The thing about wine and Indian food is that a lot of people think it can’t be done. But when you ask them why they think so, they seldom have an answer or, if they do, they blame spices. They have heard somewhere that it can’t be done and have thus formed an opinion. To be completely fair, you can’t really blame them. Wine as a lifestyle choice has started gaining popularity in India only over the last decade. It is not something we have grown up with or had with us for hundreds of years like some other wine-consuming nations.
But the situation is changing and changing rapidly. For one, we Indians are taking to wine in a big way. We are getting wine-savvy, we go for wine events and we watch shows on television streaming food cultures from around the world where wine is as integral to food as salt.
We travel more than ever and are getting more exposed to different kinds of food and drinks. Restaurants and hotel chains are putting an increased focus on their wine program, and wine-friendly modern retail chains are emerging across the country. There is no doubt, wine is here to stay in India, but what are we drinking it with?
It is quite simple really – we’re Indians and we are always going to be eating Indian food. We are going to be drinking wine in more and more quantities and in my opinion it would be criminal not to bring together one of the worlds greatest cuisines and wine. Take a cue from the Chinese – they have quickly become one of the biggest wine-consuming nations on earth. Surely they must be enjoying it with their Peking Duck!
To begin with, we cannot generalize Indian food. Our food has a vast array of flavours and ingredients. The cuisine in the north of India is very different from the cuisine in the south, and the west from the east. With so many flavours to choose from and an unbelievable range of wines produced internationally and in India, something has got to work. The issue to me is that we know our Indian food but we are not too confident about wine styles.
The world over, wine is enjoyed with food and there is no reason why this should not happen here in India. It enhances any dining experience, is a much better way to consume alcohol and is healthier as well. A lot of us drink our drinks and then settle down for dinner. A few reasons for this maybe as simple as culture or perhaps because we generally drink spirit and may not necessary want to have it with food.
Let’s move away from the past for a second and look to the future and see what’s in store. Indian wine is getting better and better year on year. We have a host of wines that deserve to be enjoyed and they offer great value when compared to their imported counterparts. The biggest boost the Indian wine industry could possibly get is when the Indian consumer is ready to eat his dal makhanwala with his Nasik-made Shiraz.
Let us take this further and get into more specifics. How about paneer tikka with an oaked Chardonnay or your chicken tikka with a full bodied Merlot! Prawn curry with a limey Riesling is divine, and have you ever tried dahi (curd) rice with a cold Pinot Grigio? What about a South Indian favourite like Erachi ularthiyathu with a Gewurztraminer, or delicious biryani with a slightly sweet chilled Rose? A hot steaming momo with a Sauvignon Blanc sounds brilliant too. And lastly, Indian dessert like a Rasmalai with an India-made Late Harvest Chenin Blanc is terrific!
This isn’t even scratching the surface. There are many more examples and a whole lot of pairings that we have not even thought of yet. One very important thing to be mindful of, however, is spice. In order to make this work for universal liking, the spice levels in Indian food have to be kept really low. Having said that, some amount of spice could actually be nicely balanced with an off dry white wine like a Chenin Blanc, for example, or even a fruity Rose.
Red wine with a lot of tannin can accelerate the spice levels and make things really hot. For me personally, sometimes I like it and sometimes if I haven’t got the balance right, it becomes too much, but I’m not the one to tolerate spice anyway. The thing is, it can be done.
Restaurants serving Indian food are actually sitting on a gold mine of opportunity. If they are able to create a wine list that goes well with their food, train and enable their wait staff to offer suggestions and handle guest queries confidently, and create the right infrastructure for serving and storing wine, there is no limit to what they can achieve.
Training is extremely important to get this right. Without proper training it will take very long and, more importantly, it will create a lack of confidence in guests or consumers who are perhaps already unwilling to give this a shot.
Perhaps you could list in your wine list alongside every dish what wine could go along with it. That could be very helpful and offers guests an avenue to explore which wine to order without having to ask his server.
I am also a big believer in offering tasting pours. Encourage your staff to offer a tasting portion to someone of a wine that he believes goes along with the dish being ordered. If it is a good suggestion, chances are the guest will like it and if not this time, the next time he will order it. Everybody wins. The restaurant generates more revenue, the staff gets a higher tip as percentage of amount spent and, most importantly, the guest has been given a new combination of flavours that will continue to delight him. That is why he came to the restaurant in the first place, isn’t it?
Let us go further. Perhaps the restaurant could hold monthly events such as wine dinners showcasing signature dishes paired with different wines. Be mindful of the wines chosen on the list so that they meet everyone’s liking and offer a wide array of styles and flavours.
About the Author
Nikhil Agarwal, sommelier and Director of All Things Nice, is a consultant with restaurants, helping them put together alcohol menus and advising about the alcobev and food pairings.