Cuisines of India and Wine

When paired with the right food, wine can enhance the dining experience, adding interesting nuances, flavor and textures. Pairing wine with food is an art that leads to a greater appreciation of both the food and the wine. Here are some pointers on how to pair wine with Indian food.


Indian Cuisine

Indian cuisine is a smorgasbord of flavors, colors and spices. The cuisine varies widely from state to state and sometimes even from neighboring town to town. Some regions prefer rice, others wheat, some parts favour mustard oil, others coconut oil and so on. Ultimately, great tasting food is the one unifying factor across regions.


Main characteristics of Indian cuisine

  • A major ingredient in Indian food is spices – of which over 25 are often used in different combinations. Popular spices include turmeric, chilly, ginger, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, cardamom, cumin seeds, garlic, saffron, mace, fenugreek, caraway and poppy seeds.
  • A wonderful balance of spice/heat, sour, bitter and sweet is at the heart of the flavors of major Indian cuisines.
  • Lime juice, tamarind, tomatoes, kokum (a sour fruit), raw mango, vinegar and yogurt are all used in various combinations across various regions of the country to bring a balance of sourness to the dish.
  • Spices roasted or raw are best freshly ground to make the ‘Masala’ – traditionally by being ground together on a ‘grinding stone’.
  • Red and/or green chilies, black and white pepper are used in combination or alone to bring ‘heat’ to the palate.
  • A combination of onion, either caramelized or sweated and, garlic, ginger and tomato are used as a base for these spices.
  • To add richness to a curry, coconut cream and milk, dairy cream and a paste of nut or poppy seeds are added.
  • Fresh herbs are often used for garnish, seasoning and tempering and include coriander, dill, curry leaves as well as sour and bitter herbs.

Cuisines of India and wine

The cooking method used determines the predominant flavors in Indian cuisine (for example, the smoky flavors from the ‘tandoor’). The predominant flavor of a dish is also influenced by the base for the curry (or sauces), the use of seasonings (such as ginger, garlic, and choice of spices) or the blending of ingredients such as a masala with herbs.

Thus, the overall flavors of a dish result from a combination of these elements, of which there are a myriad of choices

At a traditional Indian meal several dishes are served at the same time and are meant to be shared.

Therefore, the wine/s chosen for such a meal need to be versatile, to pair with and enhance the experience of Indian regional cuisines.

Matching Indian food and wines seems a complex task on its face but becomes simpler by following a few thumb-rules.

Here are some suggestions to consider while pairing wines with Indian food:

  • Serving the wine slightly cooler (1 - 2°C) than the standard serving temperature can help tone down the spiciness of the food.
  • Aromatic white wines such as Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc with crisp acidity stand up to the spices and complexity of the flavors.
  • White Wine with a touch of sweetness can lower the impact of the spice levels.
  • If you prefer Red Wine, choose a wine with concentrated ripe red fruity notes and soft velvety tannins.
  • Avoid tannic wine with a high alcohol content as such heavy wines enhance the heat or spiciness of the food and lead to an unpleasant experience.

The complement and the contrast principle.

The complement principle - Choose a wine that is similar in some ways to the dish.

Look for the right balance – the wine should not dominate the food, neither should the food dominate the wine. Choose a light bodied wine for lighter dishes, a medium bodied wine to go with fuller dish and a fuller bodied wine with heavier dishes.

  • Weight – Match the weight/ richness of food with a similar body of the wine. The role of the sauce (curry) is an important factor in lending base/weight to food. Heavy food like roast meats need a fuller bodied Red Wine. Whereas light foods like paneer (cottage cheese), vegetables, fish or other white meats go well with the more delicate White Wines or low tannin and lighter Red Wines.
  • Intensity – The flavour intensity of both food and wine should be similar but one needs to consider the cooking method. For example,-steamed fish requires a delicate White Wine whereas fish cooked on charcoal in the tandoor requires a fuller bodied white or light red Wine as the method of cooking adds intensity of flavor to the food.
  • Acidity – Tomatoes, tamarind, lemons, raw mango, yogurt (or curd), and vinegar and other souring agents used give an acidity to the food. Wines with low acidity will taste less vibrant and somewhat flat, therefore the acidity, when present in the dish, should be matched by an equally refreshing wine with higher acidity.
  • Tannins – Protein molecules are softened when they react with tannins in the wine. Ergo, red meat goes better with wines with firm tannins, as with Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The contrast principle – Choose food and wine that are dissimilar to each other

The contrast principle means looking at flavors or textures in the wine that aren’t in the food but would enhance it.

  • For example, a dish with creamy base sauce can be paired with a dry Sauvignon Blanc, a crisp White Wine whose acidity will counterbalance the heaviness of the dish.
  • Salty food goes excellently with sweetness and a balance of acidity in the wine. For example, the classical salty Roquefort cheese and Sauternes wine.
  • Wine with a bit of sweetness can tone down the spiciness of the food thus leading to a more pleasing dining experience.

Indian dishes often are a combination of many ingredients and flavors. They can be identified with a particular overall flavor, such as Spicy, Sweet, Bitter, Smoky or Rich; then one can pair these flavor profiles with either a complementing wine or a contrasting wine.


SOME KEY FLAVOURS OF INDIAN FOOD

Sweet – Key Ingredient

  • Jaggery, sugar
  • Coconut milk or coconut powder (dried coconut)
  • Milk solids (Khova)
  • Dry and fresh fruits
  • Sweeter vegetables – pumpkins, some gourds, sweet potato and cassava

Popular dishes with sweetness - Pumpkin ‘Subzi’, Dhansak Dal (a Parsee dish).
Complementing Wine: Choose a wine with sufficient sweetness or an off-dry style of wine to accompany the food like the Early Dark Chardonnay (white), Early Dark Rosé .
Avoid: Contrasting wine such as dry Sauvignon Blanc as it will clash with the flavours. Red Wines in contrast will seem sour in taste.

Spicy – Key Components

  • Low intensity spices
  • High intensity spices
  • Chilli powder/Chilies
  • Ginger, garlic
  • Blended masala

Popular spicy dishes – Goan Vindaloo, Andhra Chicken Curry
Complementing Wine: Medium to full body with a fruity profile and soft and velvety tannins – like the Early Dark Reserve Negrette - Syrah - Gamay .
Contrasting Wine: Medium to full bodied White or a Red Wine with crisp acidity, concentrated fruit and slight sweetness to tone down spices – like the Early Dark Reserve Sauvignon Blanc (white) or the Early Dark Cabernet – Merlot (red).

Sour – Key Components

  • Tamarind
  • Lemon
  • Tomato
  • Raw Mango
  • Kokum (Garcinia Indica)
  • Yogurt/Curd

Popular dishes with sourness – Goan Prawn curry, Ambti (Maharashtra), Ulli Theeyal (Kerala), coastal fish curries.
Complementing Wine: Choose a flavorful crisp dry White Wine or medium bodied Red wine with enough acidity to match the food – like the Early Dark Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Early Dark Rosé or Cabernet - Merlot .
Avoid: Off dry-styles of wines, which will be sourer and feel much more acidic in taste.

Smoky – Key Components

  • Tandoor
  • Charcoal
  • Barbeque
  • Grill

Dishes – Tandoori Chicken, Grilled Lamb Chops
Complementing Wine: Choose a mature Red Wine with fine textural elements in the tannins that brings out the subtle spices from the meat – like the Early Dark Reserve Negrette - Syrah - Gamay.
Contrasting Wine: Dishes with caramelization on the outside and a moist inside, such as lightly spiced paneer and vegetables from the tandoor, may be paired with rounder, richer and fruitier wines – like the Early Dark Chardonnay & Rosé .

Rich – Key Components

  • Milk Products
  • Fat
  • Oil
  • Dried fruits

Dish – Dal Makhani, Butter Chicken
Complementing Wine: Choose a silky texture aromatic White Wine with fresh acidity to cut through the fat – like the Early Dark Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.
Contrasting Wine: Full bodied Red Wine with modest tannin and oak to match the richness in the food - like the Early Dark Reserve Negrette - Syrah – Gamay .