Grape ex­pec­ta­tions

Bordeaux to go with braised pork belly? Match­ing wine with Can­tonese cui­sine is the new chal­lenge for som­me­liers.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ENVIRONMENT - By SUZANNE MUSTACICH

Match­ing wine with Can­tonese cui­sine is the new chal­lenge for som­me­liers.

HONG Kong som­me­lier Zach Yu’s job of pick­ing the per­fect wine for a din­ner of steamed Golden Hairy Crab, cumin-scented lamb chops and a stir­fry of Wagyu beef, black truf­fles and pump­kin is no easy one.

“There are no rules,” says Yu, the wine ex­pert at Hong Kong’s two-Miche­lin-starred Ming Court res­tau­rant, with the ex­cite­ment of some­one con­vinced they are part of a gas­tro­nom­i­cal revo­lu­tion.

Fine din­ing is a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of an af­flu­ent wine cul­ture, so as the wine mar­ket booms on China’s main­land, the heat is on for chefs and som­me­liers to match wine with the wildly, de­li­ciously di­verse Can­tonese cui­sine.

But when it comes to pair­ing food and wine, China is a blank slate – and this is where Hong Kong steps in.

Hong Kong at­tracts more than 23 mil­lion tourists per year, with 17 mil­lion up­wardly mo­bile, main­land Chi­nese hav­ing vis­ited al­ready in the first 10 months of 2010 – many of them wine-lovers.

Last month’s Wine & Dine fes­ti­val in the re­gion out­per­formed ex­pec­ta­tions, un­cork­ing 20,000 bot­tles. Wine auc­tions reg­u­larly break records and cel­lar­ing fa­cil­i­ties are stuffed to the rafters.

Cyn­thia Le­ung of the Hong Kong Tourism Board says the re­gion is “mov­ing fast” to es­tab­lish it­self as a mecca for food­ies and oenophiles.

Al­ready sev­eral steps ahead of the main­land mar­ket, Hong Kong serves not only as a gate­way for grand cru into China but as an in­flu­en­tial test kitchen for chefs, som­me­liers and wine­mak­ers.

“It’s com­pli­cated,” ad­mits chef Le­ung Fai Hung, an award-win­ning mas­ter chef at Kowloon’s In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Grand Stan­ford.

“Can­tonese food fo­cuses on sour, sweet, bit­ter, hot and salty. We have many dif­fer­ent mari­nades and sauces. We also have dif­fer­ent types of cook­ing – steam­ing, dou­ble-boil­ing, braised, stir fry, bak­ing. The tex­tures are com­plex.”

When he re­cently vis­ited Bordeaux, the three-decade vet­eran chef says he mar­velled at how the French seemed to know ex­actly which wine to serve with ev­ery dish. “I wish I could do it as eas­ily,” he says. But while Western cuisines have had decades, cen­turies even, to es­tab­lish pair­ings that now go un­ques­tioned, Le­ung, Yu and their peers are tasked with writ­ing the rules overnight. Slowly, how­ever, a blue­print is emerg­ing. Cham­pagne’s acid­ity and bub­bles pair per­fectly with dim sum, Bur­gundy’s del­i­cate tan­nins and com­plex nose are a sub­lime match for crispy chicken and lo­tus root chips, and the silky but struc­tured tan­nins of a less-ex­tracted, aged Bordeaux en­hance the tex­ture of braised pork belly.

“You don’t feel the fatty tex­ture of the meat,” ex­plains Le­ung. Deep fried and baked dishes with in­tense flavours go well with “richly tex­tured wine like a younger Bordeaux.”

“These pair­ings bring out a richer, more per­sis­tent flavour in both the wine and food,” he said.

Wine is even in­flu­enc­ing the cui­sine it­self in some cases, with tra­di­tional Can­tonese recipes sim­pli­fied and adapted to pair bet­ter with wine, cut­ting back on hot spices and adding com­ple­men­tary aro­mas.

“We’re in­tro­duc­ing new in­gre­di­ents like black truf­fles,” says Yu, not­ing that the pricey fun­gus en­hances the notes of truf­fle, spices and sweet­ness found in bar­rel-aged Caber­net Franc.

Key hur­dle

But one un­avoid­able hur­dle re­mains. “The re­ally crit­i­cal thing is the Chi­nese din­ing cul­ture,” says Yu, point­ing at the Lazy Su­san, the ro­tat­ing tray in the cen­tre of the ta­ble that is ubiq­ui­tous in Chi­nese restau­rants.

“In Western cul­ture, the food ar­rives course by course. In Chi­nese cul­ture, we put it all in the mid­dle and the dishes ar­rive at ran­dom. Ev­ery­one serves them­selves in any or­der. This is not a good way to pair with wine, so we must use a dif­fer­ent strat­egy.

“We fo­cus on one dish – the client’s favourite, and choose a wine to go with it,” he says, adding with a shrug: “And try not to go too wrong with the other dishes.”

Som­me­liers like Yu are still a rare breed in Hong Kong. Seven months ago the Ming Court had a mea­gre wine se­lec­tion and no som­me­lier. Now it has Yu, tripled wine sales and a 4,500 bot­tle wine cel­lar that in­cludes a 2001 Petrus of­fered at HK$38,000 (RM15,300).

“I mark it up like crazy be­cause it’s not ready to drink and I don’t want them to buy it,” quips Yu.

He also num­bers his wine list so clients can or­der with­out fear of los­ing face by mis­pro­nounc­ing Western wine names, and helps ed­u­cate them on new wines.

With most of the world’s vine­yards far away, the som­me­liers and chefs glean their knowl­edge from their own ex­per­i­ments as well as train­ing ses­sions of­fered by wine sup­pli­ers.

In town to host one such course in late Oc­to­ber, Bordeaux spe­cial­ist Dewey Markham Jr said the pres­sure on pro­fes­sion­als re­minded him of the United States when it emerged as a wine pow­er­house a few decades back.

“Peo­ple are not hang­ing around with a bot­tle of wine for 30 years,” Markham told a packed au­di­ence. “They’re un­cork­ing it within 48 hours, and they need to know what to eat with it.”

John Chan, som­me­lier and as­sis­tant man­ager at Hong Kong’s Spoon by Alain Du­casse, of­fers this ad­vice: “Fresh­ness is some­thing we prize. For ex­am­ple, we steam our food be­cause we want to keep the fresh­ness.

“One thing we need to avoid with Can­tonese food is oak­i­ness, be­cause the sen­sa­tion will kill a lot of fresh­ness.”

Cut back the oak? With pro­duc­ers ea­ger to help fill the wine lists of China and Hong Kong, the emerg­ing wine palate of foodie Asia could just in­flu­ence wine­mak­ing it­self. – AFP

The per­fect part­ner: Wine pro­fes­sion­als at a sem­i­nar in Hong Kong on how to pair Can­tonese cui­sine with Bordeaux wine.

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