With the Thai New Year celebrations coming up you may well be planning to eat in a Thai restaurant or host a Thai meal at home. But which drinks are the best to serve?
The predominant flavours of Thai food are sweet, sour, hot and salty - slightly different from the warm spicing of many Indian curries or the more fragrant, herbal notes of Vietnamese. As with other Asian cuisines dishes are served at the same time rather than in succession - a typical selection being a salad, a soup, a deep-fried or steamed dish, a stir-fry and a curry - which can make it difficult to find one drink to match all. (Thais themselves would not typically drink wine with food - traditionally green tea or jasmine-infused water would have been served either side of rather than during the meal.)
Authentic Thai food can be really hot but tends to be modified in most Western restaurants. The pairings that I think work best are aromatic or fruity white wines and light, cloudy wheat beers. Here are some options to consider, rated from one star to five.
***** Outstanding: one of the best matches I’ve come across
**** A very good match, likely to be highly enjoyable
*** A good match though not necessarily to everyone's taste
** An interesting, less conventional match - worth a try
* A useful match but doesn’t set the meal alight
Alsace Tokay Pinot Gris and other Pinot Gris *****
My favourite pairing overall. Alsace Pinot Gris has the requisite touch of sweetness but also an exotic muskiness that tunes in perfectly with Thai spicing. New Zealand pinot gris, particularly the off-dry styles, also works well.
Spätlese and other off-dry Riesling ****
Again, a touch of sweetness really helps, giving German and Austrian spätlese Rieslings and Alsace vendange tardive Rieslings the edge over their dry counterparts. A fruity Clare Valley, New Zealand or Californian Riesling can also work well too especially with Thai-spiced seafood, salads and stir-fries.
Many people’s favourite with Thai and other oriental cuisines but in my view it goes better with some dishes such as Thai red curries than others (I find it slightly overwhelming with more delicate dishes like Thai spiced crabcakes or green mango or papaya salads). One good compromise is an aromatic blend that includes Gewürz. (Domaine Josmeyer produced a very attractive one called Fleur de Lotus which included Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Riesling though I’m not sure they’re still making it) Vendange tardive Gewürztraminer can be very good with intensely sweet Thai desserts.
Quality is on the up with this overlooked grape variety which performs well with Asian food, Thai included. May possibly not have the power to deal with hotter dishes but worth a try.
Sauvignon Blanc and other intensely citrussy whites such as Rueda ***
If you’re not a fan of aromatic whites Sauvignon Blanc is the best alternative though may get overwhelmed by hotter dishes. Best with Thai-spiced seafood, salads and stir-fries.
The quality of Torrontes has much improved since I first made this suggestion a few years ago. A good budget option with Thai. Inexpensive Chilean or Hungarian Gewürztraminer is probably a better bet though.
Fruity rosé **
Especially the new wave of full-bodied very fruity rosés from countries like Argentina, Chile and California. May possibly not have the acidity to handle the sourness of many Thai dishes which will accentuate the sweetness of the wine. Not the first bottle I'd reach for but if you love rosé go for it!
Off-dry Champagne or Champagne cocktails ***
A surprise maybe but I recently discovered Dom Perignon was a fabulous match with a Thai coconut soup with langoustines. A better all-round choice would be the ‘rich’ cuvées some Champagne houses including Louis Roederer and Pol Roger produce which are sweeter than brut but drier (and rather better quality) than most demi-sec. Alternatively you could serve a standard Champagne as a bellini with a splash of an exotic lychee or passion fruit liqueur.
Witbier/bière blanche *****
If you’re going to drink beer with your Thai meal make it a witbier (bière blanche) like Hoegaarden or Celis. Fragrant, citrussy and spicy it’s wonderfully refreshing with the heat and sourness of Thai food
Jasmine tea ***
As already noted, Thais wouldn’t traditionally drink tea throughout the meal but if you’re not drinking alcohol it can be a refreshing accompaniment. Alternatively serve it at the end.
Exotic fruit juices ***
With their intense sweetness most tropical fruit juices go well with Thai food especially those made from or including mango, papaya, passion fruit and lychee.
Wines that don’t pair easily with Thai food:
You will notice there aren’t any reds which I find really difficult with Thai food although chef David Thompson of Nahm, author of the seminal Thai Food, holds that they do have a place at the table. “I like Pinot Noir, a light Shiraz, Côtes du Rhône, Grenache or an elegant sparkling red wine . . . but then I like these wines with almost any food” he writes. Oaked whites like barrel-aged Chardonnays also tend not to work too well.