PLAYING MATCHMAKER : PAIRING FOOD & DRINKS, FOR YOUR PLEASURE

Think of all the twosomes who inspire you

Romeo & Juliet

Han Solo & Chewbacca

John & Yoko

Tina Fey & Amy Poheler

Chocolate & Bacon

You get the drift.

And apart from giving us #relationshipgoals and Halloween couple costume ideas, what do all of them have in common?

Chemistry

Pure, simple and sometimes carnal. Call it science, call it art, call it fiction or call it inspiration.  The truth is simple: chemistry makes the world go round.

And of all the twosomes that inspire me, one stands out as a favorite : Food & Beverage.

Science + Art + Chemistry = Magic.

 

Some matches are made in history

Food and beverage pairing is about as old as humankind itself. Wine consumption with food is a well documented part of history with evidence dating back all the way to the Neolithic Period. Beer consumption traces back to the Chinese around 7000 BC, and there is even record of beer consumption with breakfast in 17th century England. Here’s to health!

But the first cocktails arguably started rolling out around the 19th century. Infact, the earliest written record of the word ‘cocktail’ was found in a London based newspaper in 1798.

Why am I giving you all this dope? Because clearly, wine and beers have had a massive headstart when it comes to food pairing. Cocktails on the other hand, have had to work twice as hard to make it to your menu of consideration. But why should wine or beer have all the food pairing fun?

 

The Perfect Match, deconstructed

Pairing food with cocktails is no piece of cake. When it comes to a meal with a mixed drink, life is still new, challenging and sometimes daunting.

And yes, you can argue that as Indians, we are not the biggest fans of drinking with our food (unlike our Euro cousins who gwaff at our inability to stomach booze with the main course). But hey, times are a changing. And if you can digest ‘netflix and chill’, am sure you can stomach a French 75 with your sushi.

But let’s talk about you for a second. You’ve probably not noticed, but you’ve always been pairing food and beverage. Think about it – Chai and biscuits, pizza and beer and not to forget, whisky and weddings (that one is 100% real). So clearly, somewhere in the back of your head is a little matchmaker.

And like you, I’ve been silently playing this game for a while. Like a subtle aunt who sends you marriage proposals since accepted her facebook friend request. Some of my favourites are Nachos and Margarita (Duh), Cheese and Negroni, and my personal hangover remedy, a juicy Steak with Bloody Mary.

You probably have some matched up crazies up your sleeve too. So why shy away from going big?. Whether you’re dining out or eating in, introduce your taste buds to the double delight of pairing food with drink. And the rest will be history.

I was privy to a special degustation at Delhi’s ITC Sheraton that paired Old Monk cocktails with Asian Food. Let me repeat that again for you, slowly.

Old Monk cocktails. Yes, real cocktails. Not what you make with coke or hot water & ginger (yes, you know who you are)

&

Asian Food. Not kebabs, not tikkas, no tandoori and basically nothing that you may associate with the rum’s copious pre-dinner consumption. We’re talking Japanese, Thai and Chinese.

<Pause for effect>

The degustation was helmed by Exec. Sous Chef Vaibhav Bhargava of Pan Asian and Beverage Specialist Zac Abbott who came together to cook up an absolute storm, on an otherwise peaceful weeknight.

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I greeted them with one big question – Pairing food with cocktails – easy, difficult or completely crazy? On a scale of wine to single malt, where do we stand? “Unlike wine, the chef and the bartender can add or remove ingredients. So there’s a lot more flexibility,” says Abbott. But what about the food?

I have to admit, while I expected the Chef having a tough time, this 5 course meal was both well planned and expertly executed. Chef Bhargava adds “I’ve worked with wine and whisky earlier but cocktails are a first for us. It’s exciting & interesting!”

Cocktail and food pairing has become an exciting global trend over for the last few years from New York’s meatpacking district to Singapore’s swishing clubs. And as Delhi’s craft cocktail movement slowly catches fire, it is only a matter of time before the scene explodes.

I am going to take you through my experience of this expert degustation to give you cheatsheet to pairing appreciation. And maybe even motivate you to try it at home. Here are some tips get you started.

 

Guidelines to Pairing

Compliment & Contrast

 Like every successful relationship, the perfect pairing is based on enhancing, not competing. And here’s the golden rule: compliment or contrast food with drinks, or vice-versa.

Pairings should enhance and bring out the best in both a dish and a drink. Look for flavours that compliment or boost each other. Like Bert & Ernie. Or like these Bbq Spare Rib Tacos, paired with a Burnt Monk Sour.

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What makes them work? The rum drink has notes of pineapple & caramelized sugar that works wonders with the sweet-meaty tones of the food. It tasted like a lazy Sunday barbeque party in my mouth.

The other pairing is picking drinks that contrast the flavours in the food. You know, like adding a dash of lime to a spicy curry? Same principle. The key, however is to be careful, cause too much contrast can overwhelm the palate.

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This is a great example of the contrast principle. Kakiage Sushi roll with Truffle & Edamame dumpling paired with the Old Monk 75 (a take on the classic French 75), served with apple caviar. The crispy and slightly spicy sushi contrasts well with the cool and acidic bubbly, rounding off with just a touch of truffle oil from the dumplings. It wins on two counts – enhancing flavours and textures.

 

Focus on Ingredients

I had a sneak peek into the Chef Bhargava’s preparation of the amuse-bouche and the bar’s first drink, where I saw the use of fresh avocado, microgreens, and even pomegranate, “We worked together on what flavours we were going to use so that they matched both the food & drink.” He says.

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Ingredients are the easiest give-away when it comes to choosing a culinary match. Having seafood? Try a lemon based cocktail. Something rich and buttery like a white sauce? Try something with subtle notes of vanilla. Not feeling too experimental? Try to replicate ingredients in small measures, it works well with herbs and even condiments like pepper, rosemary, basil and such others.

 

Use your noodle

Unlike an Indian wedding, the alliance of food and cocktail does not have to be a taxing affair. Keep it simple and relevant. Think through your taste buds and route the logic through.

Go easy on the quantity of alcohol and food you’re serving, a drunk or overfed audience could lose steam halfway and miss out on important things like the dessert (the horror!)  What is the right number of courses to hit the culinary ‘O’ moment? In this case, less is always better. As Abbott points out, “We could’ve gone 13 courses and made it overcomplicated. But do something simple and do it correct.”

 

This is supposed to be FUN

Loosen up, open your belt by a few notches and enjoy yourself. All this seem like a lot, but the most important part is to have fun. And when you’re having fun, you’re innovating.

Innovation was the biggest highlight of this degustation and was also the team’s greatest strength. The Bbq Spare Rib Tacos featured a Bao instead of a taco shell. These scallops were marinated in a coriander pesto and presented in a cage of crispy Phyllo. I had a delightful time being the loudest diner on the table. Perks of being an adult.

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Innovation can also be your take or interpretation of a classic. Like this drink – the Mojito Old Fashioned (left in the image below) which is a spin on the classic whisky based cocktail. Rum replaces whisky to make a robust drink with a steady hint of mint. Oh, happy days.

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Or an amusing deception like this Old Monk Ale (right in the image above) Looks like beer, right? Turns out the body of the drink was an apple & rum combination topped with a foam to make it look like a heady beer. What a great way to start a conversation.

It’s great to see the gap between the kitchen and bar narrowing and I encourage you to experience this ultimate umami. I hope I’ve convinced you to deliberate for more than two seconds, the next time you’re deciding what to drink or eat.

Tap into your inner cupid and prepare to fall in love all over again, with your dining experience. The options are endless, and the fun is all yours! Cheers.

All Images by Ishita Thakur

 

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