Monday, March 5, 2012

There is no such thing as an "Asian palate"

Jeannie Cho Lee speaks to a table of sommeliers.
Jeannie Cho Lee is the author of the book and website "Asian Palate." So where do I get the notion that an Asian palate does not exist?

From her.

Lee was in San Francisco last week with Wines of Germany, trying to show us how well German Rieslings and Pinot Noirs go with the Westernized Japanese food at Ame.

The pairings were a no-brainer: Riesling goes with anything. Most interesting were Lee's observations that there are more differences between Asian diners than between Europeans -- with greater implications for wine than you'd expect.

Take Korean food. The intense spiciness and sourness of the tiny side dishes always leads me to think, first, no wine at all; maybe soju with acerola soda. But if I do have to pair wine with it, my instinct would be a sweet, low-alcohol white, like a German Riesling.

Lee lives in Hong Kong but is ethnically Korean, and her domineering father insisted on Korean food every day at home. She says Korean food has no sweetness at all, and "any kind of sugar is very jarring to our palate."

So when Ame chef Hiro Sone served Maine lobster in Thai coconut broth with a tiny bit of spice, I was one of many wine professionals there who preferred a Spätlese Riesling (a 2010 Selbach-Oster Mosel Graacher Domprobst). But Lee preferred an austere dry Riesling from the Rheingau and said if she were in Seoul, she would never pour a Spätlese.

"If I were in Bangkok right now, everyone would prefer the Spätlese," Lee said. "They're used to having fresh fruits in their main dishes. Their coconut curries often have some sweetness."

This was my second time dining in an event with Lee, and I can see why she's the most popular sommelier in the world with wineries these days. She is great at explaining why pan-Asian marketing campaigns simply won't work.

How many times have you seen someone recommend Gewurztraminer with Asian food? (whatever Asian food is: onion pakora? Toro sashimi?)

Lee spoke of Gewurztraminer with outright disdain.

"A Gewurztraminer overpowers everything in front of you," Lee said. She gave a hilarious example of why some Westerners cling to it as a pairing.

Lee recently had dinner in China with a British wine writer who was out of his comfort zone with the food. He particularly hated the idea of eating jellyfish. "So when he had a bite of jellyfish, he immediately reached for the most full-bodied, powerful wine on the table to eliminate any lingering flavor of jellyfish," she said. "I like jellyfish, so I want a wine that works with the flavor, that leaves some of it lingering. But if you don't appreciate the cuisine, you're looking for a wine to serve a different purpose."

She said the idea of drinking sweet wine with chile-laden dishes is foreign to Koreans because they like the lingering burn in the mouth. Personally I'm very Western in this area: I can't drink dry wines, particularly dry red wines, with very spicy food. But Koreans and Chinese who live in spicy-food regions can and do.

Lee says Chinese feel much more strongly about the texture of foods than Westerners. She points out that most very expensive seafood items in China -- shark fin, abalone, sea cucumber -- have very little flavor; they're all about the texture.

"If texture is so important to Chinese cuisine, should we not be thinking about texture in wine?" she asks. Good point.

That leads to her obsession with aged wines. I've had the privilege of drinking maybe a dozen red wines with her on two occasions, and she said each good one would go better with the food when it had more age on it, so the acidity would mellow and the mouthfeel would be more round. That was true of Napa Cabernet, and it was true of German Pinot Noir. Overripeness is no shortcut: when we had a young, low-acid Napa Cab last time, that didn't work for her because it was too flabby.

Lee also points out that the very idea of pairing wine with individual dishes is foreign to most of Asia, where several courses are laid out on the table at once. But that doesn't mean you should give up on finding the right wine; in fact, it simplifies the task.

"In a traditional Chinese meal, you have a bowl of rice and wandering chopsticks," Lee says. "You take a bit of this, a bite of that. You can't try to find a wine that goes perfectly with just one dish. But if you go for a wine with great acidity, it's really hard to go wrong."

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Todd - VT Wine Media said...

Had a very close Korean friend during college years, and I repeatedly enjoyed a sweet dried anchovy side-dish called Marun Panchan, and her kimbop rolls used a bit of sweet rice some sweet does show in the cuisine. Beer was usually the preferred pairing in either case.

That said, there is much to be said for exploring the texture of food, and the same can be said for wine...however, it is hard to support the consumption of shark fin, as there are some very bad and unsustainable practices enabling that dish.

Christian Miller said...

Lee also points out that the very idea of pairing wine with individual dishes is foreign to most of Asia, where several courses are laid out on the table at once...Lee says: "You take a bit of this, a bite of that. You can't try to find a wine that goes perfectly with just one dish."

If it's a larger table or banquet style, why not just have several different wines floating around, just like the dishes?

W. Blake Gray said...

Christian: That's how I often dine at home and what I suggest for everyone at Thanksgiving. The "everyone gets one glass of each wine" model works best for wine-tasting groups, but with dinner it's nice if everyone can drink what they like best.

Todd: In Korea people drink plenty sweetened teas, and there are ice cream shops. I think the truth may not be quite as absolute as she states it, but is worth knowing if you're trying to bring wine to dinner with Korean friends.

tastingkorea said...

There is sweetness in some Korean dishes like bulgogi, kalbi, etc., so it is not correct for her to say that there is none in the cuisine.