Not far to the south west of London lies the town of Richmond and although technically it’s part of the metropolis, it feels more like an affluent country community. The atmosphere is different; the air feels fresher too, partly perhaps due to the vast presence of Richmond Park which was created by Charles I in 1625 as a deer park. You can still see the deer (though not the same ones) but they shyly drift away at the first hint of human intrusion.
Richmond Hill is lined with handsome Georgian houses and there are remarkable views down to the River Thames which meanders along the edge of the town. It was in Richmond that I first tasted Indian food. I used to visit a small, friendly Indian restaurant close to Richmond Bridge and a stone’s throw from the river. In those days, wine was relatively cheap in England and I’d usually settle for a bottle of Frascati or Soave which at the time seemed the natural partners for vegetarian dishes, biryanis and light curries.
India is the size of Western Europe with a staggering diversity of cuisines. In her lavishly illustrated book Fifty Great Curries of India, Camellia Panjabi explains how foreign invasions, geography, climate and religion all contributed to the diversity of Indian cuisine. She describes for example, how the food of Kerala tends to be fiery hot, while that of West Bengal tends to be milder and sweet.
Many dishes from Northern India are characterized by liberal use of ghee and butter. Food from the South is often cooked in coconut oil and like that of the Eastern states, it tends to use many spices. The East is the home of rich curries in which mustard seeds, cumin seeds add unique dimensions of flavour. For this reason, to ask someone what wine goes with Indian food is an impossible question. In any case, wine-drinking is not part of the Indian tradition, despite the fact that viticulture was introduced to India by Persian traders many thousands of years ago.
Eric Asimov, the wine columnist of the New York Times writes, “Indian food, with its intricate spicing; rich, integrated sauces and occasional chili heat, has often posed a difficult riddle to wine lovers. As a result, many diners have chosen light, easy-drinking lager instead of wine.”
Many British people tend to drink beer with Indian food. It may be simply that beer is the cheaper option, but to my mind, beer and rice makes one feel uncomfortably stuffed.
Sommelier Rajat Parr believes the vast array of Indian dishes is generally best suited to fresh, lighter wines and not rich, heavy ones. “Curries need a bold, strong-flavored wine,” he writes. “One of the best Indian food and wine pairings you can ever experience is the rich flavour of a curry balanced with a hearty Riesling. Yellow curries, such as kormas, tikka masalas, and pasandas often need a special touch to fully bring out their flavor. So, you will need a richly flavored wine to bring them out, and this makes them great with fresh, lighter reds and bold whites.”
He also recommends rosé. Most rosés are light and dry with lively acidity and they match spicy food because they soothe the palate. And incidentally, rosé is simply a red wine which has been given minimal contact with the colour-giving grape skins. The classic spinach and cheese dish saag paneer needs acidity to “cut” the cheesy texture and rosé or especially a Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc will do the trick. Fruity white wines rarely match rich food because you really need contrast, not more of the same. Some writers suggest that low alcohol wines match spicy food because high levels of alcohol makes the spicy food taste even hotter. Gewürztraminer is often an excellent choice for many Indian dishes.
If you generally prefer red wines, stay with light-bodied ones. As an experiment, I have tried a fairly full red with a sharp spicy dish and but the chemical reaction made the wine taste unpleasantly sweet and flabby. However, tandoori dishes can work with red wine. Many sommeliers agree that a rich and smoky tandoori chicken can be matched with a light Pinot Noir. The entrepreneur Neville Abraham encourages experiment and he suggests that sometimes even sweet white wine can make an ideal partner for some curries.
Several Indian restaurants in this part of the world offer little in the way of wine, which is surprising because it’s usually the most profitable item on the menu. There are a few up-market Indian places in town that offer a decent wine list but they’re on the expensive side. If you’re at a more modest local tandoori where the choice of wine is severely limited, perhaps consider taking your own bottle of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir. But expect to pay the restaurant a handling or “corkage” charge, which is only fair and reasonable because someone has to serve the wine and wash all the glasses after you’ve left.