Testing the Asian palate

Jeannie Cho Lee has finally bridged the huge gap in our knowledge about pairing Asian food with international wine, but her size zero figure belies her passion for calorie-laden inducements.

Sourish Bhattacharyya | Print Edition: December 13, 2009

In the last 60 years, just 278 people have qualified for the title of Master of Wine, or MW. You get invited to become a member of this privileged order after an exacting initiation process involving rigorous examinations and blind tastings that test your ability to engage in such arcane exercises as figuring out whether the wine you’re tasting is from Burgundy or Oregon, or whether it dates back to 1955 or to 2005. You get the drift?

The FT wine columnist Jancis Robinson is the first MW I have met and I was surprised to know she was pregnant during the crucial tastings that lead up to the award of the degree by the London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Robinson said her pregnancy didn’t come in the way of her drive because she was expected to taste at least a 100 different wines a day, and not imbibe them. I couldn’t tell whether I envied her job, but I was certain she’s better off being a wine writer (she’s also the editor of the authoritative Oxford Companion to Wine) than being a boring mathematician, which is what she had gone to Cambridge to be. But despite her encyclopaedic knowledge of wines, she seemed tentative about pairing Asian food with international wines.

Fortunately, that huge gap in our knowledge about this most important aspect of drinking wine has been bridged by Jeannie Cho Lee, Asia’s first MW, whose astonishing looks and figure belie her lifelong passion for calorieladen inducements. Jeannie, whom I met at Grand Hyatt Hong Kong recently, has just completed a lavishly illustrated book, Asian Palate, where she goes against received wisdom and lays down sensible ground rules for pairing Asian food and international wines. And she has done it after being to 10 Asian cities, including Mumbai, and spending many hours finding the perfect wine matches for the food she ate.

“Most fabulous dishes really require nothing,” Jeannie said, even as I silently wondered whether she was size zero or not, “but that does not mean pairing cannot happen. You have to find a way of building a bridge.” That could have been just a sales pitch for her book, but I bonded with Jeannie instantly when she rubbished the standard western prescription for Asian food, namely, the Alsatian wine Gewürztraminer, which has a sweetish finish because of its high residual sugar content.

Asian cuisines, Jeannie said, require wines endowed with versatility, which is definitely not a defining characteristic of a Gewürztraminer. “It destroys a savoury meal with its residual sugar,” she pointed out. Why are western critics obsessive about Gewürztraminer? The answer, says Jeannie, is that they see it as a palate cleanser in a spicy meal.

Having recognised a kindred spirit in her, I questioned Jeannie on the wines that are perfect for Indian food. I was relieved to find she makes a distinction between North Indian and Coastal Indian food. So, she’d recommend a cool and crispy Sauvignon Blanc with a butter garlic king crab, but set apart a Rioja from Spain or a Brunello di Montalcino from Italy for the chunkier kebabs, and a mature New World Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz for mutton curry.

Finally, we have an Asian authority (by the way, Jeannie is Korean by birth) with an Asian palate living in Asia’s capital of international cuisine. That’s good news for those of us who are always wondering whether we’ve ordered the right wine.

Sourish Bhattacharyya is Executive Editor, Mail Today

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