You may have a Chablis you prefer with your oysters. You may know that a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley is a steak’s best friend. But what’s your go-to grape varietal for a smorgasbord of Isan bites?
Here’s the thing: If you are reading this, you probably eat Thai food regularly, or at least eat it more often than slurp oysters. So, why is it that we regular wine drinkers aren’t a little more aware of how to pair wine with the dishes we enjoy every day?
To start, there is virtually no tradition of winemaking or wine drinking in Thailand. In fact, unlike the French with wine, the Japanese with sake, and the Germans with beer, Thais have no history of pairing alcohol with food at all, which might be why we resort to drinking things that are immediately refreshing and thirst-quenching, like ice-cold lagers or whiskeys with soda water, when sitting down for a Thai meal.
But we’d argue that Thailand’s lack of history with wine, along with the extremely diverse cuisine, is exactly what makes pairing so exciting. There are no rules to follow, no old men in suits cringing when you choose a robust red to go with your seafood. Everything is pretty much fair game. And with the different regions, from north to south, contributing their own unique styles and flavours, your pairing options are extensive.
Some of the people making this wide world of wine and Thai food less daunting are the passion-filled chefs, restaurateurs, and sommeliers who have recently shifted the tide in the Thai food scene and invigorated Bangkok’s foodie spirit. They are putting together revelatory wine lists to go with everything from deeply traditional gaeng som to boundary-pushing fish sauce ice cream.
Now, while the realm of Thai food and wine is still a relatively new frontier, there’s comfort in discovering tried and true pairings. To help guide us in our Thai food and vino ventures, some local wine experts share their tips and favourite pairings.
Chaisiri “Tam” Tassanakajohn
Wine Expert at Baan and Nusara (both MICHELIN Plate, MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021)
“The best thing about Thai food is that there is a dish for basically every flavour your palate could want— salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami. Generally, if I have to choose one wine to pair with Thai food I would go for an orange wine. The funky, kombucha-like taste with a touch of acidity is awesome with Thai dishes that use tamarind sauce, like phad thai. This pairing helped inspire the concept of mine and my brother Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn’s phad thai and wine bar.”
“Moo-ping skewers with spicy dipping sauce and sticky rice are my favourite things on earth. The smokiness of the meat and hints of sweetness from the soy and oyster sauces go heavenly with a beautiful Grenache and Syrah from Languedoc, especially the ones from my favourite producer, Alain Chabanon.”
Warakorn “Pom” Ninlawan
Sommelier at Sorn (Two MICHELIN Stars, MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021)
“It’s pretty hard to say what the ultimate pairing for Thai food is because the cuisine is so far-reaching—different types of ingredients, processes, regionality. But if I were to opt to give you an easy answer, I’d say eat your Thai food with bubbles, because they go with nearly everything. Otherwise, white wines tend to go better with Thai dishes than reds. I specifically recommend a Trocken (dry) Riesling from the Rheingau region. It has good minerality and acidity with notes of honey that goes splendidly with dishes that are heavy on herbs and spices.
“In case you’re not a Riesling fan, try a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley with vegetable dishes, Thai chilli paste dips, or even green curry. The wine is more medium bodied with a grassy nose and balanced acidity, which pairs really well with veggies.”
“My favourite Thai dish is phad kaprao, or stir-fried basil with minced pork or beef, which is a pretty aromatic, spice-heavy dish. I like to pair the dish with a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley because the body of the food and wine is quite similar. The tannins don’t overwhelm the meat in the dish, and its hint of capsicum pairs well with the fragrant Thai basil.”
Thanakorn “Jay” Bottorff
Former Head Sommelier at Sühring (Two MICHELIN Stars, MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021), 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo - Bombana (One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Hong Kong & Macau 2020), currently Head Sommelier at a five-star hotel in Bangkok.
“Light, crisp white wines with a bit of sweetness (like an off-dry Riesling) are safe zones when pairing with Thai food. However, if you are in the mood for red wine, go for light-bodied, light tannin, and high acidity wines like Pinot Noirs or Gamays. The acidity will help clean the fattiness and get your palate ready for the next bite.”
“Baked fish served with herbs and lemongrass dressing with Grüner Veltliner, a native grape from Austria. It’s a crisp white wine with unique notes of herbs and white pepper, which helps lift the aromas and flavours of the dish. The crispness of the wine lights up the flavour of the fish completely. A truly magical pairing!”
Sommelier at 80/20 (One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021), Director of Food & Beverage at Plus66 Group
“General tip: be careful of the sugar levels in your wine when pairing with spicy food. The sweetness should be almost imperceptible, otherwise it will smother your palate and mute the flavours in the dish. You're looking to complement the spice, not hide it. I once paired a jungle curry with Champagne. The moderate dosage was barely noticeable, but it worked a treat with the curry.”
“My other, possibly more important, tip is to just relax and have fun with it. Many people get nervous when pairing Thai food, and they really shouldn't. Think outside the box and remember that a sommelier’s repertoire extends far beyond wine, and so can your pairings.”
“I’m going to go rogue here and mention a different type of wine for my favorite pairing: sato. A new dish on 80/20’s Monsoon Menu is a modern riff on the classic yam ang wa, steamed rice dumpling stuffed with mung bean and radish, garnished with fiddlehead fern, then finished with a coconut vinegar dressing. This is a very seasonal dish that I decided paired with a Thai rice wine. Sato Amrita from Si Sa Ket province is made in the same manner as Japanese sake, but with a much lower 11% alcohol and a delicate fruity character. This means it handles the spice and the acid of the dish extremely well.”
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