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May 23, 2019

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Who doesn’t love Thai cooking? I’m guessing a few readers would answer in the affirmative. Personally, second only to the wonderfully diverse regional styles of Chinese cuisine, Thai is my favorite Asian cuisine.

The most traditional forms of Thai cooking were stewing and grilling but starting 1,500 years ago an influx of Chinese migrants changed the Thai epicurean experience. Chinese settlers introduced stir-frying and deep-frying dishes to Thailand including Pad Thai stir-fried noodles and Khao Pad stir-fried rice. Centuries later, Buddhist monks brought curry.

Many spices are used in Thai dishes but the principal ingredient to bring fire to the palate is the red chili pepper. Chilies were introduced to Thai cooking during the late 1600s by Portuguese missionaries who developed a taste for the spicy vegetables while serving in South America. Since then, chili peppers have become an essential ingredient in Thai cooking.

There still exist a number of foodies who counsel beer with all things spicy. However, beer even at its best is merely a neutral partner of spicy dishes. In other words, beer doesn’t make spicy dishes taste better while in contrast a synergistic wine partner embellishes the flavors and textures of the dish.

Wines featuring generous ripe fruit flavors diminish sensations of heat in the mouth while accentuating original flavors and refreshing the palate. Temperature also plays a role. White wines should be well-chilled and reds slightly chilled. Lower temperatures sooth the palate while also mitigating sensations of alcohol that can accentuate spicy sensations. Here are a few classic Thai dishes that beg for wine partners.

Kaeng Phet is a spicy red coconut curry dish replete with chilies. This central Thailand dish has a variety of ingredients but perhaps the most prevalent rendition is a mixture of shrimp, clams and other seafood served with steamed jasmine white rice. The aromatic rice helps offset the spiciness of the dish while adding a pleasing chewy texture. Best with a fresh and dry white wine, this dish also works quite well with acidic reds like young Chianti wines.

One of my favorite Thai dishes is Pla Sam Rot — a three-flavor fish. The fish is deep-fried and served in a tangy-spicy tamarind chili sauce. Dry whites and reds with solid acidic backbones accentuate the rich flavors of the sauce while also highlighting the freshness of the fish and cleansing the palate.

If Thailand has a national dish then it must be Pad Thai. Deceptively simple comprising rice noodles, preserved radish, egg, bean sprouts, peanuts, dried chilies and a few other ingredients, the dish offers a delicate balance between salty, sour, sweet and spicy flavors. I often enjoy this dish with a northern Thai grilled pork sausage, Sai Ua. The savory rice noodle and sausage combination works beautifully with a fruity red wine with soft tannins.

Malbec

In the past, I’ve introduced a selection of white wines that pair nicely with Thai cooking but in this week’s column I shift gears and present a red from Argentina that’s also a champion companion to spicy Thai dishes.

Over the past few decades, red wines from Argentina have become some of the world’s most affordable high-quality red wines. Leading this rise in popularity is Malbec, a red variety known for making broodingly dark colored wines with rich fruity aromas and concentrated black fruit and chocolate flavors that are often energized by notes of spice.

Ampelographers postulate that Malbec vines originated in Northern Burgundy many centuries ago. Used in blends to provide color and fruitiness, the grape thrived in Bordeaux and other regions of France until a severe frost in 1956 wiped out most of the vines. French winemakers replanted Malbec vineyards with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and varieties that were more resilient to frost and other climatic extremes. Today in France, only the Calors wine region in the southwest of France still has extensive plantings of the grape. Fortunately the variety has found a new home in Argentina.

Malbec vines were first planted in Argentina in the mid-19th century. For most of their history, they were used to produce cheap, diluted wines only suitable for domestic consumption. Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, pioneers like Nicolas Catena started making lower yield, higher-quality Malbec wines in high altitude vineyards.

The best of these wines came from Mendoza, an elevated plateau bordering the Andes Mountains.

Elevated vineyards up to 1,700 meters boast an ideal climatic combination of abundant daytime sunshine to ripen grapes and cool evenings to lengthen the growing season. These elevated terriors result in wines of greater complexity and elegance.

The altitude also softens the natural strong tannins in Malbec wines.

There’s a growing cadre of Argentinean producers with fine Malbec wines available in Shanghai.

My favorites include Malbec specialists, Bodegas Sottano, Vistaba and Inca. All three produce Malbec wines ranging from pleasant inexpensive wines suitable for daily drinking to super premium for special occasions. Other eminent Mendoza Malbec producers include Argento, Sottano, Perdriel and the Moet-Hennessy owned Terrazas. Drink any of these Argentinian reds and the stimulating fire of Thai chilis and other exotic spices will magically and deliciously dissipate in your palate bequeathing pleasing notes of harmony.




 

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