Matching wine with Indian food is seen by many as the antithesis to common sense. To some, it's like suggesting going hand-gliding in Lederhosen or skinny dipping in tiger shark invested tropical waters. 'Only an idiot would bother to try', opined my friend when I asked his thoughts on the Indian food and wine issue.
It is certainly true that very peppery and spicy food does tend to sensitize - or in the case of Vindaloo inflame - the lining of the mouth so much that all you want is balm such as milk, beer or ice cold water. And among Asian cuisines, Indian food probably has the greatest notoriety for being hard to match with wine. Its complex layering of spices and chili heat makes for a tricky challenge. One that the staff at London's leading Indian restaurant, the Cinnamon Kitchen, were only too happy to take.
At Cinnamon Kitchen
My theory was that you can match Indian cuisine with wine, it just needs some careful thought and judicious choices. I visited this excellent venue last month to see what wine and spice combinations the sommelier could come up with. The most important first consideration is that most Indian dishes are composed with a blend of spices, which are then married with other elements; yogurt or cream in the Northern Indian school, coconut milk in the South. Acidic elements also prevail, lemon juice and tomato for example. So you need to see which spices warm up to which wine and remember that the dominant flavours in Indian cuisine come from the sauce, rather than the meat, fish of vegetables lurking inside!
Our task at the Cinnamon kitchen was made slightly easier by the fact that this restaurant specialises in fusion Indian cuisine, marrying more refined, European elements with carefully chosen spice combinations. No dish at the restaurant was overly hot or spiced, in contrast to the stereotypical high-street curry houses where it is de rigeur to order the hottest thing on the menu.
We began our feast with a selection of starters: Sandalwood flavoured Tandoori chicken breast and smoked haddock and Jerusalem artichoke cake. Our sommelier chooses a glass of (after our always welcome Champagne aperitif) of Alsace Pinot Blanc, a sure bet with many Indian dishes. It's bright acidity and soft texture was the perfect foil to our Tandoori chicken and smoked haddock. In fact, in my experience off-dry to medium sweet whites served quite cold work best through-out an Indian meal; Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Torrontes are safe bets. Rose is also a safe all-rounder, as it refuses to clash with the wide variety of flavors on offer.
Main courses were my delicious smoked saddle of Kentish Lamb with Rogan Josh sauce and my companion's Tandoori halibut with Dopiaza sauce. What did our savvy sommelier suggest? Well with her fish, surprisingly a red until I realised that with Indian food, conventions on matching reds with meat and whites with fish should be thrown out the window. Again, the sauce was key here not the fish and Dopiaza is a fairly acidic sauce, composed of onion, ginger, garlic, whole hot spices and chili powder. So a softer, not heavily alcoholic red was called for, in this case a glass of fairly acidic Barbera d'Asti from Italy - hot and sour flavours need acidity. I got a glass of New Zealand Syrah with my lamb which also worked very well. Not too ripe or tannic, the Syrah didn't clash with the medium Rogan Josh sauce. Of course, if you want to accentuate the heat of your curry than a deep-flavoured or tannic red like Cornas (Rhone red) or Barbaresco can work. Myself, I prefer not to singe the inside of my mouth.
Desserts were baked almond and apple cake and cumin profiteroles with cardamom shrikhand. We played it safe with a rich eiswein and stunning tokaji, always a safe bet with desserts. Cold temperatures and sugar handle spice well, so not even the Cardamom could compete.
My experience at the Cinnamon Kitchen proved that there are a variety of wines that work with different Indian dishes, albeit you need to do your research. But as long as you seek advice then I'd say go right ahead and drink wine with your Indian meal. The secret is ignoring the myth that one white grape - Riesling or Gewurztraminer - will match all Indian food as this is utter tosh. One grape variety cannot possibly work with an entire country's food culture. Instead, seek guidance, toss out conventional wisdom about pairing red and white, remember that the sauce is key and finally, enjoy experimenting. You never know what you'll come up with!
The Cinnamon Kitchen
9 Devonshire Square,
0207 626 5000