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Tasty dim sum and Beijing duck companions
2014-07-03
By John H. Isacs

GASTRONOMICALLY speaking, I’ve always been adventurous. Raised on French classics and New England staples, in my formative years I had a yen for more exotic fare.

Living in China and traveling extensively has permitted me to assuage my culinary desires and experience some of the world’s most exciting dishes.

I adore mala (numb and spicy) hotpot, stinky tofu, intestines and other innards, duck tongues, goose webs and a host of additional treats that are well outside the norms of Western fare.

However, when I entertain visiting family members and Western guests I have to tone down my exploratory tendencies.

In other words, find foods that even the most timid of Western palates will enjoy and of course pair them with the appropriate wines.

Two sure fire solutions are dim sum for lunch or brunch and Beijing duck for dinner.

Beijing duck

Who doesn’t love Beijing duck? One would really have to hate food not to love this classic. Over the years, I’ve really never come across anyone, whether Chinese or a foreigner, who doesn’t enjoy this dish.

The first written accounts of this dish date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when it was mentioned as one of the imperial dishes. Over the ensuing centuries the dish was prepared in different styles until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when the dish evolved into its modern form.

Delicious by itself, Beijing duck reaches new heights of culinary excellence when accompanied by the right wine. So what’s the perfect wine to pair with Beijing duck? In my opinion, there are two equally satisfying, yet very different solutions.

One ideal partner is Champagne or Franciacorta rose sparkler. Unlike wines for a daytime dim sum meal, when enjoying a Beijing duck dinner we definitely want intense and serious wines.

When picking your Champagne or Franciacorta, I suggest a brut or extra brut rose that’s entirely or mostly made with Pinot Noir.

The Pinot Noir variety has a wonderful affinity for duck.

The slightly greasy nature of the duck and the sweet flavor of the plum sauce matches beautifully with sophisticated red fruit flavors of the rose sparkler, while the fine bubbles and acidity of the wine cleanse the mouth and make each successive bite even more delicious. Though pricey, both Champagne and Franciacorta rose wines deliver the apex sparkling wine experience with Beijing duck.

Several styles of red wines also match nicely with Beijing duck with a personal favorite being a fine Spanish Tempranillo. The Tempranillo grape makes aromatic wines with generous dark fruit flavors, hints of tobacco and soft tannins that elegantly highlight the richness of the roasted duck meat and skin while not clashing with the other components of the dish.

The gentle tannins of the Tempranillo wine facilitate digestion of the meat, skin and pancake leaving the mouth with a sensuous combination of Eastern and Western sensations.

Two of Spain’s most renowned Trempanillo reds, the Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva from Rioja and the Bodegas y Vinedos Montecastro from Ribera del Duero are the perfect wines to raise your Beijing duck experience to new gastronomic heights.

Dim sum

The beloved Cantonese tradition we call dim sum actually didn’t originate there, instead its roots are in northern China where nobles would snack on elaborate treats.

Some of these treats made their way to the teahouses that lined the silk route. Weary travelers would rejuvenate themselves with yum cha (Òû²è) which consisted of an assortment of small dishes served with tea. However, it was most definitely the Cantonese who perfected the art of dim sum, making it one of the golden treasures of Chinese cuisine.

A typical dim sum meal consists of steamed, roasted, fried and deep-fried dishes that may be made from seafood, meats, vegetables or starches.

The meal is accompanied by your choice of teas. For some, the thought of dim sum without tea is sacrilege. I beg to differ.

The best beverage with dim sum is wine. Tea may be fine, but bubbles are better.

The best solutions are dry, light and fresh sparklers like Prosecco and CAVA. Champagne is a bit too serious and costly for this casual midday meal. The fruity flavors and clean acidity in better examples of Prosecco and CAVA wines embellish the flavors and textures of the small dishes while also facilitating digestion.

Standout dim sum dishes with sparklers include shrimp dumplings (虾饺), turnip cake (萝卜糕) and, my personal favorite, chicken feet (凤爪). Granted, the chicken feet may be a bit much for some overseas guests.

A light, well-balanced red wine also works quite nicely with dim sum. My red of choice would be Beaujolais. The generous fruit in Beaujolais wines along with their good acidity make them very versatile in pairing with foods, something essential when enjoying the numerous different dishes in a typical dim sum meal.

Like the above mentioned sparklers, Beaujolais wines cleanse your mouth removing any greasiness while pleasingly accentuating the many varied textures of dim sum dishes. Some classic dishes that pair beautifully with Beaujolais are steamed pork ribs (排骨), steamed beef meat balls (牛肉球) and barbecue meat platter (拼盘).

Forget about the popular Beaujolais Nouveau, instead I recommend higher-quality villages and cru level Beaujolais. When you see the word villages on the label it denotes a higher standard of Beaujolais, a wine with greater depth, complexity and character.

Cru Beaujolais wines are even better. These wines stand at the very top of the Beaujolais quality pyramid. There are 10 cru Beaujolais wines and the best of them are Moulin-a-Vent, Morgan and Chenas. When choosing a villages or cru Beaujolais another important factor is the producer.

Top producers available in Shanghai include Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin and Georges DuBoeuf.

When enjoying Beaujolais wines with dim sum and other fare it’s critically important to chill your Beaujolais before serving. I suggest about 12 degrees Celsius for the villages and 14 degrees for the cru wines.

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