Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Added spice

Published:  23 July, 2008

Allegedly, chicken tikka marsala is our new national dish. True or not, it's a good conversational poppadum to snap over a masala dosa. What is certainly true is that the South Asian restaurant industry is a well-established part of the modern high street.

These restaurants are a lot more sophisticated now than they were 10 or 15 years ago: the food is better, businesses slicker and clientele more discerning.

The days when the local Tandoori was just there to soak up custom when the pubs kicked out, getting by on dishing up over-spiced, greasy platefuls in exchange for a few quid and a dose of casual racism are finished.

There's a new wave of South Asian Restaurants (by which I mean Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan) with good, varied menus made up of dishes that may rankle with Indian food purists, but keep the rest of us very happy.

But is the wine trade making the most of this opportunity? A glance around a restaurant in London's Brick Lane one evening recently found it bustling with a mixed bunch of reasonably affluent looking diners, and also showed that lager was the drink of choice.

Somehow, despite the fact that South Asian food has gone mainstream, the idea is entrenched that lager is the 'right drink' with Indian food, even in people who usually prefer wine with their meal.

So if wine sales are going to take off, there has to be a massive rethink about how the wine industry can work within this sector. The obstacles fall into two areas: spicy food is notoriously difficult to match with wine; and most Hindu and Muslim owners and staff don't drink alcohol so have little desire to learn about the intricacies of wine.

To get past these obstacles will require some new and creative thinking, but perhaps all that's really needed are some age-old, chicken-and-egg, 'pull'-and-'push' marketing techniques.

Consumers in South Asian restaurants have to be 'pulled' into the idea that wine is a good choice and be given a clear idea of what will be a satisfying accompaniment.

A 'canon' of wines that really complement South Asian food needs to be established in the popular consciousness so that consumers will be happy to order without being guided by restaurant staff.

Meanwhile, restaurateurs need to be 'pushed' into seeing wine as an integral and profitable part of their business. Ways of doing this without compromising individuals' religious beliefs need to be thought through. After all, there's potential for a lucrative symbiotic relationship, and at the moment restaurants and the wine trade are both missing a trick.

So what should be included in this selection of 'must have' wines for South Asian restaurants? Zubair Mohammed, who is of Kenyan-Pakistani origin, owns Edinburgh-based wine merchant Raeburn Fine Wines.

He burst out laughing when I told him the subject of this article. 'Wine in South Asian restaurants - not very good is it! I don't sell any, which speaks volumes. For this food the best wines have some residual sugar; Kabinett and Auslese are wonderful. Germany could increase its sales tenfold if it got its wines into these restaurants.'

Off-dry whites aren't the only option, as Ilario Terranova, sommelier at Michelin-starred London restaurant Tamarind, points out. 'Our British clientele tend to go for beer or white wines, but our Indian clients prefer red wines or whisky. The wine needs to have good weight, good fruitiness, good fat flavours.

Too much tannin, alcohol and wood influence will cover the food. New World Pinot Noir is excellent.'

So while Bordeaux varietals tend to be a bit of a tannic disaster, southern reds such as Grenache, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Gamay, etc, can be fantastic, particularly with warm spices like cloves and cinnamon.

It's also worth looking at why lager is so popular with Asian food. Basically, served well chilled it's very thirst quenching and the CO2 gives food a lift.

So imitating these qualities, but adding a more complex flavour with a sparkling or semi-sparkling wine, is also a good option.

In brief then, good wines for South Asian food are: unwooded whites, particularly those with a touch of residual sugar; fruity ross; low-tannin, juicy reds; and sparkling wines.

Of course there are some sectors of the wine industry that have recognised these parameters and are promoting wines as being well suited to spicy food. So lets look at some pulling techniques.

Alsace generic body The Alsace Wine Council has been rolling out an advertising campaign including the slogan 'Eat Indian, Drink Alsace' for the past three years, and, with a little tweaking, intends to carry this forward throughout 2006.

'For years it's been taken as read by the wine trade that Alsace wine is good with spicy food, but consumers don't necessarily know this. Our aim is to point out how these wines are relevant to the way people eat today,' says Alsace marketing director Richard Kannemacher.

Of course this 'pull' style of advertising, which is dependent on consumer demand, takes a long view on permeating into Asian restaurants, but restaurants like Dilli, in Altrincham, Cheshire, and The Cinnamon Club in London, which have caught plenty of praise from reviewers, both have an extensive choice of Alsace wines.

However, I was amused to hear that when wine consultant Peter McCombie MW and Laurent Chaniac were putting together a new wine list for the latter's Cinnamon Club restaurant, although they selected a number of Alsace wines, they chose not to include any Gewurztraminer as 'it's such a clich with spicy food'.

But these two restaurants are at the cutting edge of South Asian cuisine and have a high average spend of 25-30 a head.

It's their role to experiment, to try new things, it's what clients pay for. But for mid-range South Asian restaurants perhaps the only way to blow the 'curry and lager' myth is to underline a few clichs.

'Gewurztraminer is an obvious choice, but it's not the best selling,' says Bruno Ricard of Pagendam Pratt, suppliers of wine to the pan-Yorkshire Agra Group, one of the largest South Asian restaurant chains in the UK.

MD and executive chef Mohammed Aslam opened his first restaurant in Shipley in 1977. His company now owns 11 restaurants.

'I'm a Muslim, so I'm a teetotaller. I'm not extreme about this, I'll sell alcohol, I'll pour it at tables, I'll sit with friends who are drinking, I just don't drink it myself,' Aslam explains.

'But wine is an important part of my business. We sell plenty. Luckily I have a very good relationship with Bruno Ricard at wine merchant Pagendam Pratt, and over the years we've worked out what sells.'

'It is difficult to select wine for the Agra restaurants,' adds Ricard. 'You can't simply say this wine goes with lamb, because there are so many varied spices. And importantly, you have to take into account the average spend - we're just not going to sell a bottle of wine at 40. You have to find wine that people are comfortable with. We sell a lot of Torres Via Sol for example.'

A company that has recognised that there is a niche for competitively priced wines that work with spicy foods and will encourage consumers away from beer to wine, is the aptly named Wine for Spice.

CEO Warren Edwardes, who is of Goan and Anglo-Indian descent, says he deliberately looked at why beer works with curries and then improved on the model. 'It occurred to me that a good-quality, naturally fermented semi-sparkling young wine with not as much fizz as Champagne and cava would add a zing and bring out the flavours of Asian food.'

There are three wines in his range: Viceroy White, Raja Ros and Rani Gold, all of which have some residual sugar and are meant to be served very well chilled.

Importantly, Edwardes has recognised the importance of an appropriate price point, and these wines sell in restaurants at around 12-16.

Wine produced in India also has obvious appeal to consumers. A relatively recent arrival is Sula, from Nashika in Maharashtra State. Its Shiraz and Chenin Blanc are proving popular choices at Babur Brasserie in Forest Hill, southeast London.

'Ninety percent of the customers who drink this wine order a second bottle, and for me that proves it's a successful listing,' comments owner Emdad Raman.

So while this eclectic selection of wines from Germany to Alsace, with an emphasis on Gewuztraminer, plus brands like Torres Via Sol, Wine for Spice and Sula, may seem like an odd bunch, it is actually doing a good job at pulling customers into drinking wine in South Asian restaurants.

There's a definite sense here that these wines are filling a gap, and consumers are slowly starting to take note. So it's time to start pushing.

Currently, there seem to be three ways in which South Asian restaurants and wine merchants are working together. Some restaurants stick to what they've always bought, and have little communication with the person selling to them, many buying at cash and carries.

The second group work closely with a wine merchant and put their list in his hands. This can work well, as in the example of the Agra chain and Pagendam Pratt, but it can also be wide open to abuse. Then there are a minority that employ a wine consultant.

Robin Knapp, wine director at Matthew Clarke, which supplies 10,000 on-trade venues countrywide, comments: 'A typical local South Asian restaurant is usually run by a husband-and-wife team, or a pair of brothers. They've worked hard to build up their business and now they have a fixed idea about what their wine list should include.

If people don't drink wine themselves it can be very, very difficult to persuade them that Mateus ros and some basic French wines aren't the best thing.'

This is starting to change though, as many businesses are being passed on to a younger generation who may well have grown up in Britain and are far more willing to include wine as an important part of their business.

'We try and encourage restaurateurs to buying a limited number of well-selected wines,' says Knapp. 'And we offer support, like writing menus, profiling grape varieties, supplying food-and-wine-matching crib sheets. We also encourage restaurants to do back bar merchandising so clients can see the wines on offer. The system has proved successful.'

But putting their wine list entirely in the hands of one wine merchant didn't appeal to Emdad and Amin Raman of Babur Brasserie when they recently gave their extremely successful restaurant a facelift.

Instead, they hired the services of wine consultant Peter McCombie MW and now speak highly of the work he did for them. 'McCombie spent a lot of time going through the new menu, selecting wines and testing them against the dishes.

As a result, we have an excellent wine list and because we are buying from eight competing merchants they have to keep their prices keen. McCombie also explained to our staff what to recommend, so they are more confident now.'

Of course, there's a lot more work to do before the South Asian restaurant industry and the wine trade are really working closely together, but the seeds have been sown. Add some push-marketing fertiliser and there's real potential for this to develop.

'Thirty years ago when I started my business you could put anything on the table, nobody cared,' says Mohammed Aslam. 'We just used to be there for after the pub, but all that has changed. We now cater for families, couples and do corporate events. Tastes have developed a lot in three decades.'

The South Asian restaurant industry may have come a long way, but it is still maturing, and the astute in the wine trade recognise this. In the best scenarios, both sides are working together to create something mutually profitable.

Even so, there's still a long way to go before the lager and curry clich is as out of date as thinking that the only reason to go to a South Asian restaurant is after pub hours to soak up a bellyful of beer with a blasting vindaloo.