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New York chef Esther Choi pairs Korean fishcake with Loureiro. (Photo: Jenny Adams.)

When it comes to wine, the Portuguese generally eschew the likes of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes found so commonly around the world for their own options. The winemaking region here has more than 45 indigenous grape varieties, and single varietal wines, like the lovely Loureiro, are becoming increasingly popular exports. For a long time when someone mentioned Portugal and wine, the immediate references were port and Madeira. However, now Vinho Verde is solidly in the American lexicon of wonderful, wines.

In a previous post, we posed a challenge to a New York City chef. We asked Esther Choi, owner-Chef of Mokbar, to pair a Vinho Verde with her food. Doesn’t sound that hard? Choi cooks Korean, including very traditional dishes passed down from her grandmother’s own hand. While it’s easy to slide a glass of white wine next to a plate of grilled pork, bright salad or even fish tacos, we wanted to see what Choi would do when considering how to pair her country’s heavy-handed, indigenous flavors, anchored by strong seasonings, mirin, black pepper, sesame oil, scallions and fermented, briny cabbage.

You could say there’s a shared excitement between the nations of Portugal and South Korea when it comes to global food culture. Both are bringing their most delicious exports into the spotlight, and people around the world are learning to love the pickled, spicy nature of Korean foods as well as the bright, sweet citrus of a good Vinho Verde wine. But can they love them side by side? We snuck once more into Choi’s bustling kitchen to find out, and by all accounts it seems like a match made in heaven. The sweet fruit and floral flavors in the Loureiro balance the spiciness of this dish and its dipping sauces.

New York Chef Esther Choi prepares Korean fishcakes. (Photo: Jenny Adams.)
New York Chef Esther Choi prepares Korean fishcakes. (Photo: Jenny Adams.)

Food Republic: You were born in New Jersey, but your food wheelhouse is solidly Korean. Tell us about where you learned to cook and your influences.

Chef Choi: My parents moved to America in their 20s, and when we were growing up, they were working all the time. My grandparents helped raise us, and it was Grandma Choi who taught me to cook. It was a small community, and everyone met at the church. My uncle was the pastor, and my grandmother cooked all the food. She’s great at everything, but it’s definitely very traditional Korean — soups, casseroles, dumplings on New Year’s. At Mokbar, I have Halmoni dumplings on the menu, which means “grandmother dumplings.” It’s named for her.

Food Republic: Tell us about the dish you chose and the Vinho Verde pairing you selected.

Chef Choi: The wine is the Casal de Ventozela Loureiro 2014, and I found it almost like drinking grape juice. It goes down that easy. It’s beautiful and super-light. I immediately thought of appetizers. Eumuk is a fishcake fritter that you’d find in the streets in South Korea, usually served  on a stick and dipped into broth. No one in Korea ever makes them at home because you can find them so easily in the markets. But they are simple to make, using white fish and vegetables.

Food Republic: Did you alter the recipe?

Esther Choi: Yes, because I wanted to actually include the wine in the dish. I put a quarter cup of the Loureiro into the batter, in the place of a more traditional recipe that would use sake or another Asian alcohol. I used cod and shrimp, but I also added mozzarella. People say it’s a sin to put fish and cheese together, but in Korea, that’s actually quite common. It gives texture in this case, and I made two sauces.

Food Republic: Is there wine in the sauce, too?

Chef Choi: No. I did apple cider vinegar and a mustard to balance the saltiness of the soy sauce, and I made a gochujang Korean mayo with scallions and lemon. Gochujang is a Korean fermented pepper paste. This mayo is not nearly as hot as my traditional one, but I wanted to play off the citrus and not overpower the wine. I think in this dish, the big Korean flavors come off when you dip the fishcake into the sauce, and that’s just a touch…a moment. Then you take a sip and balance it all out with the Loureiro wine.

Food Republic: Do you have a wine list at Mokbar in Chelsea Market?

Chef Choi: No, but we’ve had so many requests from our customers, we are going to add one in the spring. In South Korea, wine has become increasingly popular. Usually it’s in an American or Italian restaurant there, but in upscale settings, Koreans are getting into pairing wine with food. Likewise, I’ve seen some very thoughtful wine lists in upscale Asian restaurants around New York City over the last couple of years. I think we are on the cusp of seeing more Asian food being paired with beverages outside of sake and shochu…like Vinho Verde!

New York Chef Esther Choi pairs her Korean fishcakes with Loureiro. (Photo: Jenny Adams.)
New York chef Esther Choi pairs her Korean fishcakes with Loureiro. (Photo: Jenny Adams.)

Eumuk (fishcake) fritters

Serves 2


  • ½ pound cod, pollock, or any white fish
  • ½ pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 2 clove, ½ tablespoon garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup Vinho Verde Loureiro wine
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • ¼ cup carrot, very small dice
  • ¼ cup onion, very small dice
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, deseeded and small dice
  • ½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Scallion mayo dipping sauce

  • ¼ cup kewpie mayo (Japanese mayo) — or regular if unavailable
  • 1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 scallion, thinly sliced

Soy dipping sauce

  • ¼ cup light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon Chinese mustard ( or Dijon if can’t find)


  1. In a food processor, add white fish and shrimp, garlic and blend very well.
  2. Add wine, starch, salt, egg and fish sauce and mix until just blended well (do not overmix).
  3. Take mixture out of the processor and place into a large bowl; add the carrot, onion and pepper. Mix well with spatula.
  4. Add mozzarella cheese and mix.
  5. In 2 small separate bowls, mix the mayo ingredients together and soy sauce ingredients together.
  6. Bring a pot with oil to 350 degrees, take 1 tablespoon of the fish mixture and drop it in the hot oil and fry for 3-4 minutes each. Continue until all mixture is fried.
  7. Serve with mayo and soy sauce.
  8. Can make days in advance. It freezes well, too!

Pairing Notes: In Korea, fishcake is one of the most popular ingredients but is usually store-bought. However, it is fabulous and easy to make at home and goes well with a light and refreshing wine, such as a Loureiro from Vinho Verde.

Wine Pairing: Loureiro is the most widely planted white grape in the Vinho Verde region, and it is often a star in the blended wines. Increasingly, it is being given a chance to shine in 100 percent  Loureiro wines like these:

  • Casal de Ventozela Loureiro: Here the Loureiro grape brings juicy tropical fruit flavors, like passionfruit and melons, as well as refreshing acidity.
  • Via Latina Loureiro: This wine showcases ripe citrus fruits, such as ruby red grapefruit flavors.
  • Adega de Ponte de Lima Loureiro: This example shows more floral notes coupled with Vinho Verde wines’ trademark acidity.

Ask for the Vinho Verde section of your local wine shop, or check out Wine Searcher to find a bottle near you.

Brought to you by our friends at Vinho Verde: