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Top Pairs: Pairing Wines with Spicy Indian Cuisine


by Jessica Dukes with Will Blunt with photos by Shannon Sturgis Vol. 16 June 2011

An ice-cold bottle of Kingfisher Lager leaps into your head—because you’re familiar with the beer’s bready sweetness and punchy herbal hops, and because you’ve been asked, “what goes with both Madras curry and Rogan Josh?” In India, from the Kashmir to Kerala, proteins and vegetables typically cede center stage to sauces of varying density, curries, spice, and heat. And chilled malt and hops have long been the antidote to piquant aggression. But for the thinking person’s beverage director or sommelier, India’s kaleidoscope of spice combinations and variable heat spectrum begs for something more than a simple thirst-quencher.

The dryness and low alcohol content of a cold brew may be adept at soothing palates set ablaze by spice, but Master Sommelier and lecturer Scott Carney of Junoon in New York City wants to introduce guests to the illimitable nuances of wine and their power when paired with Indian food. With wine, he hopes “to give the food and its complexity more respect. Beer is the default beverage setting [for Indian cuisine.] But I think the food here warrants something more than that.”

  • Sommelier Scott Carney
  • Long before Scott Carney came on as beverage director of Junoon, he was an integral player in the New York City wine scene, earning his Master Sommelier title while directing the beverage program at Gotham Bar & Grill. Since Junoon's opening in December 2010, Carney has built the restaurant's wine list from scratch, assembling 250 labels to accompany Chef Vika Khanna’s cuisine. Carney's pairings harmonize wine with the complexities of Indian spices and sauces, and complement the wide array of cooking techniques found in Indian gastronomy. He has found that, unlike beer, wines can either amplify the heat in a dish or soothe the palate suffering from too much spice. Carney is inspired by the “excitement of sensory travel,” and invites diners “to pack curiosity and explore the sub-continent” through the interplay between its cuisine and the fruit of the vine.
Wine 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Tablas Creek Dish Monkfish Tikka Tandoor: Hung Yogurt, Serrano Chilies, and Mustard Seed Puree Pairing Note Chef Vikas Khanna’s tandoor clay oven produces tender, meaty, monkfish with a deep, roasted flavor. The aromatic, creamy, and spicy sauce envelops the table, whose guests, Carney hopes, will avoid guzzling beer by rote. Carney selects a 2008 Beaucastel Blanc, with a rounded body and low acidity to pair with the dish. Its elegant honeysuckle and lemon nose, with some tropical fruit, thyme, and tarragon notes, neutralize some of the dish’s more assertive flavors. The Serrano chilies inspired Carney, when he first began building the wine list in December 2010, to play with diners’ expectations about heat through complementary and contrastive pairings. With the Beaucastel, a creamy texture bordering on coconut oil coats the mouth, and sidesteps the pepper’s capsaicinoid scorch. “Chili peppers are hot, and the logic is that with heat like that, wine with a viscous quality will retard the influence of alcohol and spice.” And the wine’s cool, wet-stone finish keeps pace with the lingering, potent flavors of the sauce. + Click dish photo to enlarge Wine 2007 Grüner Veltliner Achleiten Prager Dish Nadru Kofte Handi: Kashmiri Lotus Root, Homemade Cheese, Red Bhutan Rice, Cashew Nuts, and Cardamom Pairing Note Khanna’s lotus root patties with potato and paneer cheese is a traditional and bold vegetarian dish from the Muslim-influenced northern Kashmiri region. And the accompanying nutty sauce of crushed almonds and cashews has a spicy bite, thanks to paprika. For the pairing, Carney considered differing goals for Eastern versus Western palates, and landed with both feet firmly in the Orient, where taste buds seek out extra heat. By wielding a wine with a higher level of acid, Carney succeeds in amplifying the flame—and the result is more eye-opening stimulation than wallop. This Veltliner from Austria is intense, with notes of guava and lime. It has a fistful of peppery spice, balance from a touch of sweetness and cream, and a staunch, enduring finish. Carney is proud of the complementary interplay between the wine and the dish. “Wines like the Grüner or a Sauvignon Blanc celebrate heat with their vibrant acidity. This is a famous old vineyard, with old vines. There is also a coolness to the wine because of its moderate alcohol; a dryness but a richness. It’s a very good combination.” + Click dish photo to enlarge Wine 2008 Gevrey Chambertin Vieilles Vignes Fourrier Dish Duck Tellicherry Peppercorn Handi: Tellicherry Peppercorns, Garlic, Curry Leaves, and Tamarind Pairing Note For a French twist on Indian flavors Khanna combines tart tamarind with intense, almost fruity Tellicherry peppercorns from the Malabar Coast, curry leaves, and unctuous duck. “Pinot Noir is a classic complement to game,” says Carney. “Duck is traditionally served with a little bit of fruit, either a sauce or compote. There are notes of earth [in the Gevrey]—it is a terroir wine in that regard—and the restraint and balance of a high-quality wine.” The young Burgundy bursts with aromatics: strawberry, cherry, underbrush, bristly pine, and peppery spice. On the tongue it’s bright, acidic, and full of fruit. Carney’s missive with the pairing was to demonstrate to the diner that, “wine is like another sauce, of sorts, meant to season the food, not dominate it, and add value in net terms to the dining experience.” + Click dish photo to enlarge Wine 2001 Côte Rôtie Patrick Jasmin Dish Lamb Shank Handi: Braised with Onion, Tomato, Yogurt, and Junoon Seven Spice Pairing Note Lamb braised for hours in a traditional Northern Indian sauce awakens the romantic in Carney. “I love the idea that the lamb was slow-roasted and that the wine was aged—this wine is 10 years old. It still has power, but it has a maturity, as well.” The softened, leathery Syrah partners well with the slow-roasted meat. Delicate, deep flavors and spice in the wine align gracefully with the depth of flavor in the dish. Carney believes that splitting hairs over peppercorns, cumin, and cardamom, while attempting to locate each ingredient’s flavonoid touch-point, is a foolhardy exercise in missing the point. “The idea of the perfect pairing is a bit precious.” Instead, he hopes to alert tables to the possibilities that wine and the food can offer each other, especially in the context of an ancient cuisine that historically lacks the Western tradition of wine—for the diner, it’s a passage to adventure, either by the glass or bottle.


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