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Drink | GREAT MARRIAGES

A Crisp Answer to India's Heat

May 14, 1997|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How do you match wine to food so hot with chiles that water seems the best choice?

The obvious answer: with difficulty. That did not stop one party of die-hard wine fans at Madhu's Dasaprakash, a south Indian restaurant in West Los Angeles, from attempting to pair wines with this notoriously spicy cuisine.

The contenders were three sparkling wines--one from France and two from California--and five still white wines. One of these came from Australia. The others were produced in Santa Barbara County.

The challenge was considerable. Dinner started with three spicy chutneys to mix with even spicier "gunpowder," a South Indian condiment blended from chile powder, lentils and spices. Diners spooned as much of this as they dared over crisp cashew fritters.

Next came idlis, soft steamed farina cakes that seemed innocent until doused with sambar, an intensely hot lentil sauce that traditionally accompanies the idli. Crisp dosai, the south Indian version of a crepe, followed with still more sambar. The sambar bowls were filled again to accompany the next course, a savory farina dish called uppuma.

The contest reached its peak with the arrival of tamarind rice so hot with chiles that only the strongest diners and wines could withstand it. Strained palates then cooled down with lemon rice and soothing yogurt raita.

Although one guest opted for the cool yogurt drink lassi, the sparkling wines--Mumm Cuvee Napa, Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut and Champagne Lechere Brut "Orient Express"--did fairly well. In fizz, at least, they resemble beer, which lots of people like with Indian food.

My favorites, though, were two still wines assertive enough to rise above the spicy rice. They were the 1995 Pinot Blanc from Bedford Thompson Winery and Vineyard in Los Alamos and the 1995 Chardonnay from Babcock Vineyards in Lompoc.

"It's hard to match a wine with spicy food if the dish is just hot with chile and has nothing beyond that," says Stephan Bedford, winemaker for Bedford Thompson. He sees more potential for matching if the dish is rich with seasonings apart from chiles.

Big oaky wines are not the best choice. "Oak conflicts with curry flavors," Bedford says. "You want something with some fruit in it and some crispness."

His own Pinot Blanc possesses concentrated fruit flavors that enabled it to fight back against hot spice. The grapes, which came from Bien Nacido vineyard, were picked at moderate sugars. Fermented in older French barrels, the wine emerged with strong acidity.

"Texture really helps when there are a lot of spicy flavors," Bedford says, referring to the wine's viscosity, fullness and flavor that continues from the first taste through the finish.

Heavy, persistent rainfall in Santa Barbara County during 1995 resulted in a "low-yielding, high-intensity crop," says winemaker Bryan Babcock. The resulting Babcock Chardonnay is "a complex layered wine with a lot of zip," as he describes it. The wine was barrel-fermented in French oak barrels, 20% of them new.

Half the grapes came from Babcock's vineyard and half from Bien Nacido vineyard. The grapes were very ripe and high in sugars when harvested, and yet the wine is high in acidity. "It's a very ripe Chardonnay," Babcock says.

Babcock made just 900 cases of this wine, about 25% of what he would normally produce. Thus, the label carries a special designation: "One ton per acre."

"It's such an intense wine," Babcock says.

The intense dish that proved most challenging for these feisty wines is a complex blend of spices, nuts, lentils, tart tamarind liquid and rice. It is typically prepared as temple food in south India, where it is offered to the gods, then to devotees. The best version is said to be that made at the Tirupati Balaji temple in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

The recipe is complicated, and cooks usually make a large quantity of the tamarind seasoning to store and use as needed. Madhu's Dasaprakash will eventually package and market its own tamarind blend, and a dry seasoning mix is available in Indian stores. The following recipe for home use produces a delicious version without as much labor as some south Indian recipes require.

SPICY TAMARIND RICE (Puliyodarai)

This home-style recipe comes from Devika Nair of West Los Angeles, who was born and raised in south India. Nair makes enough sauce for several batches of rice and stores it in the refrigerator. The sauce is very hot, so add just enough to suit your taste.

TAMARIND SAUCE

3 tablespoons tamarind pulp

3 1/3 to 4 cups hot water

2 tablespoons raw sesame seeds

12 to 15 small hot red chiles

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 tablespoon oil

1 tablespoon black mustard seeds

Large pinch asafetida

2 tablespoons split peeled channa dal

2 tablespoons shelled raw peanuts

Large pinch turmeric

12 curry leaves

Salt

RICE

1 cup rice

2 cups water

SAUCE

Soak tamarind pulp in hot water 30 minutes. Squeeze and knead tamarind to extract flavor and until water color is deep brown. Strain and reserve liquid.

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