Our columnist wonders if it is possible to pair an XO with his favourite dish of char koayteow.
FOOD and drinks have always gone hand-in-hand. After all, certain spirits and wines are common ingredients in the cuisine of many cultures around the world.
In Europe, apéritifs such as vermouth are served before meals to stimulate the appetite, while others such as schnapps, bitters or herbal liqueurs are often served after a meal or as a digestif after a good, hearty meal.
But what about during the meal itself? We’ve often heard of food being paired with wine, whisky, cognac and even beer; but how exactly does one know what sort of drink should be paired with a particular type of food? And more importantly, just how important are the drinks you consume during a meal?
According to chef Christophe Pienkowski, the type of drink, whether alcoholic or nonalcoholic, is an extremely important element in providing a customer with the complete culinary experience. And he is not just saying that because back in Cognac, France, he is the resident chef of Chateau de Chanteloup (the historic residence of Jean Martell, founder of Martell Cognac house in 1715, and currently headquarters of Martell & Co), specialising in creating fine-dining meals that pair exquisite French cuisine with Martell’s finest cognacs.
Pienkowski was in town recently to prepare dishes for the Martell Dinner Series, a gastronomic series that took place over five nights in five different venues and which paired different cuisines – Japanese, Chinese and Latin American – with Martell’s range of cognacs.
Cognac and cuisine
Cognac and food. The first image that comes to mind when you hear these two words paired together is usually one of drunk guests at a Chinese wedding dinner, yelling “yam seng!” and downing copious amounts of cognac in between stuffing their mouths full with food.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Cognac and food can go together – the trick is in knowing what dish to pair it with. And no, we’re not talking about using it in the food, either.
Food pairing is about pairing the correct drink with the right kind of food. If it works, the flavours blend together perfectly, and the different sensations dance around in your mouth like a pair of figure skaters in sync. Get it wrong, and it would jar your senses and decrease your enjoyment of your meal.
“To me as a chef, the drinks are very, very important. Many people order drinks just to refresh themselves, but it is actually much more than that,” said Pienkowski. “For example, you can take one of my dishes with just a glass of water, but it would seem unfinished, like some flavours are missing. It just isn’t the same.”
“The pleasure is in the combination,” added Jacques Menier, Martell’s heritage director. “In France, it is very, very important – the consumers are the ones telling us what they want to drink with the food! In the supermarket, they’d ask the store owner what sort of wine or drink should go with whatever they are preparing that night.”
Guzzle and gobble
Yes, food pairing is a much more delicate process than just alternating between guzzling and gobbling, especially when it comes to wine and cognac.
To help give me a better idea, Pienkowski whipped up a quick seared lobster tail break-
(from left) Martell Creation Grand Extra, Martell Cordon Bleu, Martell VSOP Medallion and Martell XO. Each possesses unique characteristics that make it suitable to be paired with different foods. Chef Christophe Pienkowski preparing an exclusive dish for the recent Martell Dinner Series in Kuala Lumpur. He is the resident chef of Martell & Co in Cognac, France. fast just before our interview, and set a glass of Martell Cordon Bleu next to it. Then, he gave me a quick tutorial on how to pair the two properly.
“First, you take a bite of the food ... take all the ingredients into your mouth and chew it a few times. Then, before you swallow, take a little sip of cognac, so then you will have all the flavours mixed together in your mouth,” he instructed. “When you’re doing a pairing like this, you don’t drink before or after the food. You drink while you are eating.”
Sure enough, where the lobster tasted just like any other lobster at first, the addition of a bit of Cordon Bleu actually dovetailed perfectly with the food in my mouth, resulting in a much more satisfying, almost tantalising sensation that made me long for more.
According to Menier, the more flavour a food has, the better a cognac will go with it. “It’s all about balance. If it’s a very powerful taste, you need a powerful cognac. If you’re eating foie gras, then Cordon Bleu is one of the best (if not the best) cognacs to go with it,” he said. “But once you go into spicier or more flavourful food, such as curry, then you will need something with a longer aftertaste, like Martell XO, so that the taste will linger on even after the curry taste is gone.”
However, Menier stressed that the same principle does not apply across the board as every cognac brand has its own characteristics. “Many of our customers come to us for a lighter, cleaner taste while some prefer a heavier, woodier taste of some of our competitors,” he said.
Now for the ultimate question: is it really possible to pair a cognac with almost any type of food? What about Malaysian food? Is it possible to pair something like say, char koay teow with a cognac? (Not that I’d be bringing a bottle of Martell to the local hawker centre anytime soon, but hey, you never know, right?)
“There are so many different cuisines all over the world, so I can’t say all of them can be paired with a Martell. But when I am eating something, I do think: Hmm, this would go very well with this or that drink!” said Menier.
“In Malaysia especially, there is a huge variety of different food. But they all have one thing in common – they usually use a lot of spices in the food,” said Pienkowski. “There are so many different flavours and it would be easy to find a suitable pairing with one of our cognacs. The quest for flavours is a big part of enjoying food in the Asian world. After spending a long time preparing your meal, you want to make sure everything is perfect, even the drink. You don’t just pick up any bottle ... that will destroy the food!”
Ultimately, the most important thing is to just enjoy what you are eating or drinking. “We believe Martell drinkers are sophisticated enough to know what kind of taste they like,” said Menier. “To us, the most important thing is to enjoy life your own
‘The pleasure is in the combination (of food and drink),’ says Jacques Menier, Martell’s heritage director.