by PHILIP WHITE
In the late ’seventies, when Tony Bilson worked the pans at the mighty Berowra Waters Inn, serving French-influenced cuisine with European-style wines, we developed contentious theories about wine not marrying harmoniously to Chinese cuisine.
After Shen Nong discovered the importance of boiling drinking water for good health 3,000 years back, it wasn’t long before some Camellia sinensis fell into the pot and teas began to evolve alongside Chinese regional dishes.
We felt that food which had developed over millennia with tea would only work with wine if it became more tea-like. Our new “fruit-driven” wines were heading further away from tea in structure.
In 1998 Senior Professor Bert Vallee, of the Harvard Medical School, reported that many Asians did not produce the dehydrogenase which processes alcohol in the liver. As tea-drinkers, there was no need for their DNA to switch the mechanism on. But the smallest shot of grog made them very drunk, and sick until their skin managed to sweat the poison out.
European cultures, in contrast, developed in filthy big cities where the water was lethal. Although tea was common on posh tables by 1700, Round Eyes didn’t understand the importance of boiling water until Pasteur. Since the Georgians began drinking wine in about 5,000BC, we’d evolved drinking fermented brews, with all their vitamins, minerals and antioxidant tannins. Vallee even suggested that "…throughout western history the normal state of mind may have been one of inebriation".
In contrast, the Chinese may have been wide awake with kung-fu chai, but they were relatively sober and healthy until we hit them with opium, which we took there from India - to swap for tea - until 1908.
While this seemed to reinforce our theory, twenty years of determined thirsty travel in the meantime taught me that China, and Asia, have teas of a much wider range of flavours, colours, and textures than anybody ever dreamed of achieving in wines.
There are fatty, cheesy teas that taste like big malo-lactic chardonnays; unfermented green teas as crisp and savoury as verdelho or sauvignon blanc; pu-erh teas like plummy, tarry shiraz; teas as nutty and cherry-like as pinot noir. The aged cake teas of Yunnan can be as sweet, leathery and meaty as mourvedre or muscat; good jasmine can be as floral and spicy as Alsace gewürztraminer; some chrysanthemum teas are like aged pinot gris.
So, to think backwards, any Asian cuisine that grew up with teas like those should just as easily be enjoyed with such wines.
The human mouth detects sweet, sour, salt, bitter, water, chilli heat, and umami (a combination of glutamates - like MSG - and ribonucleotides). Just as these totally natural flavours harmonise in good food, they make up the pleasant aspects of good tea and wine.
But the trick of successfully marrying them on the table is as much about texture as actual flavour. So the viscosity, or the oiliness of the food and drink, and the degree of polymerisation, or softening, of its naturally preservative tannins, provide vital keys to the sort of cuisine you can experience at the table of a genius like Cheong.
Even the dreaded “fruit-drivens”, like sauvignon blanc, simple rosé, or unwooded chardonnay, often go very well with the spicy, chilli, ginger and verbena cuisines of Thailand and Malaysia, which have traditionally been eaten with fresh fruit juices as much as simpler teas.
Acids are also very important. Leaner ones, like ascorbic, tartaric and malic, dominate sauvignon blanc and riesling, while the fatty amino acids that we first taste in mother’s milk occur in wines which have undergone the secondary, or malo-lactic fermentation, in which bacteria, not yeast, convert the hard, metallic, malic acid of chardonnay or red grapes to the softer lactic acid of milk.
With acid and viscosity, the clever host might just as well devise a contrasting effect as much as a harmonious marriage. If you’re serving a fatty fish, like European carp, or steamed flounder, you can choose whether to bolster that characteristic with a big fat pinot gris or peachy wood-aged chardonnay, or provide a piquant counterpoint with a crunchy sauvignon blanc, its acid like the oxalic flavour of rhubarb, to slice through the fat of the bottom-feeding flounder, with its guts full of bottom-of-the sea roadkill.
Similarly, the fat of bottom-feeding ducks or pigs can be contrasted or reinforced, which is why they go so well with pinot noir, which can be either chubby with malo fat or more austere and steely, like riesling.
But in the end, while the secret may seem a mysterious marriage of new science and ancient gastronomic dreaming, you can forget it if your ingredients aren’t the very best. Start fresh, clean, and organic and your journey of exploration will be much less hazardous than mine. But I’m not compaining.