By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Don't hand me a wine list when I'm dining on Sichuan or Indian or Thai cuisine. For me, wine tends to lock in the heat of the heavily seasoned dishes of South and East Asia and fares poorly itself. "Spices distort wine flavors, turning white wines hot and red wines bitter," writes Garrett Oliver in his book "The Brewmaster's Table."
But beer works hand in glove with those cuisines. "Curry's main ingredients -- garlic, chilies, lemon grass, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger -- all those warming spices meld wonderfully with the toasty flavors of malted barley," says Lucy Saunders, author of "The Best of American Beer & Food" and a contributing writer to Asian Restaurant News. "The richness of coconut milk and palm oil can't knock out the crisp texture of carbonation. . . . Plus, a beer is often served chilled, which in itself is a refreshing contrast."
India pale ale was originally brewed for export to India and is not a native Indian style. It has higher alcohol content and extra hopping to help it stand up to Indian curries and chutneys.
German hefeweizen, with its fruity flavors and lively carbonation, pairs well with Chinese food. It refreshes the palate like a mini-dish of sherbet, recalibrating your taste buds for the next course. Try it with a pu-pu platter or when you're sharing dishes with a party of friends.
Coriander is a spice native to the Mediterranean that has worked its way into Asian cooking. It's also an integral ingredient, along with crushed orange peel, in Belgian-style witbiers. Hitachino Nest White Ale, from a Japanese sake maker that branched into microbrewing, contains orange juice and nutmeg in addition to the traditional ingredients.
Witbier complements many seafood dishes, including various sushi. If you're a fan of wasabi horseradish, you might choose a more aggressive version of the style, such as Southampton Double White Ale (6.8 percent alcohol by volume) from Southampton Ales & Lagers in Southampton, N.Y.
However, to sample such combinations, you'll often have to opt for takeout and buy the beer separately. Most ethnic restaurants are unimaginative in their beer selections: The imports they serve are usually slight variations on the ubiquitous European pilsner style.
Indeed, some are actually made in North America for the U.S. market. Read the fine print on the label: The Kingfisher served in Indian restaurants is brewed by Olde Saratoga Brewing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The Japanese import Kirin comes from the Anheuser-Busch plant in Los Angeles. Two other Japanese brands, Sapporo Reserve and Asahi Super Dry, are made in Canada.
Brewing a beer here under license does guarantee a fresher product. The Tsingtao from China and the Singha from Thailand often have a slightly cardboardy taste from oxidation that takes place on the long boat ride over here. (Singha, hoppier and stronger, has fared better than most imports, although its Boon Rawd Brewery last year reduced the alcohol content from 6 percent to a more common 5 percent.)
A few Asian restaurants are improving their selections. Delhi Dhaba in Arlington, for example, has a cooler stocked with about two dozen brands, including Southern Tier IPA from a highly regarded Lakewood, N.Y., microbrewery.
Busara, a Thai restaurant in Washington's Glover Park neighborhood, is a beer lover's gold mine, with 15 international selections (including Trappist ales Chimay and Orval) and a small draft assortment that includes Redhook's Long Hammer IPA and Busara Stout (actually, Anheuser-Busch's Bare Knuckle Stout). Branches in Tysons Corner and Reston also offer extensive beer lists.
Kaz Sushi Bistro downtown serves Skyland Red Ale, from Shenandoah Brewing in Alexandria, as its house brand. This amber ale has a caramel malt sweetness, a whiff of perfumey hop and a nutty finish that meshes well with savory, soybean-based miso sauce and broth. The beer menu, as of late July, also featured Echigo Stout from Echigo Beer in Nigata, Japan: a bigger, bolder cousin of Guinness with a more intense roasted-coffee flavor. (Kaz featured the stout at a five-course beer dinner July 30 showcasing the flavors of Nagoya. A follow-up event, the Flavors of Osaka, will take place Aug. 26. Call 202-530-5500 for information, or go to http://www.kazsushibistro.com.)
Other Asian countries make interesting beers; we just don't see them here. In the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the Bumthang Brewery makes an unfiltered wheat beer called Red Panda. (Sadly, the Smithsonian Institution was unable to obtain the beer for its recent Folklife Festival exhibits on Bhutanese culture.) At the Archipelago Brewery in Singapore, expatriate American brewer Fal Allen uses lemon grass, Chinese orange peel and ginger in his recipes.
Now that American craft breweries are selling their wares in Asia -- Rogue Ales exports a buckwheat beer and other brands to Japan, and Gordon Biersch recently opened a brew pub in Taipei, Taiwan -- we can hope that Asia's best brewers will reciprocate.
Greg Kitsock's Beer column appears every other week. He can be reached at email@example.com.