My first bite of kimchi was when I was barely two. For fun, many Korean parents place a spicy fermented piece of cabbage on their toddler’s plate to see how early the child can take the chili, garlic and salty, fermented flavors which are the trademarks of Korean food.
According to my mother, I reached for water immediately after eating a bite of kimchi but then promptly asked for another piece. She knew I was addicted to chili and spices when at five years old, I downed an entire bowl of very spicy cold buckwheat noodles with tears dribbling down my cheeks and nose running the entire time. Despite my tongue being on fire and the constant stream of uncontrollable tears, my palate loved the burn and I kept on eating.
Flash-forward a few decades later when wine enters my life on a regular basis: How do chili, garlic and fermented flavors marry with wine? It’s a tumultuous rapport but like any good relationship, one that can work when there is a certain level of respect and love involved. I love wine too much to have any food overwhelm its flavors and I love Korean food too much to change its inherent flavors just to pair with wine.
The challenge is that food and wine pairing in an Asian context is never about one confined set of food flavors and tastes paired with wine’s flavors. Our meals are communal and each bite is different from the last.
A plated meal on the other hand, is a repetition of flavors, for example, meat, potatoes and vegetables repeated again and again throughout the entire meal. It’s easy to suggest wines that can pair well with these limited, repetitive flavors. A rice bowl meal consists of different combination of flavors brought together by the roaming chopsticks that reach for rice and fish in one bite while in the next, it might be rice and chicken, rice and beef or rice and vegetables. Once you throw in condiments like chili sauce, soy sauce, XO sauce or fish sauce, it poses further challenges to wine.
Korean food is especially tricky because there are an enormous variety of flavors at the table. A typical Korean meal in my home sees the entire table covered with small side dishes (banchan) that always includes at least one type of kimchi. In this setting, versatile wines with refreshing acidity work best as an all-around complementary wine.
Don’t expect one wine to go with all the dishes but choose a refreshing, light to medium bodied red or white with lively bold flavors that echo Korean food’s boldness. Think Albarino, Pinot Grigio, Gruner Veltliner, Sangiovese, Grenache or Barbera. The heavy-handed use of spices require a refreshing element in the wine and the wide range in textures and ingredients mean that versatile wines like Sauvignon Blanc or New Zealand Pinot Noir, rose from the Rhone Valley or Provence work very well. For Korean barbecue lovers, try New World Merlot, Australian Grenache, Shiraz (Syrah) and Mourvèdre blend or a Pomerol – a stunning combination!
Sweet wines and intensely aromatic varieties such as Muscat and Gewurztraminer are not recommended with typical Korean meals: Sweetness is not a common, obvious flavor on our dining table and added sweetness detracts from the integrity of the savory dishes. Intensely aromatic wines can introduce an unwanted sweet or excessively fruity aspect to a meal laden with pungent, earthy and spicy flavors. Enjoying Korean food with wine can be a minefield but there are plenty of options to enable wine to be a daily part of a chili-lover’s diet.
Image credit: Korean Food Gallery