The Globetrotting Gourmet
The Globetrotting Gourmet
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By Robert Carmack
written for:
Tourism Authority of Thailand

review: 2012
Wine and Thai food — few combinations are as fraught in the East-meets-West culinary world. While Thailand's unique combination of salty, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter has made its cooking universally popular, these same zesty contrasts can render wine pairings either delicious or jarring. thai set meal
Typical Thai dishes have strong tastes and powerful flavours derived from spices and ingredients such as lemongrass, chilli, ginger, kaffir lime, garlic, palm sugar and fish sauce. But with so many contrasting flavours, textures and aromas served simultaneously, there’s no chance that any one wine will suit every offering.
Wine and Thai food — few combinations are as fraught in the East-meets-West culinary world. While Thailand's unique combination of salty, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter has made its cooking universally popular, these same zesty contrasts can render wine pairings either delicious or jarring.
Typical Thai dishes have strong tastes and powerful flavours derived from spices and ingredients such as lemongrass, chilli, ginger, kaffir lime, garlic, palm sugar and fish sauce. But with so many contrasting flavours, textures and aromas served simultaneously, there’s no chance that any one wine will suit every offering.
“The biggest problem we have is finding a wine diverse enough to go with a diverse Thai meal. At best, you can have a de facto relationship rather than a marriage. I call it living in sin,” says chef David Thompson of nahm at the Metropolitan hotel.
Surprisingly, the consensus from Thai experts is that chilli is not the most contentious ingredient. Rather, it’s the herbaceous seasonings and sugar combinations, tinged with lime and coconut, that play havoc with wine pairing.
“You can live with chillies in a meal paired with wine, but it doesn’t have the same detrimental impact on the palate as sugar and citrus. Chilli doesn’t actually destroy the wine,” states Thompson.
Ironically, sweetness in wine is another story all together, actually harmonizing with many Thai dishes. Sugar has long been recognised as a foil to chilli spice, so traditional pairing that solely sticks white wine with Asian cuisine is blinkered thinking. White wines with residual sugar, such as spicy gewürztraminer, riesling, and off-dry to sweet German and Austrian wines were the established norms.
But nowadays, more red wines are coming to the fore, preferably light and slightly fruit-driven.
“I think that a lot of Asians will go for reds because it’s a lot more prestigious,” says Australian film director Les Luxford, who moonlights as a restaurant reviewer. Just witness the ordering in any Thai restaurant overseas, and observe that red wine wins hands down at Thai-patronised tables.
So, how best to eat a Thai meal with complimentary wines? One adventurous example is at Sra Bua at Bangkok’s Siam Kempinski Hotel. Like nahm at The Metropolitan, its prototype comes from a Michelin-starred European restaurant, Kiin Kiin in Denmark. But that’s the only similarity. While nahm strives for traditional authentic cooking sourced from age-old recipe manuscripts, at Kiin Kiin and Sra Bua, chefs embrace the molecular gastronomy movement pioneered by Ferran Adrià of el Bulli in Spain. Basically, it is playing with the components of cooking to deliver them in unexpected forms: Deconstructing foods to their basic flavours, then reconstructing them into foam, mousse and trompe l’oeil. The result is a sensory experience of sight, sound, taste and smell.
For example, a dish of kaeng khieow waan (green curry) is served here in a flower pot transmogrified into a cool creamy mousse topped with palm-sugar crumble resembling dirt. A single carrot, leaves and all, sprouts from the middle of the dish, reminding us of its food origin. Likewise, kaeng phed (red duck curry) comes as a savoury ice cream topped with a lychee foam, garnished with poached lobster. Playfully, an initial course is accompanied by a dome filled with roasting coconut husk and five-spice smoke, to enhance the olfactory element by recreating some of Thailand’s market aromas.
But what wine to accompany such a challenging culinary tour de force? Here, the trick is to pair wine with essential Thai flavours, first and foremost. But making that task relatively easy is Sra Bua’s progression of courses, each served and consumed individually, matching five glasses of wine against the same number of dishes. Appetizers are not paired, but a Thai late harvest chenin blanc from Monsoon Valley in Hua Hin accompanies myriad desserts. Alternatively, the restaurant offers a teetotal pairing menu of fresh fruit juices.
It is the taste of the dish, not the actual meat that decides a good pairing. In Thai cooking, protein has little of the importance afforded it in Western cuisine. The usual rules of white with fish, red with meat don’t apply. Sofitel Centara Grand’s F&B chief Wuthisak Pichayagan agrees: “Food with high protein would suggest red wine with full body. However, powerful and rich-flavoured dishes would suggest wine with a light body and sweeter taste.”
Bo Songvisava and partner Dylan Jones of restaurant Bo.lan contest this theory. They say that the type of meat protein does influence the choice, but only because the resulting Thai sauce or curry paste will be seasoned differently.
For example, a green fish curry has more of the rhizome known as krachai, but less coriander seed and no cumin. Conversely, cumin and shallots are both added to its beef version, but herbaceous krachai omitted. Likewise, in chicken green curry only sweet basil is added, not holy basil.
Don’t expect a single wine to work with every Thai dish. Thai food is a lot more spicy in general, and the spices themselves more complex. This makes pairing more difficult, but not insurmountable.
The key to matching any food, let alone Thai, is finding balance and harmony between the dish and the wines. Always avoid wines that clash with or overpower the food.
Spicy hot food has to go with a spicy white or peppery red wine. Such widely held perceptions are inaccurate.
Generally speaking, for whites, a slight sweetness is a nice balancing note to hot spices. With reds, the primary thing is to avoid strong tannins, which accentuate the burn from spices even more than high alcohol.
Avoid tannic reds, oaky chardonnay, and wood-aged wines.
Choose acidic wines. Acid softens the powerful flavour tastes of spices in curries — from salty to sweet to hot -- and counters the oiliness of coconut. This applies to both whites, such as Loire wines like sauvignon blanc, and red sancerre (sancerre rouge).
Conversely, sweetness complements more Thai dishes than dryness. Whether customers wish to drink cloying sweet or off-dry wine over an entire meal is another matter.
Both white and red suit individual Thai dishes, but residual sugar in white is a good foil to most. “I think it’s only an established rule where you want to counter the heat of chillies,” explains Ray Isle, wine editor of Food & Wine magazine (US). “Also, I’d say off dry (ie lightly sweet) rather than actually sweet, and aromatic whites. You also want good acidity, because that ameliorates the sweetness of the wine and also plays well with the food.”
The sommelier at nahm, Manop Yegit steers toward rieslings, but first asks customers if they prefer an austere or sweet wine. Both are suitable. His chef goes further, describing off-dry or slightly sweet German rieslings “as the new century’s equivalent of beer with Thai food.” Others contend off-dry mosel is equally versatile in a diverse meal. Contemporary palates may disagree, however, and dry sales continue to outstrip sweet wines.
White is safest, as it flatters Thai food flavours, concurs Sra Bua sommelier Surapol Saengjanda, remarking on the complementary hints of lychee and rose in many a riesling and gewürztraminer. Meanwhile Malcolm Omond, F&B director at The Four Seasons — host to Bangkok’s annual World Gourmet Summit — lauds New Zealand’s Mount Nelson Sauvignon Blanc by Lodovico Antinori. “The robust, dry finish with perfect fruit balance makes this a great wine to pair with sweet and sour Thai dishes.” These include laab, a hot minced meat salad; Chiang Mai sausage; and som tam, a fiery green papaya salad. Stephen Spurrier in describes the wine thus: “All the habitual sauvignon aggressiveness has been eliminated, retaining a crisp, floral elegance.”
Riesling, pinot grigio/gris, gewürztraminer, viognier, sylvaner, sauvignon blanc, frescati superiore and mosel
Light and fresh pinot noir, both from Burgundy and the New World, is regarded by many as the most versatile red to accompany Thai food. Other grape types include young gamay and grenache. The velvety softness of un-wooded merlot can also provide unexpected successes.
Conversely, avoid big, full-bodied shiraz/syrah, the grape famous in France’s Côtes du Rhône, as it fights with chilli, coconut and lime juice.
Likewise, steer away from both Australian Coonawarra and French Bordeaux reds, as they are likely to be heavily oaked and tannic.
By contrast, older tannic wines are the exceptions that prove the rule. Bottle-aged shiraz is much kinder to Thai food than a new vintage.
Too often wine aficionados go overboard with dogmatic rules for red wines and Asian foods. The no-tannin rule clearly conflicts with, say, the Chinese marriage of food with tannic tea. Similarly, tannic pea eggplant (makuea puang) cuts the heat and spice of a spicy curry, making it taste sweeter,” writes Chef McDang (aka ML Sirichalerm Svasti) in his definitive tome The Principles of Thai Cooking.
As curry with acidic wine goes well, nahm’s sommelier, Manop, gives New Zealand pinot noir from Martinborough his preference.
Director Luxford recommends red Italian sangiovese: “Full of depth, and strong enough to stand up, but not so strong as to fight with the flavours.”
Pinot noir, gamay, grenache, mouvedre, alicante, merlot, sangiovese
Old world European authorities regularly contend sparkling wine suits Thai food best, yet drinking it across a meal is a minority taste. From champagne, to prosecco to spumante, sparkling wines foil chilli, and as demi sec, complement many a curry or yam (salad).
Chef Thompson recalls a tasting he conducted for Dom Perignon, pairing a 1976 vintage champagne with nam prik kapi — chilli dip made of pungent shrimp paste. “The effervescence seems to lift the food.” Likewise, he’s intrigued by chilled sparkling shiraz, an Australian favourite, suggesting a marriage with Thai-Chinese sweet pork belly stew, pha-lo, or even a duck red curry.
Tom yam kung
Hot and spicy prawn soup
Rosé, riesling
Kaeng phed ped yang
Red roasted duck curry
Pinot noir, pinot grigio/gris, rosé
Phad Thai
Thai fried noodles
Pinot noir
Kaeng khieow waan kai
Green chicken curry
Pinot noir, red sancerre, beaujolais
Kaeng khieow waan kai
Green chicken curry
Alsatian pinot gris, mosel
Tom kha kai
Chicken galangal soup
Rosé, dry riesling
Yam nuea
Beef salad
Pinor noir, gamay, grenache, aged rioja, riesling, semillon-sauvignon blanc blend, gewürztraminer, sancerre, unwooded semillon
Satay nuea/kai/moo
Beef, chicken or pork satay
Alsatian gewürztraminer, un-wooded chardonnay
Kai pad mamuang hinmaphan
Chicken fried with cashews
Pinot noir, riesling
Panaeng nuea
Beef with Thai Panaeng curry sauce
Pinot noir, riesling
Yam som-o/mamuang
Salad with fresh pomello or raw mango
Champagne, moscatto
Miang kham bai cha plu
Appetizer of piper leaf wrapped around myriad rhizomes, peanuts, chilli and sweetmeats:
Sauternes, champagne
Thai desserts: Ice wine, botrytis riesling, late harvest chenin blanc
The author and News Room would like to thank the following persons for their assistance:
  David Thompson, chef; Manop Yegit, sommelier, nahm restaurant, London & Bangkok
  Pavita Sae-chao, chef de cuisine; Surapol Saengjanda, sommelier, Sra Bua restaurant at Siam Kempinski, Thailand
  Bo Songvisava & Dylan Jones, chef/owners, Bo.lan restaurant, Thailand
  Malcolm Omond, F&B director, Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok, Thailand
  Wuthisak Pichayagan, F&B director, Sofitel Centara Grand hotel, Thailand
  Prayut Piangunta, winery manager & wine maker; Joolpeera Saitrakul, assistant winery manager & wine maker, PB Valley, Khaoyai Winery, Thailand
  Visooth Lohitnavy, president emeritus, Thai Wine Association; chairman Granmonte winery, Thailand
  Remi Faubel, F&B director, Novotel Suvarnabhumi hotel, Thailand
  Ray Isle, wine editor, Food & Wine magazine, USA
  Stuart Halliday, Tetsuya’s restaurant, Sydney Australia
  Les Luxford, film director and restaurant reviewer for Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide
  Didier Corlou, maitre cuisinier de France; Valentin Waldman, sales & marketing manager, Verticale restaurant, Hanoi, Vietnam
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Robert Carmack
A highly sought-after television and stills food stylist, Robert Carmack divides his time between Australia, Thailand, and the United States. Known professionally as The Globetrotting Gourmet, he writes widely on food and travel for magazines around the world, and is author of several Asian cookbooks, all translated into international editions. Several times yearly, Robert hosts gastronomic tours to Asia through his company
review: 2004
Thai Food: What wine to drink?
Wine with Asian food is always a controversial subject -- at least to Westerners. While a cool, quenching beer works best with the hot spice of chili and the citrus zing of lemongrass and fresh lime, wine also has a role to play in such a marriage of flavors.
I recently spoke about Thai foods and wine with Jim Brayne, chief winemaker at the Australian vineyards of McWilliams. He chose some intriguing possibilities:
2001 McWilliams Regional Collection.
Margaret River Semillon Sauvignon Blanc
2001 McWilliam's Regional Collection
Clare Valley Riesling
2000 Mount Pleasant
Hunter Valley Verdelho
2000 Mount Pleasant
Hunter Valley Merlot
While all but one of these wines are white, the idea that red wine goes with Asian food is far from far fetched. Just witness the ordering in any Asian restaurant amongst the Asians themselves, and you will be surprised to see that red wine wins hands down. (Admittedly, Johnnie Walker scotch still bests all, but...) It seems the conservative Westerners are the only hold outs in the white wine brigade. Moreover, gone are the days when white wine with Asian foods had to be sweet. Fruity, yes -- and an absence of wood definitely. But sweet, no way.
One of my favorite white blends these days is semillon-sauvignon blanc, and Brayne's McWilliam's offering proved a hit with the fiery tastes of Thai appetizers: fish cakes with sweet chili relish, gai yang grilled chicken, green beans in red curry, beef satay, and various dipping sauces. The verdehlo less so, while the Clare Valley riesling, as with so many of delicious rieslings from this part of the world, rose to the challenge.
The velvety softness of merlot was an unexpected success, as well. Too often wine aficionados go overboard in their rules for red wines with Asian foods. No tannin as in shiraz/syrah/hermitage, caution some, yet this rule clearly conflicts with the Chinese marriage of food with tannic tea. One Hanoi-based French chef cautioned me against Spanish rioja with Vietnamese cooking, then immediately suggested a hearty Cotes du Rhone (a tannic syrah) as his preferred choice. The moneyed will choose a fine cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, while lesser mortals will find solace in an inexpensive grenache.
LONELY PLANET: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos & Greater Mekong Travel Guide
Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne wrote the Food & Drink chapter (p69-81). They organise and host gastronomic tours through their website Their quest: learn about a country’s culture through its foods and get out of the hotel/tourist restaurant trap! Robert is author of Thai Cooking and Vietnamese Cooking. Morrison is a textile authority, specialising in Asian weaving techniques as well as classical French tassels, and co-edits a quarterly food and travel column for website the Globetrotting Gourmet (
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