The Principles of Matching Thai Food and Wine

The world’s love affair with Thai cuisine happened decades ago and ever since, the popularity has not waned. Even farangs (foreigners) has been getting on a the act with Michelin stars for both David Thompson Nahm in London, UK and Henrik Yde-Andersen at Kiin Kiin in Copenhagen, Denmark. Although considered as a single cuisine, Thai food is better described as four regional cuisines corresponding to the four main regions of the country. The Northern region is mountainous and has a cool climate, North-eastern (or Isan) is a vast plateau and flanked by the Mekong River, Central region is a large area with rich soils and dominated by the Chao Phraya River and the Southern region with the Gulf of Thailand on one side and the Andaman Sea on the other. Each of these cuisine share quite similar foods from those of its neighbours, Yunnan province in China and Laos in the north, Myanmar to the northwest, Cambodia and Vietnam to the east and Malaysia to the south of Thailand.

Thai food is known for its balance of three to four different sense of taste in each single dish and also for the whole meal. The order of preference usually follows in this order, sour, sweet, spicy and then salty. Thai dishes usually have a strong taste with powerful flavours from lots of herbs, spices and other ingredients which include lemongrass, chilli, garlic, ginger, kaffir lime, basil, mint, coriander and the pungent Nam Pla (fish sauce). Not one single wine will work with every Thai dish due to the many contrasting flavours, textures and fragrance.

If we follow the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) basic principles of matching food and wine then we are on the right track. WSET mentions that a lot of acidity in food will make the wine taste fruitier and sweeter but less acidic. Sweetness in food will make the wine taste bitter and less sweet unless it is sweeter than the food. Salt makes wine tastes fruiter and richer while umami, often referred to as savouriness will make wine tastes more bitter, drying and less fruity. Chilli heat can make wines appear less sweet and red wines bitter and drying. Other factors include flavour intensity, with the food match the weight and intensity of the wine and the method of cooking of the main ingredient but also the sauce and condiments, must be taken into consideration.

Champagne or other sparkling wines, with its bubbles can cleanse and refresh the palate as the acidity can often softens the powerful taste of the spices. Some sugar residue in wines will work with many spicy Thai dishes, acting as a foil to chilli. White wines such as a spicy Gewürztraminer like Hugel & Fils or a Dr Loosen Riesling would go well but drinking this type of wines throughout the meal is another matter. Acidity alone in wines like the Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, Soalheiro from Vinha Verde or a crisp South African Chenin Blanc from Ken Forrester which I recently tried at David Thompson Nahm in Bangkok works well.

For reds, it’s a little bit more difficult as the strong tannins and wood-aged wines do not generally work with spicy food but the times that I have tried a Pinot Noir from both Burgundy and the New World, It has been successful. Some recent successes have been Nicolas Potel and Fourrier from Burgundy but I am sure any good Grand Cru Burgundy will do. From the New World, New Zealand’s Schubert Block B which I tasted at Saffron, Banyan Tree Macau and Felton Road at Bo Lan in Bangkok are fine examples of fruity but elegant New World Pinot Noir’s at its best. Other red grape variety which may work would include Grenache, old vines preferably and Gamay from Beaujolais.

The most important thing is the absolute enjoyment in trying to find the right match and experimentation is the key but when you do find the right pairing, you be hooked.

Editor’s note: To get you started, why not try this Prawn Salad with Grated Coconut, Lemongrass and Lime recipe from Chef David Thompson

Thai prawn salad

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