Pairing wine with Indian food boils down to two simple rules if your goal for the meal is to avoid a funeral in your mouth. With reds, stay away from high alcohol and tannins unless you enjoy the taste of hydrogen peroxide in red beverage form. With whites, stay away from ones with lower acidity unless you enjoy the boring and flabby, like a can of PBR that's been open and sitting on the counter for two days.
Indian cuisine runs the entire gamut of spicy, from blow-out-your-mouth fiery hot to earthy, bright, light and ethereal. It's food defined by each dish's unique blend of spices and finding a wine that highlights it without losing the deliciousness of the wine can be somewhat difficult. Sure, the wine can weave into the food nicely but if you can find a wine that brings an extra element of flavor to the food party, broadening things out while simultaneously cleaning it all up, well, then everyone's a winner.
We've found two wines that do such a thing, paired with Hema's Kitchen on Devon, the undisputed champion of Indian food in our house.
Food: Hema's Kitchen
This trip, a meal of vegetable and kheema samosas, chicken vindaloo, dal dahkni, raita and a buffet of naan (regular, onion and paneer).
With Hema's, her slow development of flavors in every dish is something that can only be described as ancient. You eat it and taste the thousands of years of history it took to perfect the recipe. And one of the best things about Hema's, for us, is that it tastes different every time we have it. The vindaloo, a staple in our order and a dish I'll crave when I'm 70, is something I've probably had 20 times and it's never been the same. Something nice about that.
Nice spectrum with this order. Spicy hot vindaloo with a bright and delicately earthy dal dahkni. Great veggies samosas as always. More cumin in the lamb samosas this time (helped with the wine). Raita to do what raita does so well and a bevy of naan to dip and dunk as we saw fit.
For under $80 out in the restaurant world including the wine, we waver back and forth whether Hema's Kitchen or Semiramis on Kedzie is the best this city can offer. Since we went to Hema's this week, that title is now Hema's.
Wine: 2011 Dominio del Plata "Crios de Susana Balbo" Torrontés ($13 - Binny's) & NV Albero Brut Cava ($8 - Trader Joe's)
Cheap and cheap with a side of cheap here with the wine and an example of finding food to go with "cheap" to squeeze every last bit of goodness out of it. If you don't get what people are talking about when they say a wine is floral, start with this torrontés. It's ALL white spring flowers in a glass with fennel, pear and smoked oranges playing back up. An intense wine number with a strong acid that never leads but keeps everything tightly together in the best possible way.
If someone gave the Albero Brut Cava to you at a party, you'd probably say, "Fine, whatever. Has bubbles, good enough." It's nothing even resembling special by itself. It's just bubbles, green apple and Spanish, more about what it just about gets right than what it doesn't. The Albero is also $8 and has a very specific pairing place with this Indian food, fancifying the wine and turning it into a ginger-laced green apple flesh, lemongrass and cardamom refresher, making it play well above its $8 price tag with this food.
Two wines. Bubbles in wine forgive so much when it comes to pairings. This one takes that a step further, bringing more of a pan-Asian flavor feel. And Susana Balbo is another crazy-mad genius because the inherent floral joy of torrontés begins and ends with her Crios Torrontés. There just isn't one better in my experience.
Pairing: Takes the wonder that is Hema's explosion of Indian flavors and adds white flowers and a green apple-lemongrass effervescence, making for a meal that bounces off the walls with happy Indian goodness.
It's about the back and forth, the vacillation, the choose your own adventure of bites and sips. With the vindaloo, the floral notes in the wine are isolated, making for a sip that is ALL floral, mixing and mingling with the complex blend of hot and floral spices just beautifully, expanding out so much. The Cava took a cue from the delicate brightness of the dal dahkni and stayed on the same delicate track as the food, making for a nicely complex and broad bite and sip. But neither were relegated to those dishes. Naan and Cava. Torrontés and raita. Both with veggie samosas. All good. All different.
Every time we eat this food with this wine, the obvious technical pairing match is always welcome but the subtle differences, in the food and in the wine, is always surprising. Takes the old (in every sense) and makes it new again.
Total Cost for the Meal: $80. Best quality-to-price ratio for a Chicago restaurant meal in our world. For this level of satisfaction, I'd pay double that, easy.