Thai food can and should be part of every home cook’s repertoire, be it a simple red curry, tangy fish preparation or twist on fried chicken. Join Los Angeles culinary hotspot Night + Market chef/owner Kris Yenbamroong on a journey around the home and restaurant kitchens of Thailand, plus plenty of time at roadside stalls and yes, night markets. Every wonder how to drink wine with Thai food ? Thai and alcohol tend to go hand-in-hand, so when you’re ready for a break from Singha beer (or straight whiskey), bust out a bottle of wine and don’t think too hard.
Since the first day we opened, I’ve had this persistent fantasy. In it, someone comes to the restaurant, orders a bottle of wine, and doesn’t eat anything at all. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m holding out hope.
The reason it occurs to me is because Night + Market was conceived as a wine bar as much as it was a restaurant, and in my view it still functions that way. Wine has always been a major part of the story we tell: the idea of encountering things in an unexpected context, and the joy of discovering combinations that are as appealing as they are unlikely. In fact, when we first started, we had more wines by the glass on the menu than we had food items.
So why does Thai food and wine make sense? Well, in some ways it works because you have total freedom. There is no tradition of wine drinking or winemaking in Thailand and thus no orthodoxy, no right or wrong answers about what you should or shouldn’t drink. The robust and very essential drinking culture that does exist revolves around supercold, watery lagers and whiskey, which is usually drunk with soda water or something bubbly. The unifying element is that you’re drinking things that are refreshing and thirst quenching in a way that matches with assertively seasoned Thai food.
Like a lot of people, I used to not link the idea of refreshment with wine. I thought of it as this contemplative, heavy thing that you sipped and swirled by the fireplace out of big round glasses, which of course it can be in certain contexts. But then I was introduced to another kind of wine. I realized that it could be a beverage that was energizing and uplifting. It was something you could drink frequently and copiously — chug, even — without feeling like it was precious, or reserved for special occasions.
What types of wines am I talking about? Here’s how I like to think of them:
Wines That Are Meant To Be Drunk Now
I haven’t had the privilege of enjoying many wines with age, that is, wines that have been sitting in the bottle for more than a couple of years. Part of that is a function of price — older wines tend to be more expensive. Part of that is just a function of those wines not being widely available. Those constraints are what actually led me to discover the wines that would make up the bulk of what we pour at Night + Market as well as what I drink at home: wines that are meant to be enjoyed young. What that provides is a wine that is fresh and light on its feet. I’ve been fortunate enough to work some harvests in France’s Loire Valley, and what impresses me most is how distinct and vibrant a wine can be right when it’s put into the bottle, sometimes even before it’s finished fermenting. It’s important to remember that wine is at its core an agricultural product from the countryside, made by farmers who like to party. They want their wine to facilitate fun-having as much as you do.
Wines That Should Be Consumed With Abandon
Thierry Puzelat, a winemaker hero of mine and a legendary figure in the wine community, is credited with saying something to the effect of, My favorite wine is the bottle I can drain in ten minutes or less. It might seem obvious, but wine should first and foremost be drinkable. In fact, it should entice you to drink it quickly. Part of what makes wine culture seem so snobby and off-putting to outsiders is that it prioritizes deep, contemplative wines and downplays the role of wine as a beverage, something to quench your thirst and make you happy. It’s party fuel. An offshoot of seeking out fresh and vibrant wines is that they tend to have lower alcohol in exchange for more liveliness. There are gently sparkling wines that literally smell and taste like the world’s greatest strawberry wine cooler (without the saccharine aftertaste) and astoundingly, the only thing that makes them taste that way is grape juice and yeast. What I’m saying is, start thinking of wine as a daily, gulpable pleasure rather than something that collects dust in a cupboard. If that means seeking out wines that are affordable enough to buy two of rather than splurging on one, that’s a good thing—you’d be amazed at the immensely enjoyable bottles you can pick up for between fifteen and twenty-five dollars. A budget should be an asset rather than a liability.
Wines Enjoyed Family-Style
At Night + Market, we serve our food family-style. Dishes come out of the kitchen in big waves and are meant to be enjoyed together. With that, it seems only logical that wine should be approached family-style as well. Another by-product of a too-restrictive wine culture is that most people overemphasize food pairings. Not to say that pairings can’t be important — that’s exactly what I want if I’m having a tasting menu where each course is a pristine single bite whose flavors have been honed to an empirical essence — but in general it’s too confining to worry about matching certain wines with certain foods. What’s more important is to find a wine you can enjoy drinking throughout the meal (which is really an extension of the second point about finding refreshing wines that keep beckoning you back for more). This is especially true in the case of Thai food, where a full meal is usually going to include a wide range of flavors and intensity levels, and you might hop back and forth between dishes throughout the evening. The traditional concept of pairings breaks down in those situations. The best advice is to find something you’d want to consume while eating any type of food, but especially wines with enough obvious and bright character as to not get lost against bold and flavorful food. Also along those lines — open more than one bottle at a time. More is more.
Where To Start
Once you’re aware of these wines, the next step involves locating them, and depending on where you live, that might involve a wine bar, a wine shop, or maybe just the Internet. At some point, you’re going to want to deal with a person when you’re learning about wine (unless you just stay on the Internet) and in that regard it’s a good thing to have someone with whom you can build a relationship. If a sommelier is truly good at what they do, they’ll approach wine as an enthusiast rather than a scholar. One of my biggest influences in thinking about wine is my friend Lou Amdur, who runs what I believe to be the greatest wine store in Los Angeles. The Lou philosophy when talking to customers is to not rely on geeky terms like tannins or acidity or dryness, but to communicate in ways that are visceral and sensory; words like refreshing, spicy, tangy, ass-y, Thanksgiving-y, sweet, juicy, mineraly, salty, wild, fragrant, etc. When you strip down the overwrought, complicated language of wine into simpler, more expressive terms, it ends up better for everyone involved.
What To Drink And Why
This section of the book isn’t intended to be a Thai wine-pairing bible. Ultimately wine — just like food — is subjective, and it’s your job to decide how, and if, it could enrich your life. But since there are still so many barriers when getting into casual wine drinking, I want to do my best to open the floodgates. Those cold beers and whiskey sodas? They still work wonderfully with everything in this book, and if you were so inclined, washing everything down with icy Singha and Miller High Life would still provide oceans of pleasure. But to peer into the world of wine is to open yourself up to another dimension of enjoyment and fulfillment.
Consider the suggestions that follow not so much as pairings, but as small interesting experiments to mess around with. The general thought process behind them is to either match similar flavors and heighten a particular taste or contrast different flavors so that they achieve a level of balance. Sometimes you can achieve both with the same wine and different dishes. If one combination strikes you as memorable, you can follow the thread further by reading more specific wine pairings peppered throughout the book.
Lightly Chilled Light Reds with Grilled Pork Products
Next time you open a bottle of red wine, throw it in the fridge for thirty minutes first. The fruitiness will jump out at you while the spicy qualities of the wine (tannins) will be toned down. That matters because the fruit and the freshness are what make wines thirst-quenching, while spice sort of does the opposite. Generally speaking, the lighter the wine, the more chilled it should be.
Try this with any Gamay-based wines, particularly ones from the Loire Valley. My favorites have a wildness to them that makes sense with the extra-porky taste of grilled pig parts (this pairing was one of the original ideas Night + Market was based on).
Pét-Nats (Sparkling Wines) with Anything Fried (and/or to Begin/End a Meal)
Pétillant naturel is the French term for naturally sparkling wines, and in general they’re more rustic and straightforward (and cheaper) than Champagne. With complex and robust foods, you don’t necessarily want a complicated and multilayered beverage. The tingly bubbles of a pét-nat do just enough to enhance the experience of fried or generously seasoned foods while providing refreshment that is direct and exuberant. They are perfect to begin the meal because they cleanse your palate, which is another way of saying they reset your tongue and tell your taste buds to get ready for what’s coming. Think of pét-nats as snapshots of the wine as it transitioned from grape juice into an alcoholic beverage. Or think of them as rustic wine coolers. Either way, drink them. Also, try a sweeter pét-nat in lieu of dessert. The heavy-hitters of French pét-nats are producers such as Les Capriades, Olivier Lemasson, and Hervé Villemade, though there are also great domestic pét-nats from California wineries like Donkey & Goat and j°brix.
Chenin Blanc with Pretty Much Anything
Chenin Blanc is what I suggest when people ask me at the restaurant, What should we drink? It is rarely the wrong answer. It is a white wine that can assume many guises, in terms of minerality and aromas, sweetness vs. dryness, and body. It can make great sparkling wines. All of the things I mentioned can also be said about Riesling, which is traditionally the “go-to” pairing for all foods Asian. But I feel less of a kinship with Riesling. The wines it produces seem to always scream out “I am Riesling.” It’s like when a blockbuster movie star plays a regular person but you can’t stop thinking, Oh, that’s Tom Cruise. Chenin Blanc, while it sometimes seems unmistakably chenin, can also be more mysterious and exciting.
Salty-Savory Whites with Pungent Fishy Things
Yes, some wines can have an intense savory, sometimes salty quality to them. Consider pairing these with foods of similar characteristics to enhance those qualities in each. This could mean a briny white from Greece with a food that has fish sauce as a key ingredient. Or try an orange wine (that’s a white wine that’s made like a red wine, by letting the skins stew in the juice, thereby imparting their flavor) from the Republic of Georgia with a salad of canned tuna.
Oxidative Wines with Pungent, Salty, and Fried Stuff
Wines that are exposed to some level of oxygen in the production process — things like fino and manzanilla sherry, or the notorious Jura wines that are aged in open barrels (wines are conventionally aged in closed containers) — take on very complex flavors and smells. That can mean yeasty, savory, nutty, or candied aromas. Try contrasting these characteristics with foods that have sharp, bright, or salty notes like shrimp paste chile dip with fried eggplant, or with nutty foods like seasoned fried peanuts with lemongrass and garlic. Pair more delicate dishes, like tuna tartare, with wines that have gentler levels of oxidation.