Part two of the interview with Chef Manish Mehrotra discusses the influence of masalas on food and wine pairings as well as pairing Indian deserts with wines.
Chef Manish Mehrotra is one of the foremost names in Indian cuisine today. He was awarded the Best Chef by Vir Sanghvi at the HT Crystal awards, and he is the winner of ‘Foodistan’ on NDTV Good times.
So, in that sense, your take would be that masalas need to be in balance, not excessive?
Yes. You see, we don’t have to prove to the world that India is the land of spice. We are!!! Everybody knows that! We don’t have to just throw a fist of masalas in the curry pot! It’s not required! So when you do that, you don’t taste anything. You just taste chillies and your taste just burns. So, that is not required, and masalas are to be used in a certain, subtle way.
And one must understand the difference between spice and chillies. Most people don’t understand that. With home food, masalas are in balance! It’s not over powering! There are certain dishes which are meant to be like that. [Like] Goan prawn balchao, it’s supposed to be like that, it’s a pickle! It is supposed to be like- slightly ‘masale daar’ [spicy]. But you eat it in that quantity itself. You don’t eat a bowl full of that!
So, if I were to ask you how masalas influence what wine you would pair with your food, would you say that they should be in balance and …
You see, the most difficult thing to pair with wine is chaat.
Why is that?
Because chaat has got so many flavours together, that with every bite the flavour changes. Sweet chutney, spicy mint chutney, coriander chutney, and hari chutney, then upar se masala [spices on top], then sweet yoghurt (which is very, very creamy). Then there is a fried tikki or a fried potato, or a fried something papadi in it. So, it’s a bit oily and It becomes really, really tough to pair any wines with chaat. You can, it’s not that you cannot, so, we do it with Champagne. It [the Champagne] helps enhance the tickling of the chaat with the sparkle, and it works very well together.
See, one thing I want to tell you is that wine is very, very personal taste oriented. One person can like a certain wine with a certain dish, second person can say it’s absolutely not going! So, a lot of times it’s personal preferences also. But we try, whenever we pair the wine, to give the reason why we did that.
On your menu and on the Indian Accent website, you have paired the ‘Potato Sphere Chaat’ with a rose’ brut. Why a rose’?
Firstly we wanted to do a Champagne. That was very, very clear with us. And rose’, we thought that it will work better as a starter, as an aperitif than the regular brut. So that is why we did a rose’.
You were talking earlier on about dishes like the ‘balchao’ and heavy, spicy dishes say for instance a Goan prawn curry or a really spicy vada sambhar or something like that. How would you pair a wine with these?
Again, all these dishes where you really need to wash it down; I would say a light white, slightly fruity, with spiciness, not sweet will go very well with that.
Coming back to what you said about the chaat being the most difficult [to pair], could you give me some other examples as well? On how masalas would influence how you would pair?
See, in balance, something very oily will be difficult to pair with wines, very spicy is difficult to pair with wines, and something which has too many flavours in one dish is very difficult to pair. Because all these things create barriers in your mouth. So you cannot enjoy wine very well with these kind of things. And while eating also, it’s not very appropriate to enjoy wine with these three different types of flavours which I have just told you.
Lastly, which wines do you personally drink with your food?
Ha-ha! I’m mostly a white wine drinker. I prefer not very dry… a semi dry wine.
One more thing which affects wines in India is our climate. In heavy summers, people prefer whites to red, because they want something cold. In the afternoon when you come out from the sun, and you are a wine drinker, you will not prefer to have a glass of red; you will prefer to have a glass of refreshing, cold white instead. Maybe in the evening you can try some red, but in the afternoon you’d prefer a white. So weather also plays an important role in how we choose our wines. On a cold wintry day, you would not prefer a white, you will prefer a red. Which, I don’t know if it will give you warmth or not but mentally it will give you warmth. Psychologically it gives you warmth. Or you go for a mulled wine that gives you a feeling of warmth, with the spice.
Is there anything else that you would like to add to the topic of pairing Indian food with wine?
I would say Indian food – if it is done properly, it can be paired with wine. There’s no harm in pairing wines.
Another difficulty which comes in [pairing] our food with wine is that when we eat our food, there’s too much variety! When you go to a European restaurant, you order a starter, a main, and a desert individually. But in India, we believe in sharing, so we have too many things on our table!!!
The moment you go to European restaurant, you order a cold salad with fish so you start with a white, or champagne. Then you go for a meat, or a game [course]. You go for a red with that. And in the end you order a desert and deserts are … European deserts are always citrusy, berry based and there is a sour content in the deserts. When you go to a good restaurant, whether you have different berries or you have something acidic, it’s not creamy, creamy, creamy.
In India, I don’t think anybody can name even 5 deserts which are not milk based deserts. There is not a single desert in India except aam ras and one or two more innovative, new world things. Traditionally, each and every desert in India is milk based – east, west, north, south. From gulab jamun, to jalebi, maida deserts etc.
All our deserts are overly sweet! The moment you pair it with a nice Muscatel or a Sauterne you feel like “ooooh! Ek to meetha, upar se aur meetha!” [First sweet, and then more sweet on top of that!]. Because those are really, really overly sweet wines, and full bodied wines!
So you feel really, “oh! What have I done?! With a gulab jamun, a Muscatel? Oh my god! How could you do that?!”
So you need a less sweet desert then?
A less sweet desert wine which is not available anywhere. Nobody makes less sweet desert wine in Europe! In India somebody does. That’s what we use in our restaurant, called ‘Sula late harvest Chenin Blanc’, which is a desert wine, which is slightly acidic and less sweet, and which works very well with the Indian cream based or milk based deserts.
So, you have to understand Indian cuisine. Somebody has to really taste and see. It’s not that it cannot be paired with wine. It can be paired with wine; only thing is that firstly you have to forget all the rules, (the traditional rules). And I know that now days nobody follows those traditional rules which used to be as ‘once upon a time’ it used to be...