Pairing wines with Japanese curry
Curry was brought to Japan from the UK in the mid-19th century. Though it started as a military food, in the 20th century curry powder became available in many grocery stores in Japan.
The locals enjoyed curry not only with steamed rice but also with noodles. Gradually, they developed their own methods for preparing these dishes.
In the beginning, they blended curry powder with flour, making a yellowish curry roux, which in most cases wasn’t spicy. Later, the solid blocks of curry roux that we find in shops today were created. The convenience and varied spiciness of these boosted their popularity in ordinary households in Japan and overseas.
The spiciness of the curry roux, the vegetables, seafood or meat used to cook the curry sauce – as well as the choice of toppings – are the key factors to consider when deciding on the perfect wines to pair.
The most common Japanese curry dishes are plain curry roux made from vegetable and pork stocks, seafood curry (curry sauce with seafood chunks inside) and curry
with katsu toppings.
For plain curry, a spicy, fragrant Gewürztraminer is my top choice. Its aromatic, exotic fruits are in good synergy with spicier versions of curry roux too. For seafood curry, the minerality of seafood and the cooking oil (butter or olive oil) match well with a creamy, oaked Burgundian Chardonnay.
If you prefer topping up your curry with crunchy katsu, go for Cabernet Sauvignon-driven reds, especially those from Bordeaux’s Left Bank – well-structured tannin tends to work well with the oiliness of the deep-fried topping, whereas the elegant acidity functions as a palate cleanser.
Soba and udon
Japanese soba and udon are popular noodle dishes, with the umami flavour in the broth or dipping sauce playing a key role in shaping their flavours. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat and are thinner than udon noodles, which are made of wheat. Both varieties can be served hot or cold.
Made using ‘dashi’, the Japanese soup stock extracted from seafood and kombu (dried kelp), the soup and the dipping sauce served with soba and udon usually contain plenty of umami and mineral flavours.
Pinot Noir, especially a classic from Burgundy, is my go-to option for plain soba and udon with no toppings (‘kake’ or ‘mori’). Koshu from Japan could be another good option due to its delicate flavour profile, which matches very well with the umami-rich dashi flavours.
Your toppings of choice can also influence the taste, leading to different pairing options. If you add sweetened fried tofu (‘abura-age’) to make ‘kitsune soba (or udon)’, then the sweetness of abura-age tends to match better with aromatic whites such as Gewürztraminer or Pinot Gris from Alsace, Viognier from the southern Rhône, German Kabinett Riesling or Spanish Albariño.
Mixed tempura (‘kakiage’) is another popular topping for soba and udon. If that is your preference, opt for fino Sherry, which works in perfect harmony with the additional richness and crunchy, nutty flavours of the tempura crust.
You can even choose curry sauce to season your soba or udon – again, aromatic whites would guarantee a good match with its spiciness.
Ramen is thought to have been brought to Japan from China in the middle of the 19th century (the original Chinese name ‘拉麺’ literally means ‘pulled noodles’). However, the soup-infused noodle dish has largely taken influence from Japan and nowadays, almost every region has its own distinctive ramen style.
The flavour of the Ramen broth, therefore, holds the key to the perfect pairings and the four major broths are shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso (fermented soybean paste)
and tonkotsu (pork bone).
In many cases, dried seafood is used for making the stock for shio ramen. To match well with the saltiness and minerality of the soup, I would go for a crisp Koshu, a nutty fino or an oaked Chardonnay from the Old World, ideally with some lees contact for texture. Consider those from Burgundy, Italy, Spain or Eastern Europe.
With shoyu ramen, the combination of dashi and soy sauce makes the umami flavour sing on your palate – and there is nothing better than choosing an elegant Burgundian Pinot Noir to match.
For miso ramen, my top choices are fino Sherry or again, Burgundian Pinot Noir due to the creamy, yeasty and umami flavours of the miso paste.
The richness and oiliness of tonkotsu ramen would benefit from reds with higher tannin. Therefore a Cabernet blend from the Old World such as those from Bordeaux’s Left Bank, the Languedoc and the rest of Europe should do the trick. Syrah from the Rhône, Tannat from south-west France, Spanish Tempranillo, Italian Nebbiolo or Aglianico are also valid options.
Sparkling wines: The all-rounder choice
If you love sparkling wines, then good news – they tend to work with any of the fulfilling rice and noodle dishes mentioned above. The refreshing character of the bubbles helps to moderate any extreme flavours, be it curry spices or oily soup, while refreshing your palate.
My top choices
Fino Sherry: Soba and udon noodles with tempura toppings, shio and miso ramen
Gewürztraminer from Alsace: Curry dishes in general
Cabernet Sauvignon-driven reds from Bordeaux’s Left Bank: Katsu curry
Burgundian Chardonnay: Seafood curry and shio ramen
Burgundian Pinot Noir: Plain soba & udon, shoyu and miso ramen
Koshu from Japan: Plain soba and udon, shio ramen
Old World sparkling wines: All-rounder choices
Generally speaking, I would always recommend fruit-restrained and mineral Old World wines over fruit-driven wines from the New World to pair with classic Japanese dishes. The delicate Koshu wines from Japan match well with them for the same reason – not only because they share the origin.
Don’t forget to order wine next time and enjoy the harmony between wine and these hearty ‘wa (和)’ style dishes.