News and views | Pairing whisky with Indian food

News and views

Pairing whisky with Indian food

Among the many invitations I get to food and drink matching events a recent one to attend a dinner at the Bombay Brasserie in London where each course was paired with whisky sounded the most intriguing. But pairing a high strength spirit with spicy food was surely a recipe for disaster?

As it turned out it was a) not that unusual - a number of Indian whisky dinners have been held before and b) a revelation - the whiskies went much, much better with the food than I could have imagined.

The pairings had been devised by the restaurant’s head chef Sriram Aylur in conjunction with whisky expert (and old friend and colleague) Dave Broom, a brilliant master of ceremonies. The whiskies, which were served blind, could be from anywhere in the world, we were told.

It was a relief to find that almost all the assembled company of whisky experts got at least one of them wrong (at a wine event a few clever clogs would have made the rest of us feel totally inadequate). The gentle sweet aperifif whisky, for example was not Scotch, not a 10 year old as suggested, but a 3 y.o. Indian single malt called Paul John (it turns out there are quite a few Indian whiskies).

We then had a delicious bitter-sweet cocktail created by mixologist Ryan Chetiyawardana, a mixture of Eagle Rare 10 y.o. bourbon which Ryan described as ‘grown-up Buffalo Trace’, Cocchi Americano which is rich in quinine and a homemade turmeric liqueur infused with cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and coriander seed. There was also a basil garnish though I didn’t pick up a lot of flavour from that.

The first food pairing was palak patta chaat, crisp baby spinach with a mango dressing that was paired with a sweet, fragrant Balvenie 14 y.o. aged in Caribbean casks seasoned with three types of rum. The tropical fruit flavours chimed in really well with the mango.

prawn tokri and masala-coated tilapia

Next we had two spicy fish dishes with a big chilli hit - prawn tokri and a masala-coated tilapia which was successfully partnered - to everyone’s surprise - with Johnnie Walker Blue Label. (Several thought it was a whisky aged in a Sauternes cask.) Dave said that blends were often easier to match with food because they were ‘inherently complex spirits’ whereas “single malts are all about the intensity of a single flavour.”

The main course, although plated individually, was much more what people would think of as a typical Indian meal: lamb rogan josh, chicken biryani, a dal, a spicy potato dish called aloo Katliyan, paratha and yoghurt. The lamb was possibly the hardest element to match but the other components all went well with another surprising choice of whisky: the fragrant, honeyed, slightly smoky Barry Crockett Legacy Single Pot Still whiskey from the Midleton distillery in Ireland.

Unfortunately I had to leave before the dessert (probably just as well . . .) but the last two pairings were apparently Ardbeg Uigeadail with a milk pudding with berries andmalai kulfi (not totally convincing, I was later told) and Glenfarclas 20 y.o.105 with chocolates.

Two thoughts overall: first of all that some degree of sweetness - as with wine - is the key to matching whisky with spicy food. None of the whiskies had a powerfully woody flavour, particularly when diluted, thus avoiding the tannins that can cause problems with chillies and spice.

And you do need to water them down. Nick Morgan of Diageo, who I was sitting next to, says that you shouldn’t hesitate to dilute them to 12-13%, a similar strength to wine, i.e., in some cases, less than a third of their original strength. I found that made them much more palatable but it does diminish their individual character. You could also serve them with soda, Dave Broom suggested.

So maybe it’s India - and other Asian countries who don’t hesitate to put whisky on the table - who’ve got it right and not us? “In India they don't have our hang-ups about whisky and food not going together” said Dave. “We can learn something from the rest of the world.”

This article was first published in September 2012. I was invited to the dinner as a guest of Diageo.

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