Here are some food and wine surprises a friend and I discovered while visiting Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand this January and February. (This is NOT about Asian wines – which may be the focus of huge interest in the coming years.)
In the city of Siem Reap outside the Angkor Wat temple complex, the bustling downtown hums with open air tuk-tuk taxis careening around streets filled with locals, backpackers, and visitors from all over the world. From here you can visit the thousand-year old (impeccably preserved) Angkor temples, or the Landmine Museum (featured in National Geographic magazine this January). You can dangle feet into a tank of fish who nibble your toes clean (“No Piranhas” the operators advertise), or sample local food (pig intestines on a stick? Not bad).
If that sounds dicey, there are also excellent restaurants in town.
One evening we sat on the outer porch of the Station Wine Bar. Located close to popular Pub Street, the bar opened less than a year ago. There we listened to blues music and ordered glasses of Rockford Moppa Springs GSM 2006 from the Barossa Valley in Australia.
We talked to Chai, who was running the bar while the Australian owner Tony was away enjoying vacation. Chai moved to Siem Reap from another province and was working locally as a tuk-tuk driver when the owner met him and offered him a job at the Station.
“Drive tuk-tuk not so good for me,” Chai explained. “I didn’t have a guest house or hotel to work with, and so had to find customers on the street.”
Chai told how their best-selling wines offer good value. For whites, this is a Sauvignon Blanc from the Maipo region of Chile, while for reds it’s an Oxford Landing from Australia.
We had to wait a few nights before getting a table for two at Cuisine Wat Damnak restaurant. There we tried two tasting menus. The first included pan-fried frog meat on a dry Vietnamese soup, a sanday fish yellow curry with green jack fruit, and a Mekong langoustine with rice wine and Kurata pepper with a green star fruit salsa.
The second tasting menu included a chicken and calamari ‘beer garden’ salad, braised pork shank with star anise and caramel, and pan-fried Tonle Sap croaker fish with pounded wild eggplant and local cresson.
For dessert – chocolate and basil ganache with a caramel sheet, and chilled fruits soup with Mondokiri green tea, lime sorbet, and palm sugar meringue.
With this, we drank a bottle of 2004 Château La Mouline de Labégorce – Haut Médoc, from Bordeaux. The flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon dominated the blend. We could have let the wine gulp in a little more air for an hour or two before drinking it down, but – but, hey, we were hungry and thirsty and on vacation and just dove right into sipping it up.
The city of Luang Prabang next to the Mekong River is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is peaceful town where many Buddhist monks live and study. There are also some gorgeous waterfalls nearby.
Because of this UNESCO designation, the restaurants, bars, and hotels are generally above par for quality. After stopping in to the Coconut Garden restaurant to eat an amazing dinner at an outdoor table of sautéed pork with ginger ($4.50) as well as grilled river fish stuffed with pork and herbs and wrapped in a banana leaf ($8.75) we walked nearby to visit a little wine bar named BaraVin and sat on the outer porch to watch the world pass by through warm evening air.
There we drank a bottle of Trivento Reserve Malbec from Argentina. Considering the heat, this may sound a bit heavy. But after a full dinner it was like drinking dessert. (A good contender to this after dinner drink? Actually, the local Laos beer goes down smoothly.)
On the island of Koh Jum on the Andean Sea, we opened a bottle of 2005 Clos du Val Merlot from the Napa Valley and drank up while watching sunset. (Why a California wine? On the request of Lisa, who lives there.)
The wine was full with plenty of oak, but we didn’t really need the alcohol because the location itself was semi-intoxicating.
Asian wines are up and coming. But on this trip I stayed with European, American, and Australian wines which were – surprisingly – abundant throughout the region. However, for accommodation, we did not venture far from the beaten trail. If we had, the chances of finding a Malbec or Merlot would have been far slimmer.
Okay – A Few Basic Tips for Matching Asian Food with Wine –
1. Remember, Asian cuisine was historically not developed together with culture of wine, so pairing food and wine can offer an intriguing challenge.
2. Think harmony and balance rather than power. Instead of a ‘big wine’ (like the Haut-Medoc I mentioned above), think lower alcohol, softer tannins, crisper acidity.
3. Do a little bit of research to find what might be a good match (unlike my own pairings above!).
Credit for this advice goes to Randal Caparoso in his excellent online article Pairing Wine with Asian Food (from Gayot), at:
NONE of the restaurants or wine bars we visited offered incentives or samples, and did not know I was writing about them. What you read about on this web log is what you get.
Websites of locations I recommend visiting in the region are below.
Wat Damnak Restaurant, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Mekong Riverview Hotel, Luang Prabang, Laos
Koh Jum Beach Villas, Koh Jum Island, Thailand