Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Food of the East meets wines from the West
China is a huge country made up of dozens of regions with their own sub-cultures, culinary traditions, ingredients, and dishes. Different groups prepare foods in different ways, depending on the location the region is in.
Much of the Chinese food we know here in the US is loosely based on the cooking methods and ingredients of Guangdong (Canton) province, with a number of additional dishes based on recipes from Hong Kong, Hunan, Sichuan and Fukien (Fujian) – these four regional cuisines are mostly imports of the later 20th century.
The original Chinese influx in the US was during the early 1850s to escape economic chaos in China. Chinese emigrants easily found employment as farmhands, gardeners, domestics, laundry workers, and, most importantly, railroad workers. In the 1860s, it was Chinese laborers who built the Transcontinental Railroad.
These early emigrants typically came from Guangdong and brought with them their regional food preferences and ways of cooking. The next wave of emigration was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when emigrants arrived from Hunan and Sichuan provinces. Many of them found work in Chinese restaurant kitchens in the East and West coasts. Finally, a much larger group came to the US and Canada at the mid-1990s at the time of the “Handover” when Great Britain ceded Hong Kong back to Mainland China. This was a much more affluent group and many purchased existing businesses from earlier emigrants including restaurants, as well as starting new businesses, especially in imports, finance and banking.
Pairing Chinese food with grape based wines is a really difficult proposition. The ingredients used in Chinese meals and methods of cooking usually require beverages with higher alcoholic content and stronger taste than Western wines, such as baijiu, a Chinese grappa-like spirit. Beer, especially lager styled beer, is the other beverage to be had with meals, common in both East and West.
Chinese cooks like to add mostly fresh aromatics when cooking such as chives, ginger, spring onion (scallion), mint, pepper, garlic, chilies, etc. Also, these cooks use many ingredients rarely seen in Western cuisine, such as winter melon, yams, tree fungi and lotus pods. Chinese cooking doesn’t use herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, fennel, dill, oregano, chives or marjoram; all are very prominent in Mediterranean dishes. You will see fresh Chinese parsley or coriander leaf used mostly as a garnish — but only fresh, never dried. Spring onion and celery are used like herbs, to flavor dishes and sauces. Chinese cooking omits the majority of Western spices such as nutmeg, mace, cloves, or fennel seeds.
While Western cooks limit themselves in general to boiling, frying, roasting, and baking, Chinese use many additional methods of cooking, like steaming, stewing, braising, and quick-frying with a wok. Chinese mostly use animal or peanut oil to fry food; Westerners use more butter, sunflower oil, and olive oil. Chinese always cook their vegetables, sometimes with soy sauce, ginger, and garlic. A Chinese cook would never think of using dairy in their kitchen; there are no cream or cheese sauces in dishes or in soups in Chinese cooking. Sauces are, in general, mostly light and many use corn starch and rice wine, which is lighter than a European wine. American-Chinese sweet and sour sauce, as in Sweet and Sour Pork, Chicken or Fish, contains tomato paste, which is never used in China, and is much sweeter than anything you'll find over there. Western style salads made with raw vegetables are practically unknown in China.
But, back to Chinese food and Italian wines.
On July 9th, the Italian Consorzio Tutela Lugana DOC, hosted a number of prominent food writers at the Jing Fong Catering Hall in Manhattan’s Chinatown to pair white still wines from producers of the Consortium with Cantonese-style dishes.
The wines were made from Turbiana grapes. The Turbiana grapes are known for another popular Italian wine, Verdicchio -- but the Lugana expression of the grape is truly unique. The wines at the banquet had medium alcohol (12% or 13.5%) and varied from off dry to dry and, at the end of the meal, we concluded with a late harvest one.
Because I love Chinese food, I have tried a number of times to create pairings with Western wines and found out that sparklers (Prosecco, Champagne, Cava, Franciacorta) pair well with American-Chinese dishes but heavy reds, like Tuscan Sangiovese-based wines, do not and neither do extremely dry whites. So, this meal was of great interest to me.
There were 9 courses ending with fried rice, plus dessert and fruit. It was called a “Happiness Dinner” and was aptly named because I was very happy with the product of the Jing Fong kitchen and the wines provided by the Consortium. I was also very happy because I rediscovered a restaurant that I used to visit often for yum cha i.e. tea lunch i.e. dim sum when I lived in Manhattan, but had lost track of when the entrance they used to have on the Bowery one day was closed without notice. I erroneously presumed they had gone out of business (the entrance now is at 20 Elizabeth Street, across from the Chinatown Police Precinct). This is an extremely large restaurant but on weekends it gets really crowded and, most times, you have to share a table with others. When I was going there, I learned a lot about yum cha by sharing a table with Chinese locals, observing what they were ordering and learning from them the dos and don’ts of communal eating.
Our “Happiness Dinner” began with a beautiful presentation of Baked Scallops and Crispy Seafood Rolls. It was a delicious dish and was paired with an off dry, fruity 2017 Cantina Bulgarini, fresh and delicate with a long intensity and with touches of white peach and apricots on the palate. It was one of the most successful pairings and I will remember it when I want Italian wine with my Chinese meal.
The next dish was Sautéed Cuttlefish with Vegetables. It is a Cantonese dish that is common in Hong Kong as I remember from my Hong Kong visits. Squares of meaty cuttlefish were cooked with spring onions, garlic cloves, umbrella mushrooms, carrots and Chinese broccoli. My initial pairing with the Bulgarini wine of the previous dish felt excellent, but even after the next wine was poured, the 2017 Le Morette Mandolara which was drier than the Bulgarini, I enjoyed the new pour because it has a medium body with a lingering finish. It was light and bright with citrus, apple and almond notes and unexpected tropical fruit (pineapple) hints. The food presentation was also beautiful with flowers on a bed of shredded carrots bordered by thinly sliced Persian cucumbers.
The third dish was Sautéed Shrimp and Chicken. Bite-sized shrimp, white meat chicken and vegetables also in a rice wine sauce. The surprise was the use of a quantity of pine nuts in the dish, an ingredient common in Mediterranean dishes but I’ve never encountered in Chinese dishes before. The wine with it was a 2017 Ca Maiol Molin. Made from grapes of older vines; after leaving the must in contact with the skins for a considerable time this method gives the wine an exceptionally refined structure. I thought of it as a very dry wine and even though I would consider it as an exceptional apéritif wine, I don’t think it paired as well with the dish as the earlier wines. For my taste, Cantonese dishes require an aromatic wine with more residual sugar, to counteract the oiliness of the dishes.
The next dish was Assorted Seafood in a Basket. The basket was made from fried vermicelli noodles and the seafood had shrimp, conch and other (unidentifiable) seafood bits in another light sauce with vegetables, where carrots, umbrella mushrooms and scallions were predominant. The wine paired with this dish was a 2016 Cesari Centi Filari (95% Turbiana and 5% Chardonnay) that undertakes a very long maceration on the skins until the January of the next year following the harvest. Nice pairing, even though the wine was very dry.
The dish following was one of my favorite Cantonese dishes: Steamed Lobster with Garlic over E-Fu Noodles. I love this dish and is a common order of mine when eating in Chinatown (another favorite is Spicy Beef Chow Fun). I paired the previous wine with this dish as I thought this particular dish required a very dry but aromatic wine. I considered the pairing very successful.
Fried Fillet of Fish and Minced garlic followed as well as Crispy Whole Chicken and Oriental Steak. All three are classic Cantonese dishes and the wine paired with them was the 2014 Tenuta Roveglia Filo di Arianna, a late harvest considerably sweet wine that worked very well, especially with the steak dish that had a sauce tasting like a BBQ.
And a great time was had by all!
Thank you Susannah Gold for putting together such an interesting food and wine experience.
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