Thursday, March 5, 2015

Pairing Korean Food with Wine

By Liza B. Zimmerman

The spicy, meat-focused, pickled food of Korea has long been one of my favorites. I adore the smoky, grilled short ribs, crisp pancakes and savory soups. Kimchi, fermented cabbage in a hot sauce, is just like mother's milk (I actually never liked milk and this is so much better for me).

Few Korean restaurants serve wine and most fall back on a wide variety of shochu--a white distillate made from rice or other starches like potatoes--offerings with a handful of beers. However sparkling wines, off-dry whites and fruity reds can completely rise to the occasion. I have long brought my own wines to a number of Korean places (particularly in New York).

However the game is changing and a handful of restaurants, and retailers, are trying to lend some guidelines as to what to pair with these strong flavors. Kenny Lee, president of Lee's Korean Restaurant  in Las Vegas, who grew up in a retail wine family, had a plethora of suggestions as to how to make this food work with wine.

History and Reality
"Korean food is traditionally paired with beer and soju due to lack of wines available back in Korea," notes Lee. He adds that, "I noticed that many high-end Korean restaurants in LA have extensive wine lists nowadays." Los Angles is home to one of the largest Korean communities in the country, so it is no surprise that some restaurants there would be leading the charge.

One of the other challenges is the range of flavors that are found in Korean food: from sweet to spicy. Whereas foods such as Vietnamese and Thai, that often run more sweet than hot, can easily be paired with off-dry whites and yeasty bubbles, Korean offers some serious BBQ (beef, pork and chicken) options that really need a hearty red to step up to its flavors. Since, "Korean food tends to be salty, spicy and sweet. I think it overpowers many of the wines, especially reds," concurs Kenny.

He also thinks that the classic, high-acid whites with notes of sweetness work beautiful with much of what is offered on the Korean table. "I think it pairs well with dry and semi-dry white wines. I love it with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with citrus and grapefruit notes, dry Alsatian Riesling or Pinot blanc or trocken and half-trocken German wines."

Lee adds that he likes the residual sugar in wine more and more as the spice levels rise, even if the dish contains meat. "I drank some German Auslese  with ddukbokki--a spicy fish and rice cake dish--and it was amazing." Many of the cuisine's introductory rice dishes also have a salinity and spiciness that helps them work well with wines, he notes.

Many of my favorite dishes in the Korean food lexicon have long been different types of soup: from simple dumplings in rich broth to cold buckwheat noodles in the summer or a spicy stew of octopus that is generally intended for groups of drunken men after a certain hour. If you try to order it earlier in the evening, especially if you are female, most of the restaurants will try to dissuade you.

Kenny had no specific ideas for soup pairings. I myself would go with the base ingredients: a simple broth with a light white or red, with good ribbons of acidity. The cold soup is divine with bubbles and the intensely spicy stews are great with fruit-forward reds.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Liza Zimmerman has been writing and consulting about wine and food for two decades. She is principal of the San Francisco-based Liza the Wine Chick wine writing, education and consulting firm. She has worked on staff and freelance at national magazines such as Wine Enthusiast, The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana, Wine Spectator, Where SF and the Examiner. She currently contributes to Cheers, Wine Business Monthly and the Examiner, among others.

Zimmerman focuses on demystifying wine and transforming it into a tool for business and networking for companies all over the country. Past clients include Genentech, Roche and IBM.

She has visited all the world’s major wine regions and is one of select few in the U.S. to hold the Diploma of Wine & Spirits (D.W.S.), the three-year precursor to the Master of Wine.

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