A guide to wine with Thai food by Robert Carmack


Wine and Thai food — few combinations are as fraught in the East-meets-West culinary world. While Thailand’s unique combination of salty, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter has made its cooking universally popular, these same zesty contrasts can render wine pairings either delicious or jarring.

picture shows a selection of Thai food

Typical Thai dishes have strong tastes and powerful flavours derived from spices and ingredients such as lemongrass, chilli, ginger, kaffir lime, garlic, palm sugar and fish sauce. But with so many contrasting flavours, textures and aromas served simultaneously, there’s no chance that any one wine will suit every offering.

“The biggest problem we have is finding a wine diverse enough to go with a diverse Thai meal. At best, you can have a de facto relationship rather than a marriage. I call it living in sin,” says chef David Thompson of nahm at the Metropolitan hotel.

Surprisingly, the consensus from Thai experts is that chilli is not the most contentious ingredient. Rather, it’s the herbaceous seasonings and sugar combinations, tinged with lime and coconut, that play havoc with wine pairing.

“You can live with chillies in a meal paired with wine, but it doesn’t have the same detrimental impact on the palate as sugar and citrus. Chilli doesn’t actually destroy the wine,” states Thompson.

Ironically, sweetness in wine is another story all together, actually harmonizing with many Thai dishes. Sugar has long been recognised as a foil to chilli spice, so traditional pairing that solely sticks white wine with Asian cuisine is blinkered thinking. White wines with residual sugar, such as spicy gewürztraminer, riesling, and off-dry to sweet German and Austrian wines were the established norms.

But nowadays, more red wines are coming to the fore, preferably light and slightly fruit-driven.

“I think that a lot of Asians will go for reds because it’s a lot more prestigious,” says Australian film director Les Luxford, who moonlights as a restaurant reviewer. Just witness the ordering in any Thai restaurant overseas, and observe that red wine wins hands down at Thai-patronised tables.

So, how best to eat a Thai meal with complimentary wines? One adventurous example is at Sra Bua at Bangkok’s Siam Kempinski Hotel. Like nahm at The Metropolitan, its prototype comes from a Michelin-starred European restaurant, Kiin Kiin in Denmark. But that’s the only similarity. While nahm strives for traditional authentic cooking sourced from age-old recipe manuscripts, at Kiin Kiin and Sra Bua, chefs embrace the molecular gastronomy movement pioneered by Ferran Adrià of el Bulli in Spain. Basically, it is playing with the components of cooking to deliver them in unexpected forms: Deconstructing foods to their basic flavours, then reconstructing them into foam, mousse and trompe l’oeil. The result is a sensory experience of sight, sound, taste and smell.


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