Food and wine writer Marc Millon, author of Flavours of Korea suggests what to pair with your favourite Korean dishes.
I love Korean food and I love wine! And, like Laurel and Hardy, or, well, kimchi and rice, I consider the two to be absolutely inseparable. I must confess that it’s rare that we ever enjoy any meal without wine (except perhaps breakfast), so it goes without saying that when we’re feasting on my favourite cuisine in the world, Korean, then we always make sure and enjoy some good if not great wines alongside the food. Indeed, whether we’re in restaurants in London, or, better still, when we’re at home, eating family style or with friends and guests, then it’s always a pleasure to pair Korean foods with wines that really complement and enhance the pleasure of eating.
One of the best features about eating Korean food is that it is always a convivial and gregarious communal activity. A table laid out with a sumptuous array of panchan invites the sharing of not just food but of conversation and friendship, preferably over a bottle of wine…or two…or three...
So what wines work best with Korean food as we enjoy them, Western style?
Matching wines and food
Korean food is nothing if not robust, full-flavoured and direct. The pungent and delicious flavours of garlic, ginger, chilli, toasted sesame seed and kochujang give Korean food its earthy character and spicy, sometimes fiery warmth. No one ever claims that Korean cuisine is overly delicate, fussy or particularly subtle; everyone agrees that it’s full of flavour, satisfying, comforting, and wholly delicious. As such it cries out for wines that offer big flavours that are similarly robust and forthright, man enough to stand up and be counted.
Take kimchi, the most famous of all Korean foods. Certainly winter kim chi, crunchy and deliciously sour, with its fermented aromas and heady, nasal-cleansing flavours of garlic, ginger, soused anchovies and lots of ground red chilli pepper, is hardly the easiest food to match with wine. But in truth, a number of wines work well, though as always, it’s often foremost a question of personal taste. For example, I like to try and match the aromatic pungency of kim chi with a wine that is equally assertive, perhaps a New World Sauvignon Blanc from South Australia or Marlborough, New Zealand. In such cases, I’m not looking for restrained delicacy: rather I want a Sauvignon with a pronounced herbaceous or gooseberry character that has enough flavour, body and alcohol to cut through the intense aromas of the kim chi, and add a touch of grassy, razor-sharp freshness.
When we have friends around, we like nothing better than serving platters of mixed Korean ‘tapas’ with drinks before a meal. Fried foods such as pa’jon and pindaettok always go down well with everyone. I love serving nibbles of kosarinamul, the deep flavours of the fiddlehead ferns delicious dressed in soya sauce and toasted sesame oil. We live by the sea so it’s always good to serve raw or just seared shellfish — perhaps a platter of Starcross oysters served on ice together with a fiery kochuchang dipping sauce or some barely seared local diver’s scallops. For wines with Korean ‘tapas’, why not stick to the Spanish theme. The full and intense flavour of sherry, one of the great wines of the world, goes extremely well with Korean food. Try serving a fresh, chilled bone dry fino sherry, or else a salty, seafresh manzanilla with seafood tapas. For a wine to go with more robustly flavoured foods, try a dry amontillado or dry oloroso: these are great classic styles of sherry that are often overlooked and undervalued, and which have enough alcohol and rich, caramelly flavour and character to stand up to the assertiveness of Korean food.
Fish and shellfish
There is no better way to enhance the salty, fresh flavours of fish and shellfish than to serve with an appropriate wine. Take saengsonhoe, for example. This much loved raw fish favourite is by definition incredibly fresh, the seafresh taste delicate and never overly strong. I have found that modern Italian whites can work particularly well here, especially unoaked cool-fermented and vinified to be enjoyed while young and zingy. I adore the wines of Friuli; among my favourite are simple varietals such as Tocai from Collio, as well as Pinot Grigio and Ribolla Gialla from Colli Orientali. Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is another Italian white that can be outstanding with seafood. As an alternative to accompany raw or lightly cooked shellfish, oysters, scallops, lobster and crab, you can’t go too far wrong sticking with a Blanc de Blancs Champagne, the delicacy and the bubbles combining with the shellfish to give a real hit of luxury.
There is nothing better on earth — no nothing at all — than charcoal grilled bulgogi or kalbi. Don’t we all agree? You can have your filet mignon and your tournedos Rossini, thank you very much, but give me a platter of Korean barbequed meats any day of the week. The pungent flavours of soy sauce, plenty of crushed garlic and ginger, and toasted sesame seeds and sesame oil, combined with the smoky, charred flavours of meat and fat, dripping onto an open fire is simply irresistible. We sometimes marinade a large piece of aged rump steak, cook briefly over charcoal, then slice on the slant and arrange the meat over a platter of salad and wild greens. We cook down the marinade and mix with a red wine reduction to make an intriguing East/West sauce.
The wines that work best with Korean barbequed meats are fruity and full-bodied, not overly tannic and harsh. I adore some of the wines being made in Italy’s deepest southern outpost, Puglia. Wines made from the ancient Primitivo grape as well as the beefier Negroamaro are redolent of sun-drenched flavours, and offer dense, concentrated fruit, with plenty of alcohol and body to stand up well to the robust flavours of the grilled meat. Primitivo di Manduria or Salice Salentino are wines to look out for. Or head over to the Iberian peninsula. Portuguese reds are today among the most exciting in the world. I’m thinking of good examples from Alentejo and Douro: full, fruity and with velvety tones that can be beautifully seductive, almost sweet. Rioja and Ribera del Duero wines from Spain, smooth with the soft tones and vanilla scent of new American oak, also partner Korean grilled meats perfectly.
Marc and Kim Millon are the authors of Flavours of Korea — with stories and recipes from a Korean Grandmother’s Kitchen (André Deutsch, London 1991) as well as numerous books on the wines of Spain, Italy and France. He lives in Devon with his photographer wife Kim. For more information visit his website www.quaypress.com