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September 26, 2010

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The art of Thai chilies and wines

CHILIES were introduced to Thai cooking during the late 1600s by Portuguese missionaries who developed a taste for them while in South America. Since then, chili peppers have become an essential in Thai cooking.

But what about dishes with chilies enjoyed with wine? Some gourmets claim that spicy Thai dishes only go with beer. This is erroneous. While beer is a neutral partner when paired with Thai dishes containing chilis, the proper wine becomes an embellisher of the flavors and textures in the dishes.

The goal of any beverage when paired with a hot and spicy dish is to soothe the palate by reducing the burning sensation while accentuating flavors and textures. A wine with generous ripe fruit flavors and good acidity will reduce sensations of heat while bringing out original flavors and refreshing the mouth. White wines should be well-chilled and reds slightly chilled to mitigate the sensation of alcohol that heightens spicy sensations. Here are some classic hot Thai dishes and their natural wine partners.

Kaeng Phet is a spicy red coconut curry replete with chilies. This dish from central Thailand can have a variety of ingredients but perhaps the best is a mixture of shrimp, clams and other seafood served with steamed jasmine white rice. The aromatic rice helps offset the spiciness and adds a pleasing chewy texture. When served with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region like the Forrest Estate Sauvignon Blanc or Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, this dish reaches new heights of delectability. These zesty fresh wines stand up to the bold flavors while their acidity highlights natural seafood and curry flavors. Further, the cool wine lessens the sensation of heat. In essence, the seafood and chili are harmonized by the wines.

One of my favorite dishes is Pla Sam Rot, literally three-flavor fish. The fish is deep-fried and served with a tangy-spicy tamarind chili sauce. The affinity of a clean and crisp Spanish Cava sparkling wine like the Freixenet Corton Negro Brut or Castell de Vilarnau Brut with all types of deep-fried food is well-documented. But what makes this pairing so intriguing is the way the tart apple and other fruit flavors in the sparkling wines embellish the varied rich flavors of the sauce, while highlighting the freshness of the fish and cleansing the palate. The already delicious sauce gains refinement with these excellent-value Cavas.

From the north of Thailand comes a delectable grilled pork sausage called Sai Ua. When enjoyed with a hearty Shiraz from Australia like the Torbreck Woodcutter's Shiraz or Saltram Mamre Brook Shiraz, the exotic spices and herbs in the sausage, as well as the fresh ginger and chilies served alongside, match beautifully with the intense spicy dark fruit flavors of the wine. Any time you're having spicy meat dishes these two lovely Australian reds are great choices.


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