It was over a hotpot at a Hunanese restaurant in one of the seedy lanes that branch out of Hong Kong’s plush Golden Mile that I discovered what the Chinese love to drink with dinner. No, it isn’t jasmine tea. It is Hennessy cognac, which they quaff in prodigious quantities with water from glassware that will remind you of railway chai.
They buy their Hennessy in bottles that restaurants keep with great care, each bottle carrying the owner’s name tag. The idea is to let patrons enjoy their Hennessy over several meals. Those who don’t drink cognac—China and Hong Kong account for 30 per cent of Hennessy’s worldwide sales—stick to Coke or Sprite. They even have their red wine with Coke, which I consider atrocious behaviour, for the Chinese elite tend to drink expensive French wine. But what stops them from having wine— without add-ons, of course—with their meals? It’s this mindset that prevents the bravest among us from having wine with kebabs and curries. Take my word for it. When you go for a Chinese meal the next time, order wine and not Tsingtao beer, which is good for only Ludhianwi Chinese. I normally have a Sula Sauvignon Blanc or a Grover Viognier Clairette whenever I dig into the Hunanese preparations at The Chinese, my favourite Chinese restaurant in Delhi.
There are many more options, of course, and today I’ll dedicate my column to the cause of marrying Chinese food with wine. All Chinese food can’t go with all wines, so you need to be careful while ordering. Now, the first rule. Do not listen to a sommelier (wine waiter, in plain English) who says a Gewurtztraminer, a sweetish wine with spicy notes from Alsace, France, goes best with Chinese cuisine. As with Indian food, the sweetness of Gewurtztraminer tends to overpower people’s taste buds. My recommendation is that you order champagne with dim sum (remember, the food that travels best with beer also rocks with a glass of bubbly). Whenever I order the ironically named Stalin’s Beard (fried dumplings made with shredded turnips) at Nanking, another of my favourites in the city, I yearn for sparkles, but the restaurant’s wine list is not as good as its food menu. I must warn you, though, if you wish to enjoy your champagne with the dim sum, you’ll have to forgo the accompanying vinegar sauce. The tartness of the sauce will kill the taste of the bubbly.
Made in Heaven: A Pinot Noir makes a perfect pair with Murgh Makhni and it travels a great distance with Kung Pao chicken
My other suggestion that always works is Riesling—not the sweet variety, but the drier, crispier, fruitier ones that are being produced all over, from Germany and Alsace to Australia. It is the perfect accompaniment to Cantonese dishes, such as what Baba Ling’s team at Nanking will make for you. A Riesling will also pair perfectly with a Hunan Lamb, although it’s hot. I won’t recommend the most common white wine—the Chardonnay—especially if it’s oaked, because it is impossible to pair it with food from our part of the world. Now, what should you order with Peking duck? I recommend a Pinot Noir, especially one from Burgundy. It’s light, it’s fruity, and just like it pairs perfectly with butter chicken, it’ll travel a great distance with Kung Pao chicken. But if it’s chicken chowmein that you’re ordering, just stick to Sauvignon Blanc—and if you really don’t want to speculate hard on the subject, stay within the safety zone of a Riesling.