Indian food is many things. It is historic, exotic, imaginative, filling, familial…many things to many people. And yet, it is never one thing: romantic. Of all the Avatars that Indian cuisines have enjoyed the world over, the are still not the obvious choice when it comes to a memorable meal for couples. For the country that gave the world its most sacred text on sensuality, it is quite a pity that the myriad foods of our country are not considered aphrodisiacal.
And so Indian food stands derided from the art form that it is and reduced to a life support function in a country of a billion. To pass from being the subject of fantasies and poetry to a mere substance for subsistence, there can be perhaps no worse a way to be relegated.
But not all is lost for somewhere in the garble of information that is life today, there remain undercurrents of the ethereal, nebulous notions of what constitutes a fine moment, one that is preserved in eternity. All romances needs two parties so Indian cuisines may just be up for some serious courtship. Time to bring in the wine, ladies and gentlemen. Yes sir romance is not entirely dead, and as long as this inexplicable illogical and yet the sweetest of all afflictions continues to plague mankind, there is still hope. Here are a few factors that can help infuse a little love into your daily ingest of Indian rations. But before we talk wine, here are a few other caveats.
It helps if you are open to the idea of eating with your hands. the best way to enjoy a proper Indian repast. If touch is means of sensory stimulus then by coming in physical contact with your food you are enhancing the possibilities of enjoyment of any given meal.
Adapt Presentations, Not Recipe
Indian gastronomy has a rich history, to change recipes is to belie it. Rather than tweak recipes to makes them “wine-centric” (for it isn’t the ingredients or the cooking that is the problem), I’d rather we revisited presentation. Family style servings presented with as much enthusiasm as midterm papers aren’t exactly romance-inspiring. Focus thus must to present dishes in a manner thats less communal and more personal. Course-wise presentation helps in creating flavour focus which then makes wine pairing a more systematic exercise as opposed to holistic. Such service formats also allow for inventive garnishes and portion-control for there is nothing romantic about gluttony!
All food enjoyment in India is limited by ones’ personal capacity to tolerate heat as measured on the Scoville scale. This refers to the amount of chillies used to spruce up any Indian dish and detrimental to pairing with wine. As stated above, do not adapt recipes but adapt your manner of eating: use less curry or more bread in each bite. Try and savour instead of savagely attacking a dish. All these can help to an extent. Beyond that, a one word solution is yoghurt.
If one must stick to the conventional ‘Thaal‘ style service where everything is served all at once then placement is important. If the plate is imagined to be a watch-face, the bread or the rice lie at 6 o’clock, the meats, lentils and vegetables between 10 and 2 with salads and pickles in the remaining spaces. What this does is emphasise the role of bread or rice which will tone the spice in every bite as they envelope the dishes or soak up the gravies. without them, the pairing would be off balance. Having a side-plate puts the meats and veggies centerstage and that is not the format of traditional Indian dining.
And now for the wines; remember pairing wine with food is a great way to make any meal romantic. But also keep in mind that this exercise began in the West and there, it was an organic process, evolving through time and history, unlike here and now in India, where it is almost imposed. In such, it is best to discard all existing ideologies and to try and create newer more relevant concepts. That established, what follows next are some points that us sommeliers keep in mind when pairing Indian cuisine with wine.
Always match strengths. Light wines for light dishes, and richer ones with the heavier dishes, white or red doesn’t matter. Intensity of a wine must sit well besides the dish, neither subduing it nor being overpowered by it.
If the course has no bread (like kebabs and starters) then best to deploy the big reds here. The smokiness of the kebabs can marry very well with oak-kissed wines.
Fruity wines are always preferable over oaky ones with the mains. As bread and rice will lower the spice quotient of the dishes, a big wine may dominate the pairing, killing the subtle spices and flavourings in the process.
It is essential to remember to pair wines to the gravies and the curries, the meat or vegetable element is largely insignificant. Pairing the ‘sauce’ is always the smarter way to approach pairing, especially given how often the same sauce is used to create a vegetarian and a non-vegetarian version of any given dish.
From the points above one may infer with Indian cuisine, wine service order is somewhat lopsided, starting with the big reds in the beginning and moving onto the softer wines. That should not be considered wrong as it follows the order of the nature of our food. It’s either this, or else get ready to start your meal with phirni and end with tikkas!
In the end, all pairings are subjective so there is no one best rule to follow. What’s sensible is to listen to the common advice and then to try something that you feel like for even the best match are often not the most obvious. If gastronomy be an exercise in romance between food and wine — to take the ordinary that is provided and transform it into the exemplary – we have consistently floundered in telling the tale of this romance. It’s time we set the record straight.