent's stove and what's on his own stove now, like red cooked meats, he's gently and passionately educating those of us who didn't grow up cooking with five-spice blends who may be more familiar with chow mein than silken-mushroom tofu or mooncakes- about the true and wide realm of Chinese cuisine.

Why Red Cook and Vin de la Table?

Well, I'm an excited food and wine dork who gets amazing thrills just thinking about pairing awesome food like RedCook's to wine. So, after oogling the dishes on his website for months, I finally struck up the nerve to ask if he'd let me play wine pairing with him after school one day. And he said yes!

The pairings

Focusing on three dishes, our joint post turned out to be a true wine pairing blogging adventure. The deal was this: RedCook would send me recipes, I would head to my local Chinese market, rustle up the ingredients, choose wines to match the dishes, try them both at home, and give him the names of the wine I tried so he could do his own wine pairing tasting in New York City.

Simple, yes?

No...... Did you know that it can be an extreme pain in the booty to find a wine on both coasts if you're not going with Gallo or Kendalll Jackson? I'm of the small-production wine persuasion and believe that wine tastes better when produced in small batches -the key word here being "small," which in the wine world translates to limited. The wines I was accustomed to swilling here were somewhere in New York I was sure, for if one can buy a roast chicken at three in the morning, they could certainly find a small-production French wine, right? Ah....well, let's just say that dear RedCook ended up having to make two dinners to test through suggested wines, and I decided to suggest some higher-production wine than I normally would. And then there was that hurricane. So expect to see more wine notes on RedCook. Note to self- just because a wine is listed on a shop's website does not mean that they haven't sold out. RedCook, you are a trooper.

Anyhow, we found wines to sample and we had some profitable hits and misses with what we poured (and aren't misses the most educational!). Here goes.

Pairing Wine to Chinese Cuisine: A General Guide

Chinese cuisine tends to have three characteristics in particular that demand attention when pairing wine to a meal. Separately, the characteristics aren't too daunting, but when they are combined in one dish, as they very often are, it's good to have a general idea of how to charm the flavors into getting along with wine. They're proud flavors and have become accustomed to owning the show. However, as the ideals behind Chinese cuisine are achieving harmony on the palate and health, a happy wine pairing with this cuisine can feel especially poetic once achieved.The main attributes to keep in mind that can puzzle when pairing wine to Chinese cuisine are sour, sweet, and spicy.


Just as pairing wine to salads with vinaigrettes has caused futile alarm to wine fans for centuries, pairing wine to sour elements in Chinese food can provoke raised eyebrows.People fear that the acidity in the food will throw the acidity in the wine off balance. As the dishes with the most sour elements seem to be salads and lighter, cold dishes, we'll focus on white wine. The key to having an enjoyable white wine experience with the sour, or higher acidity flavors in Chinese food is to pick a wine that still has remaining residual sugar left in the bottle after fermentation (i.e.,that is lightly sweet). Or, one can go with a super fresh (not tropical), yet fruity aromatic, unoaked white like a Godello or Gruner Vetliner. The sugar in the slightly sweet wine will be a study in contrasts with the vinegar in many Chinese dishes, make the sauce or dressing appear even more vibrant, and even highlight the sugar that (see below) will inevitably also be included in the recipe. On the other hand, a fresh, fruity, unoaked, not sweet wine will play on the acidity in the dish and highlight the feisty, punchy sours flavors in, say, rice vinegar or Shaoxing cooking wine. If you appreciate bright vinegar notes, go with a fruity, fresh wine like Godello or Gruner Vetliner. If you're not afraid of a little bit of sweetness in your glass, pour a Riesling or friend to celebrate the harmony on your plate.


As mentioned earlier, Chinese food is much about balance (and deliciousness, yes). If there's vinegar or higher-acidity cooking wine included in a recipe, there's most likely going to be sugar or fruit too, so the dish will have the tools necessary to reach an tasty internal equilibrium. This is similar to how the best, sweet-as-perfectly-ripe-fruit Rieslings will have lip smacking acidity. And just as sweeter wines paired and contrasted expertly with the sour flavors in the cuisine, they will match well with dishes that have a touch of sugar too. The sweetness in the wines will match with the sweetness and highlight any high acidity notes in the food, and the food will return the favor in full for the wine. The fruity wines mentioned in the above sour section will, as Kian demonstrates with his own pairings, also be successful here. Note to readers: If you want a straight wine winner every time with a lighter Chinese dish, a good Gruner Vetliner is a sure bet. Gruner Vetlinr, is simply put, a magical wine, and can be found on the wine lists of the best Asian Restaurants accross the country because it pairs to spicy, sweet, and sour notes like no other wine does. And it loves cilantro and green onions, and even the asparagus dishes that make other whites crinkle their nose. But don't go with a Gruner Vetliner every time just because it's easy. Play around. To match dishes with sweet characteristics with a red wine, think of Zinfandel or Grenache, both of which are sweeter grapes even on the vine.


Food spiked with those spices that demand complete and upright attention of your senses- like Chinese 5-spice mixes, star anise, ginger and Sichuan chiles, for example- favor spicy, peppery, and and often fruitier and sweeter wines that dually highlight and calm the spices at the same time. For whites, Gruner Vetliner wins again (like Governor Arnie at the Olympia contest), as do wines with just a hint or a whole lot of sweetness, like Riesling, Sylvanner, white Rhone blends (Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne), and sometimes Chenin Blanc or Pinot Gris. For reds, Zinfandel, Grenache and Grenache-blends are go-to wines, as they naturally show a fruitier sweetness, and tons of spice and peppery. But, watch the alcohol level. High alcohol + spices = horrible burning sensations in mouth, throat, and nose areas. High alcohol wines can be just as detrimental to sweetness in dishes, amplifying any sugar notes until all you can think of are Pixie sticks. Note this for white wines as well. In particular, Rhone whites can be very high in alcohol and set your tounge ablaze just as easily. It would be preferable to drink a white 13.5% alcohol, and a red no higher than 14.5% alcohol (and much lower if possible) if you're having a hosting a spice fest.

Lastly, with Chinese cooking, a dish's prominent flavors are generally in the sauce or dressing. So focus on that rather than the protein or vegetable being served.

Time to pair

Just in case your boss enters the room and you've already spent a good ten to forty minutes reading my prologue, we'll focus on two pairings today, and address the meat dish in part two of the post later this week or early next. All recipes can be found on Redcook's blog on this post here

Part of the fun of wine is that it provides a different experience to everyone, and Kian and I hope that you enjoy, as RedCook and I did, that our and our guests's wine pairings preferences differed. In the same vein, I hope that my descriptions of pairing wine to Chinese food flow well with Kian, and that the photos I took of his recipes, made Vin de la Tble style, resemble the actual dishes, and that he doesn't laugh so hard that he has to lie down for the rest of the day. By the way, I'm pretty sure that I cooked chive blossoms where I shouldn't have.
Let's start with the courses that we poured with white wines.


The wine I picked for this lively salad was the Val de Sil Montenovo Godello, Valdellorras, Spain (whichever vintage). Godello is grape native to the Galacian area of Spain whose scent is a cross between a Riesling and an Albarino. Apples, peaches, lime, floral, crisp and dry, I could drink a lot of this. However, it proved to be a controversial (yeah, stay away if you can't handle the heat) pairing among the guests. I liked the way it rocked the bitter flavors of the daikon and contrasted with the sugar in the dressing. But, it seemed that just my husband and I like this wine with the the daikon salad's sweet and high-acidity vinaigrette. To be fair, I'm not sure that my husband's vote counts because he told me that he liked my recent peanut-butter bacon cookie experiment before I admitted that they were a bad idea. But I still think you should try the wine here if you like the bitter daikon bite amplified like we (I) did. We also tried the white Rhone listed below, which matched the sweetness in the dressing and let the daikon rest. Kian, unfortunately wasn't able to sample the Godello because it had sold out when he reached the shop. So I suggested a Chenin Blanc which appears to have struck him on similar notes as the Godello did with my guests.


Let me start by saying that I was a vegetarian for seven years who ate bacon from time to time, and I have never eaten tofu that tasted this good. Furthermore, the night we served this, my meatlover husband almost left me for soybean curd. Maybe you shouldn't cook this. The recipe made for earthy, succulent, tofu garnished with bok choy and mushrooms in a slightly sweet sauce. For this dish, I decided to go with 05 Guigal Cote du Rhone White, from the Rhone Valley, France. Made from Marsanne and Roussane, this wine was slighty spicy, was warm with apple and vanilla scents, and earthy enough that I immediately wanted to serve it with mushrooms. There was a little sugar in wine too that snuggled up to the flavors in the slightly sweet sauce. For me this was a winning combo.

Part two in progress.

The discerning guests: Miz Joo of the post "Korean BBQ and Beer: Drinking Against the Wine Pairing Grain", and my husband.

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Anonymous said...

Fantastic post! I'm still a bit of a novice on the vino front, so it's great to hear about why you'd choose certain wines.

Jennifer said...

Brilliant post and some great information!
I made Chinese Roast Pork the other day with star anise in the marinade and wish I had read this first. Next time I make it I'll use your suggestions to try to find some wine here to drink with it.

Cynthia said...

I have bookmarked this post. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

This is great information! I love Kian's blog and what you're undertaking is great. Chinese Food & wine pairing isn't the easiest thing to do but both you and Kian know enough in your respective fields to come up with something solid.

Looking forward to more!

Kirstin said...

I'm so glad you are all enjoying this! It was really fun, and Kian rocks. Next week, red-cooked lamb.

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Chop Suey is the only thing that convinces me from all the variety of Chinese food, the rest tastes so weird.

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Chineese food with wine is the combination of red rose with dark green leaves. No one can imagine their beauties excepting each other.

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Athalia said...

Pairing chinese food with wine is the best for family party on weekends. Nice share!