“Traditional wine pairings don’t apply when it comes to Indian food,” says Alpana Singh.
At 26, Singh became the first woman of South Asian descent to receive the Master Sommelier certification. She believes there’s potential to pair wine with Indian dishes, despite incorrect assumptions some people make about the country’s cuisines.
“I feel this is a general stereotype that’s attached to food that comes from regions that aren’t associated with wine production,” she says. She believes Indian cuisine “doesn’t get the same attention as Eurocentric dishes or dishes that come from traditional wine-producing areas.”
Scott Carney, dean of wine studies at New York’s International Culinary Center, notes that wine isn’t always part of the experience in the U.S. “There are certain cultures that will routinely drink beer with their dishes,” he says.
Formerly the sommelier at Junoon, an Indian restaurant in New York City, Carney believes that some people are hesitant to pair wines with Indian food out of respect for the cuisine’s flavors, figuring that “beverage has to take a secondary role to the complexity of the spices,” he says. However, he found that “guests were willing to try pairings” at Junoon.
There are several ways for wine to complement the cumin, cardamom, coriander and yes, even red chili spices present in dishes like chicken tikka, dal makhani and lamb vindaloo. Here are four key tips from Indian food and wine experts.
Pay Attention to Sauces and Spices
When it comes to finding the right wine for an Indian dish, the spices will generally take precedent over the protein.
“The elements to consider when pairing Indian food are the spices, sauce and the seasoning,” says Singh. “We are talking about very aggressive spices like cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger and garlic.” Finding a wine that stands up to these flavors is key.
Because of the residual sugar, Singh says a German Riesling Kabinett pairs well with dishes like palak paneer, a dish with cubes of mild cheese and creamy spinach sauce.
Sandra Guibord, a wine educator, agrees. “The freshness and acidity of a Riesling won’t overpower the spinach and will complement the creaminess,” says Guibord.
Tannins can increase the perception of spice and may overpower spicy dishes as well as accentuate bitterness. “You want to find a way to balance the essentials like the sweetness, sourness, tanginess, heat and the spice, and the texture,” adds Singh.