Don’t think I will tell you that we Chinese eat almost everything! On the contrary, most of us eat normal foods every day. There might be some strange, or different, food in some places, but that’s probably true of every country. For example, I was thrilled to see crayfish on the table while I was traveling in Provence; it’s one of my favorite dishes in China.
About 12 years ago, I developed a Wine and Chinese food pairing program, and no surprise, it ended with an unsuccessful result. As most people on this planet think that what I designed was pairing one wine with one dish. As a Chinese man, I made a serious mistake—we don’t eat dishes one by one, we have them all together on the table.
People may wonder when the Chinese started sharing food. All the documents and antiques show the Chinese ate separately until the Dang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). When high chairs and big tables were introduced from other nations, we slowly developed the habit for sharing food. Is it a good one? Definitely not hygienic at all, but for Chinese food the presentation is very important with meanings (normally luck or happiness). You want to see a whole fish or chicken on the table with a pleasant dressing, which reflects the chef’s outstanding skills. In some premium restaurants, however, the wait staff will separate the food on the table, with two pairs of chopsticks for everyone—one for taking the food and one for eating. (So when you see two pairs of chopsticks in front of you, don’t use them mistakenly. It is a sign that no one wants to share your saliva.)
No matter in what capacity, sharing food is always very important for Chinese people. Normally we have cold dishes at the beginning, and it can be up to eight plates or even more. When all the cold dishes are present on the table and the guests are seated, it is a signal to use your chopsticks. The warm dishes will be serve on the table when they are done cooking; almost all of them will be on the table at once, sometimes up to 12 in total. Normally a warm vegetable plate with rice and noodles is the last dish to be served. The timing of when the soup is served depends on provinces: in Guangdong soup is served first, and in Shanghai it is served late. A simple dessert is not uncommon to finish the meal, and mostly they are fruit-based.
Now let’s come back to wine and Chinese food pairing! Do you think a pairing is workable in China? “Specialists” like to criticize that the Chinese like to pair seafood with red Bordeaux, for example a Château Lafite-Rothschild with steamed fish. But, has anyone ever seen a single dish of steamed fish on a big round table with people only drinking Lafite? When you are facing more than ten dishes in front of you, it becomes a challenge to talk about food and wine pairings.
The easiest way is to find some dishes that can pair well with your wines. Generally speaking, Pinot Noir is unmistakably good with duck, and dry Riesling with stir-fried shrimp. There are thousands of dishes in China, many of which go well with one style of wine. For instance, Sichuan cuisine has about 5,000 dishes, and in China alone we have 12 main cuisines. No one can name all of those dishes, but you better know the popular and famous ones. Hot pot is not a dish in Sichuan, but tea-smoked duck, Mapo Tofu and Yu-Shiang shredded pork are among those famous ones. Some dishes are seasonal, such as hairy crab, which is great with Champagne and Sherry. Be careful when you are in China—if you don’t want to show your innocence about the cuisine, don’t mention foods like sweet and sour pork. One Cantonese restaurant manager told me they have this dish on menu only for foreigners and kids.
When you know more about Chinese food, you could start pairing wines with various styles. Sichuan food is spicy and pungent, while Cantonese food is light and fresh. Burgundy could be a good choice for Cantonese food, but it might be unwise to pair with Sichuan food. Almost every province has its style of food, and it can be an important concern for wine pairing. Bordeaux and Rhone varieties can go well with roasted Peking duck and suckling pig, and Red Rioja is always good with braised meats with soy sauce in Shanghai. There is no salad in traditional Chinese cuisine, so you have to work hard for unoaked Sauvignon Blanc.
And, especially for Chinese food, one cannot be limited by rules. It’s a lot of fun to try one wine with different dishes, or one dish with different wines. Chinese round tables enable us this enjoyment of experience. If not for a formal wine dinner, the best thing to do is to put all the wine on the table and keep yourself busy trying different dishes with different wines. Late harvest Riesling can be good with spicy food, but Barossa Shiraz can be equally as good. Nothing is impossible for wine and Chinese food pairing!