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February 4, 2010

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Perfect match - Asian food and wine

THE perennial quest to find the right wine to match Chinese and Asian food styles has been made easier with a new book by wine expert Jeannie Cho Lee who matched the cuisines of 10 cities against different wines. Sam Riley checks the results.

While the idea of pairing Western food and wine has a long and developed history, the journey of discovering which Asian cuisines and their dishes match what wines is at a relatively earlier stage.

Encouraging wine and food lovers to discover their own ideal food/wine "perfect marriages" is wine master Jeannie Cho Lee, who was in Shanghai last weekend as the star attraction at a dinner hosted by the Park Hyatt.

Lee was visiting as part of a tour to promote her book "Asian Palate," which delves into the cuisines of 10 cities around Asia and attempts to find the perfect way to savor the region's rich culinary offerings.

As well as featuring the cuisine of Chinese cities Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing and Shanghai, Lee ventured around the region, delving into the unique local foods of Seoul, Bangkok, Kuala Lumper, Singapore and Mumbai.

Based in Hong Kong, the former business writer at the defunct Far Eastern Economic Review gradually shifted into wine writing and, between having four daughters in four years, passed the demanding Master of Wine (MW) course.

There are only 300 MWs in the world and to gain accreditation requires the aspirant to correctly identify more than 80 percent of 36 wines in a blind tasting.

Vital component

As she explained at the Shanghai dinner, matching a wine to the wide array of dishes usually found on an Asian table can prove perplexing, making versatility a vital component of any wine chosen for Asian cuisine.

While a perfect marriage may not be always possible, Lee makes the point that a wine that "harmoniously accompanies" the wide array of flavors, condiments and textures can give rewarding results.

"There are no rules such as white wine with fish or red wine with beef," she says. "In Asian cuisine it is much more about pairing a wine with the various condiments and spices in dishes than it is about the raw ingredients in those respective dishes."

Wines that are highly versatile include restrained drinks from cool climates such as Tasmania in Australia, Marlborough in New Zealand, Burgundy and the Loire Valley in France, Alsace in Germany, Oregon in the United States and Trentino in Italy.

In white wines, versatile varietals include dry reislings, unoaked chardonnays and chenin blancs and pinot grigio. In reds, pinot noir from very cool regions, grenache-based reds and light-bodied northern Italian reds can also pair well with Asian food.

When it comes to Shanghainese food which uses vinegar, subtle sweetness and a fairly high oil content, Lee recommends pairing wines with a firm, crisp acidity.

The dinner by Park Hyatt's executive chef Gerhard Passruger and chef de cuisine Frank Hu provided a range of classic Shanghai dishes with a modern twist.

Standouts included a homemade ginger tofu with crystal shrimp topped with braised hairy crab roe and a soya braised duck with glutinous rice.

The duck was paired with a robust Australian shiraz from the Adelaide Hills that bought out the meat's rich flavors. To demonstrate the flexibility of different wine pairings, Lee also chose to pair the dish with a light, elegant, mature Burgundy that highlighted complex herbs in the glutinous rice.

Alsace whites are also a good choice to match Shanghai's wide array of cold appetizers and seafood, as German wines, even dry or lightly sweet styles, match lighter Shanghai dishes where sugar is a key ingredient.

Reds from moderately cool climates, and whites and roses with refreshing acidity, work well but big alcohol wines may overpower the delicate flavors, and highly tannic wines will exaggerate the saltiness of food, according to Lee.

In red wines, a pinot noir or fruity sangiovese often works well, while mature reds from Burgundy, northern Rhone and northern Italy can also provide more versatility in matching the range of flavors at a typical Shanghai banquet.

As demonstrated during the wine diner, a sparkling wine or vintage champagne has a wonderful versatility that works well with cold dishes and Lee says can be enjoyed throughout the meal.

Making a point that there are no hard and fast rules when choosing a wine to match food, Lee says that developing wine and food pairings that match not only Asian flavors but also local palates is all part of the journey of discovery.

"Starting a love affair with wine is to start a flavor journey for each individual," she says.

"It is a learning process and one's tastes and preferences change as they develop in accordance with an individual's own cultural preferences, the flavor profiles someone is used to and individual palates," Lee says.

To order Lee's book, visit or for more information on "Asian Palate" and Lee's approach to wine, e-mail to


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