Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Pairing Indian Street Food with Wine

By Liza B. Zimmerman


It’s challenging enough to pair regular Indian food, with its intense spice range, with wine. So imagine trying to balance a tender lamb samosa or a yogurt-overloaded sev puri in one hand and a glass in the other. So we are lucky that stateside we have some restaurants that are bringing all these street cart flavors served tableside, where you can enjoy a glass of wine with them.

Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley is a legend and serves some of the best Indian street food in town. The restaurant’s owner Amod Chopra, says that “The literal meaning of Chaat is to ‘relish,’ ” and adds that given that the flavors excite your senses “isn’t that what food and wine pairing is all about?”

He says that there are more than 20 distinct Chaat dishes, “and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Each region within India has their own interpretation, using local ingredients and catering to local palate preferences.” For instance the big, crunchy pancakes called Dosa are Southern Indian and beef samosas would only be served in non-vegetarian parts of the country. 

Key Pairings
The flavors in Chaat combine tangy-salty spices, sour-sweet yogurt and tamarind sauce, and herbs, according to Amod. So the challenge of finding a wine to suit these small, flavor-loaded bites is somewhat akin to pairing wine with regular Indian food. However wine choices with Chaat probably need to be even more flexible given the number of flavors you might experience in one meal.

Many Chaat dishes such as batata vada, or potato fritters, are fried, and have fresh garlic, ginger and coriander. They “tend to pair well with crisp and herbaceous white wines rather than riper, barrel-fermented ones or reds,” says Amod.

Sauvignon Blanc is a clean, fresh style such Loire Valley—such as La Foret des Dames Sancerre or Chilean versions are always great calls with spicy food. This grape may well be the most flexible of all varietals in stepping up to chili-inflected food with a range of spices.

The presence of dense and creamy yogurt in many Indian dishes begs for a wine with fresh acidity. Chenin Blanc, such as California’s Ken Forrester or Sula’s Indian-produced Chenin, and Riesling are both good pairings. In the fact that established Indian wine producer Sula produces these two as well as Sauvignon Blanc also is starting a new tradition of “what grows together goes together,” in India as well.

Beautifully made, off-dry Rieslings from the Finger Lakes, Germany and Ontario, such as Cave Spring would work well as they have loads of fruit and good acidity. Amod says that these types of wines can work seamlessly despite the fact that many, “Chaat dishes are very diverse and may use a yogurt that has been sweetened which can be tricky when pairing with wine.”

Slightly off-dry Rose would be a good choice as well, such as Vega Sindoa from Navarra. Amod notes that, “When you have a hot/spicy dish you need to go in for a wine, usually white, with a certain amount of residual sugar. The sweetness in the wine tones down the heat and soothes the palate, leaving room for the fruit to express itself. The big thing to avoid with spicy food is tannin and oak.”

This means that only the lightest bodied reds might work with the Indian spice palate. Perhaps a light Pinot Noir, or another Cabernet Franc-driven wine, such as Domaine des Forges “Les 3C” Anjou Villages Rouge from the Loire. You definitely want to stay away from earthy and tannic reds such as Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Liza B. 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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