At a recent Cantonese banquet-style dinner where friends decided to bring older bottles of Bordeaux, a retired Chinese banker seated next to me asked, “How do you drink wine when you are having soup?”
We were slurping a delicious, hot, doubled-boiled Cantonese chicken soup and in front of us was a flight of 1985 red Bordeaux. I had especially enjoyed the 1985 Chateau La Conseillante before the soup course with my char siu, honey roasted barbecue pork.
Truthfully, I replied, “I don’t. And I definitely would not drink any of these wines with this soup.” I looked at my clear, light, intensely flavorful soup and filled my spoon and blew on it before each sip to cool it down. The Cantonese, like the Koreans, love their soup piping hot. But with this lineup of glorious mature Bordeaux from the 1980s, I didn’t want my mouth getting burnt or my tongue to turn numb from the heat.
My neighbor continued his line of questioning. He asked, “Okay, if you could have any wines with this soup, what would it be? And when you are enjoying soup, do you take a sip of wine when the soup is still in your mouth or wait a few minutes until your tongue has cooled down?”
I thought about the question for a few moments. “When I am enjoying soup, I don’t often find myself reaching for my wine glass,” I replied. “It doesn’t mean wine cannot be paired with soups but the temperature of most soups, which is enjoyed very hot in most parts of Asia, does two things to your palate: It has a numbing affect so that your tongue temporarily loses some of its sensitivity depending on how hot the soup is, and it can have a heating affect on the wine depending on how soon you take a spoonful of soup in your mouth.”
Soup plays an important role in many Asian cuisines. To this day my father feels that a meal is incomplete without some type of hot nourishing broth on the table. No matter if the temperature outside is over 35 degrees celsius and there is a sheen of sweat across his forehead; when there is no soup to accompany a meal, the corners of my father’s lips droop, his voice is irritable and he eats without relish.
The classic double-boiled soup made of chicken and/or pork bones with Chinese herbs and sometimes seafood, is the nourishing sustenance of everyone young and old, regardless of outside temperature. Cantonese double boiled soups may consist of a number of mixed meats such as whole chicken and Hunan ham but their flavors, reduced slowly over many hours, are crystal clear. The texture is seamless and light, with all the components intricately woven together so that one can’t discern where the pork flavors end and the dried abalone flavors begin.
I grew up with a constant stream of different soups – my mother was the master of soup stock. Although her repertoire was mainly for Korean soups, she could make a mean dashi (Japanese soup stock) that would put some Japanese chefs to shame. She could quickly whip together a savory, umami-laden soup base using dried kelp, kombu, and thinly shaved dried fish called bonito – putting just the right proportion into the water. Or she would make a hybrid stock using Korean dried anchovies with kombu.
After each childbirth, I was housebound for a month and lived mainly on seaweed soup. I had a thermos that was kept next to my bedside and instead of water, I drank seaweed soup throughout the day. Soup still remains an integral part of my daily sustenance, a habit I picked up from my father. I never thought it clashed with the wines that graced the table because I found myself enjoying them separately, wine wedged in before and after the soup course but not together.
With a mouthful of soup, I don’t reach for my wine glass. The mere thought of most Asian soups and wine sloshing in my mouth together makes me cringe. But about five to ten minutes after the soup has coursed through my system, I enjoy taking a sip of full-bodied red wine which instantly warms up inside my mouth. Sometimes, when the tannins are tough – as with the 2010 Chateau Bouscaut that I opened recently, the heat and warm palate can be a bonus. Tannin perception is less sharp and the wine tastes rounder, more mellow.
To satisfy my dining companion who really wanted an answer to a wine he could mix together in his mouth with his Cantonese double boiled soup (I will choose to enjoy them sequentially), I replied, “ With Cantonese soup, try a dry crisp Fino sherry, a delicate Verdelho or a Tavel rosé.