Finding the Right Match

The right combination of the food and drink can give you that ethereal feel. That is the reason why one must take a few moments to think about which drink will go with the food that is being consumed and vice versa.

If you like food it makes sense to improve it with your drinks. Flavours in solid form and liquid form come together to create a miraculous third set of delicious flavours which you wouldn’t have been able to taste if you had not tried them together. The pairing choice has to be a combination of contrasting and mirroring to bring about that blissful and divine feeling of contentment. Ashok Malkani explores what constitutes the appropriate combination of food and drinks in the realm of alcoholic beverages – not only in the case of wines but also for other alcoholic drinks, including cocktails.   

Is pairing of food and drink a snobby affair? There are people who look on the concept of food and drink pairing with disdain but a perfect combination of the two can be a heavenly experience. The perfect marriage of food and alcoholic beverages can enhance a dining experience and the wrong drink can spoil the enjoyment of the meal.

Melkohn Khosrovian and his wife Litty Mathew, of Modern Spirits and Tru Organic Spirits, in New Orleans, built their spirit lines around pairings and actually began creating alcohol to take to dinner parties with friends and family.  If a pairing scheme that is more subtle is what you are looking for, Khosrovian suggests mixing up beer, wine, and cocktails on the menu.

Across the globe, pairing of different types of wines is normally done with appropriate food. The common concept is red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat. But there is more to pairing different types of wine with food than this.  Food and wine pairing in today’s food services industry is much more complicated than pairing red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat.

Pairing Wines with Food

Sudhir Pai, Executive Chef of Holiday Inn Mumbai International Airport said, “Wines are paired with food to enhance the dining experience for guests.” “The turning point for wine and food pairing, as we know it today, can perhaps be traced back to the 1980s. Food magazines, reviewers, bloggers, Chefs and restaurants started suggesting wines that went with their signature dishes,” Pai elaborated.  

 “Food and wine are often paired in order to enhance the dining experience for guests. Wine has had a long history of being a fundamental feature at the dinner table. Over the years, the wine making and culinary traditions of various regions have evolved together,” averred Gaurav Magoo, F&B Director, Novotel Imagica Khopoli.

“For example, French Brie pairs best with the local tannic wine Beaujolais. Or lamb, a staple meat across Europe, is ideal with red wines from Bordeaux, Greece, Provence, and Rhone,” Pai proffered.

“Most gourmands and wine sommeliers believe that the most basic element of food and wine pairing is understanding the balance between the ‘weight’ of the food and the wine. Where heavy, robust wines like Cabernet Sauvignon can overwhelm a light and delicate dish, a light-bodied wine like Pinot Grigio overwhelms a hearty stew. Beyond weight, flavours and textures can either be contrasted or complemented,” pointed out Magoo. He also stated that “At Novotel Imagica Khopoli, we believe in creating and enhancing guests’ dining experience through perfect pairing of food and wine.”

Peter Sethi, Beverage Manager, Sofitel Mumbai BKC, stated that one has to be aware of the fact that every bottle of wine has a different characteristic. These may range from the place of origin, the type of grape, to the blend of the wine. The thumb rule for the same states that white wine goes well with white meats and red wine goes well with red meats.

“As white wine does not have any tannin, so it goes well with light meats such as seafood and chicken, as this does not overpower the flavour of the food. On the other hand, red wines contain tannin, and when paired with proteins such as beef and lamb, they create a harmonious pairing,” explained Sethi. 

Chef Vinayak Patil of the newly launched Fish N Bait at Bandra BKC Mumbai stated that different white wines and red wines are paired with different food. “For example, Bouchard Aîné & Fils Bourgogne can be ideally paired with medium spicy, Pan Asian/Indian food, whereas DBR Lafite, Légende goes well with shell-fish like crabs and lobster, and Pampas goes well with oily fish and fried or baked fish with sauce or chicken. As far as red wines go, Maison Albert Bichot, Beaujolais Villages are excellent with fish dishes, crab & langoustine too; whereas Banrock Station works well with cheese salads as well as with pastas and bass or mid-weight fish dishes,” he elaborated.

“The process of pairing food dishes with wine has the purpose to enhance the dining experience. In recent years, the popularity and interest in food and wine pairings have increased and taken on new connotations. Balance is the key word when it comes to perfect food and wine matches; neither wine nor food should overpower each other. Ideally, the flavour of the wine should be slightly stronger than the matching flavour of the meal. With dedicated Chefs and wine sommeliers working together to get the best food & wine complements at the outlets, one can indulge in ideal food and wine combinations,” declared Venkat Rao, Food and Beverage Manager, Grand Mercure Bangalore.

 “Wine is an integral part of fine dining. The right wines can accentuate good flavours of a meal, bringing out certain taste and nuances. A good match enhances the characteristics of both the food and the wines. A few classic but fundamental matches such as sparkling wine paired with egg, oyster and cheese (light and salty), white wine with creamy sauce, buttery fish and pasta salad will surely enhance your dining experience,” expressed Yogesh Bhatt, Food and Beverage Manager, Grand Mercure Mysuru.

Food with Spirits

While pairing of wines with food is a common occurrence, this is not a rampant feature when one is consuming drinks like whisky, vodka, rum or gin. This is because there is an erroneous belief that any food goes with these drinks. However, culinary professionals believe that these drinks, including beer, have to be paired with appropriate food after deep thought in order to enjoy them thoroughly.

 “Every drink has a distinct character. The features for such specific character are the ingredients, methods of making, maturing, and storage which are specific and different for every beverage,” pointed out Magoo.

“Eventually, pairing of food with wine or with any hard liquor depends on an individual’s taste and the match one wants to enjoy. Wines can be perfectly paired with vegetables as well as fruits; however spirits are bit difficult to pair with food than wines as they are higher in alcohol content,” asserted Bhatt.

”Take for example, the case of gins. With the wide range of flavours in modern gins and tonics, it is easier than ever to fuse right food with the right gin. Some of the interesting food and gin combinations would include dishes similar to tapas, cured meats, and chili burgers,” Magoo stated.

He elaborated on this further. “In countries where people are deeply in love with vodka; such as countries like Russia and Poland, vodka  is generally coupled with dishes like caviar, smoked fish, German and Polish smoked sausages, and creamy or salty cheese with dill. Whisky pairs wonderfully with either Indian or Italian food. Some other dishes that go well with whisky are sushi, smoked salmon, lamb roganjosh, pecan pie, and Roquefort cheese. Rum forms a great combination with starters like tortilla, small skewers of chicken breast with aioli butter, and crusty bread with compound butter,” opined Magoo.

“Nowadays most of our guests are well-travelled with an understanding of the nuances of food and beverages, and thus it calls for more creativity at all levels including food and beverages pairing. Some of the most unconventional yet interesting food and beverage combinations include the right food coupled with the right beer. For example, a beer with some bitterness will nicely offset a sweet dish, or something salty will accentuate the taste of the beer,” conveyed Magoo. 

“Spirits are a bit more challenging to pair with food than wines, largely because of their relatively higher alcohol content. The flavour profiles and the sensation of ‘heat’ can overwhelm nuances in the food. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible. As we learn to start tasting spirits, we can find that they tend to have a lot of complexity of flavours, which means there is lot of opportunity to pair spirits with dishes,” declared Rao.

 “Many cultures have a tradition of drinking spirits with food. For example, the Greeks and Turks relish anise-scented ouzo and raki, mixed with water, which goes very well with an array of mezze such as olives, cured tuna, hummus and more. Hence one can say that what is true for wine is true for other spirits too,” averred Sethi.

“When talking about spirits like tequilas, Blanco tequila pairs well with guacamole, whereas a margarita goes well with ceviche or tacos. Light golden rum with lemon or a mojito made with Brazil’s cachaça goes really well with roast pork or a suckling pig. Whiskey with its unique characteristics can be a suitable substitute for Cabernet Sauvignon, and when taken neat, goes very well with a well-aged steak,” he elaborated further. 

“Caviar, smoked fish or herring go very well with vodka. On the other hand, smoky baby-back ribs or smoked brisket, with a glass of bourbon or a well-made Manhattan form a lethal combination,” asserted Sethi.

Pai stated, “Let me start with gin. This drink is made of myriad recipes; some juniper-heavy, some citrusy or herbal, some cask-aged. The clear spirit infused with juniper and an intricate layering of botanicals plays well against the briny sweetness of a classic shrimp cocktail, chilled seafood platter or grilled prawns.”

“On the other hand, whisky matches well with red meat. Further, light golden rum with squeezed lime gives a peculiar flavour if eaten with salted fat of roast pork and suckling pig. Separately, like the Russian way, vodka can be served with caviar, smoked fish and herring. The Russians drink shots of icy vodka with caviar and zazuski spreads,” Pai affirmed. 

 “Pairing of food and spirits choices can be an amalgamation of similar and varied elements to relish a holistic dining experience. To give an example, oysters with shots of tequila are a terrific setup. Also, there are regional drinks that infuse well with regional specialty food like feni from Goa,” disclosed Pai.

”Medium bodied single malt or Scotch premium and other rich whiskies aged in sherry or European oak cask go well with rich fruit cakes,” proffered Patil.

 “Vodka is now being used by several Chefs and food connoisseurs for cooking. It tastes great with caviar and smoked tomatoes. Cold cured smoked salmon, perhaps with a little spiciness, is a fascinating combination with gin & tonic. For that little bit of sharpness, use a smidgen of lemon juice on the fish / seafood,” Patil pointed out.

“At our restaurant, Fish & Bait, we have herb-scented lobster, which goes extremely well with tequila,” Patil informed.

 “Spirits like gin can be perfectly combined with tapas and cured meat. There are some more such combinations of food and drink pairing. For example, whisky goes down well with cheese, chocolate, grilled chicken as well as with smoked salmon; rum which has a little sweet after taste, matches well with banana cake and pumpkin pie; bourbon whiskey accompanied with pickled vegetables brings out the best flavours. Food delights like smoked fish, potato pancakes, crab cakes, cured meat trays, salad Olivier blend well with vodka,” disclosed Bhatt.

Dished with Cocktails

One needs to have a special knack for successful food and drink pairing and it can get complicated when we start working with cocktails because here the flavours are more complex. However, the experience of cocktails and food pairing can be a lot of fun and it may yield some fantastic results. Cocktails can be invented and tweaked to match perfectly with a dish.

“Pairing cocktails with food can be a fun filled creative exercise for bartenders because, unlike wine, a cocktail can be tweaked to suit a dish. For instance, martini goes well with Chinese food. Also, Gin Martini gels with a shrimp cocktail. The layers of gin's botanicals heighten the briny but not too intense flavours of the shrimp. Further, a Mojito made with Brazil's cachaça goes well with roast pork dishes,” opined Pai.

“Standard food combinations with cocktails are amalgamations like dry martini with sea bass, French martini with chocolate mousse, apple sour with steak, Dafne Martini with lemon pepper chicken breast and Lavender Lemonade Mojitos with goat cheese toasts with honey among others,” observed Bhatt.

 “It is not that much about preference, as much as it is about getting the association of flavours correct. A cocktail can complement a dish by either matching or contrasting its flavours. For example, people who indulge in barbeque, will often pair their smoky flavour steaks with a smoky woody flavour spirit.  Something really hot such as a spicy tuna roll will go well when paired with something like a cucumber-watermelon Mojito,” stated Sethi.

“Some other well-known food and cocktail pairings include cheese and a Nigori, nachos and a margarita, oysters and a martini, sushi and French 75,” opined Sethi.

According to a website focused on cocktail, a tequila and grapefruit-based cocktail is a refreshing addition to spicy Mexican dishes, just as bitter and citrus-driven Negroni is great for cutting through the tasty fats of cured meats and sharp cheeses. On the other hand, the spice contained in Bloody Mary is a great match for pairing with sashimi, while the classic mint julep is an absolute no brainer for enjoying alongside a slow-roasted lamb..

Summing Up

“The right drink can enhance the dining experience while the wrong drink can affect the enjoyment of a nice dish. There is a science behind food and beverage pairings that has to do with physiology, psychology, and sociology too. The beauty of a cocktail pairing is that you can match bold flavours with subtle food and vice versa,” pointed out Magoo.

 “It is also essential to pair cuisine with the spirit origin; for instance a tequila-based cocktail pairs well with any Mexican-inspired meal, and brandy with any French cuisine,” Magoo iterated.

Succinctly, we can see that while food and beverage pairings can be highly personal, some food lend themselves particularly well to some given drinks. Almost all connoisseurs of food are of the view that food and drink pairing is a scientific method of identifying which food and drink go well together. For attaining the perfect food and drink pairing perfect matching of flavours is required, which relies mainly on sensations of taste, touch and smell. On an average, only 20 percent of our flavour experience is due to taste and touch. Far more important in this regard is our sense of smell. Aromas are the key drivers of our flavour experience and therefore crucial for the synergy of food and drinks.

If you manage to perfectly complement the drinks to your food, your restaurant is likely to be the recipient of compliments on an enduring basis, which of course would reflect in impressive bottom lines for your restaurant.

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