A piece written for Meininger's Wine Business International
Image of Chinese dinner courtesy of lifeofguangzhou.com
“We like the game...” She had no way of knowing it, but my young Chinese friend had just come up with one of the best and most elegant responses to the question of food-and-wine-matching. Her position at the heart of one of China’s biggest state-owned wine companies had made her an ideal person to ask about the relevance - and more importantly, the likely commercial fruitfulness - of the efforts westerners are making to promote the way their wines go with Chinese food. First, she pointed out, talking about “Chinese” cuisine is as meaningful - and and insulting - as talking about “European” cuisine, lumping, pizza, paella and steak and kidney pie together as one. The use of chilli in Szechuan is far, far more liberal than in Cantonese kitchens, for example.
Then, of course, there’s the range of different dishes on the table. At a banquet there would rarely be fewer than ten of these and even at home, four or five would not be uncommon. As a rule, there is supposed to be one per person, with some discussion over whether rice or noodles should be seen as being additional to this number. So, which of these deliciously individual plates of food are you going to match with your Volnay,
Viognier or Vouvray? (When I repeated the suggestion by a western expert that one should aim for the “main” dish, the “piece de resistance”, I received a very withering look: every dish should reflect the cook’s finest efforts).
Then, my friend, continued, there’s a cultural gap between what westerners might think constitutes a perfect combination and marriages that might suit a Chinese palate. “In your countries”, she said, “you have a strange relationship with chilli. It’s like a fire you like to light and then put out. So you ask for hot, spicy dishes and eat them with cold drinks to remove the effect of the chilli. It’s a bit like drinking hot tea with ice cream. We cook with those spices because we like what they do to our food”.
So, I responded, are you saying that everything people are doing - all the books, tastings and dinners that are so painstakingly prepared to prove the food-and-wine case - is a complete waste of tie in China? “No”, she patiently replied. “For several reasons, it may be worthwhile. We like rituals - think of the tea ceremony - and the concept of ‘face’ involves being seen to do things in ‘the right way’. So, there’s an interest in the concept, and in particular we can be fascinated by the way western wines go with western dishes. That’s a game we can understand and it’s a game we like...”
Of course, some Chinese gourmets who’ve been bitten by the wine bug, do develop a fascination with marrying wines of every kind to specific examples of Asian cuisine. I have been lucky enough to have been invited by the Singaporean vinous luminary NK Yong to enjoy brilliant banquets prepared by his wife Melina that are as perfectly orchestrated as any symphony. But these are exceptions to the rule. Realists - and anyone who has talked to many sommeliers in China - would have to respond that eating western food - with or without appropriately chosen wines - is not a daily activity for most wine drinking Chinese. The majority are happy to choose a red to begin the meal and stick with it throughout.
My Chinese friend had not finished, however. “Why, in any case, are you westerners expecting us to do what you don’t actually do yourselves?”. Pointing out that she had spent time in Europe and the US, she asked how often normal people - not wine professionals or enthusiasts, but normal people who buy wine to drink at home and in restaurants - actually pay any real attention to creating perfect food and wine combinations. “Yes”, she said, “you’ll maybe make the effort on special occasions - a few times a year - but from what I’ve seen on a daily basis, most people eat and drink what they like”.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to help one to focus on aspects of one’s own life. Listening to her, I cast my mind back to the many wonderful meals I have had at which Michelin-starred chefs, sommeliers and winemakers had worked together to create the most amazing hedonistic partnerships. Were they all wasting their time (and money)?. Of course not. Those occasions set the wines into fascinating contexts, often bringing out characteristics and qualities I, at least, had never seen before. But they were no more anchored to the real world than a fashion show in which beautiful women with improbably perfect bodies parade successions of garments along a catwalk.
To the designers, models and journalists, those catwalk shows are vitally important, possibly making the difference between a fashion house making a profit or loss. But viewed from the outside, they’re a game. A possibly engaging and, for a tiny number, compulsive game, but a game nonetheless. And we should be grateful that some Chinese at least enjoy playing our games on occasion even if they are never going to become any more part of their daily lives than they are of their neighbors in the west.