Nepal’s national dish is deceivingly complex. Each successive meal may have a different vegetable, a different curry (and meat selection), lentils vary, and everything, especially spiciness, changes with the season. And true enjoyment comes from the hand mixing of the daal, curry, pickle, vegetable and rice into one delicious mouthful.
So to honestly answer this, we need understand what makes a good pairing, because it will change with each meal, potentially changing the selection of beer and wine. Also, most people assume that you are finding a drink to match the food, but sometimes if you really enjoy a particular wine or beer, it might be better to find food that matches your beer instead. It’s just as easy to plan for buff as for chicken, after all…
As always, don’t worry too much about the effects of experimenting. Even if the pairing isn’t great, typically none of it will taste bad. And the very worst that happens is you have food and beer/wine… Not so bad!!!
First the basics of what we taste
Today you can get a college degree in how we humans taste things (they have now identified dozens of flavors we recognize), but here is the simple approachable description that will help you put flavors together. At its most basic, we generally recognize food and drink as: Salty, Sour/Acidic, Sweet, Bitter, Fatty and Spicy. To enjoyably pair any food and drink, it is a matter of matching these flavors.
Congruent vs Contrasting
There are two basic ways of matching flavors. First you can contrast, which creates balance by contrasting tastes and flavors. The second is to highlight shared flavor compounds through congruent pairing.
Pizza is a great example of balanced contrast pairing of different flavors. The crust (bread) adds some sweetness, cheese adds fat, sauce adds salt, spice and acid (tomatoes are high in acid), and meat (or additions like olives, etc.) often add a combination of bitter and salt. It is small wonder why people everywhere eat pizza, as it hits all major taste zones on our tongue. The same is true of beverages. Cola drinks are an example of acid (CO2 and water becomes carbonic acid), bitter (cola beans are bitter), and sweet (sugar).
A great example of congruent flavors is cake with frosting. The sweetness in the frosting accents the sweet in the cake. A lassi is milk/yogurt (sweet and fatty), combined with fruit (sweet and acid), and often honey (sweet).
And if you consider the myriad of pizza and cake varieties you begin to understand that combinations are nearly endless.
How do you match it all up?
Historically guidance has been over simplified dictating red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat or fish, and never pair beer. Here is a more accurate way of deciding.
Start by breaking the food down to its dominant taste.
There is a big difference between chicken in a spicy Thai curry versus chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce. One is high spice and acid, the other high bitter and fat. Greens bring acidity and bitterness versus, for instance, creamed saag which offers fattiness and sweetness.
Then match the intensity
Generally food should be less acidic than wine or beer, or the wine will taste flabby and the beer will taste flat. It is better to match the wine and beer with the sauce rather than with the meat, as the sauce flavor will dominate. If the food is much sweeter than the wine, the wine will taste bitter or acidic. This can be good or bad, so choose carefully.
It is important to remember that any light beverage against a strong spicy dish will inevitably taste watery - whether it’s beer or wine. For stronger food, match with a beer or wine providing more intensity.
General rules of pairing
Over the years, chefs, restaurateurs, and wine and beer makers have found consistent flavor matches that most people prefer. Here are some simple guidelines for putting food and drink together.
Good = Acid-to-Acid, Sweet-to-Salty, Bitter-to-Fat, Acid-to-Fat
Not So Good: Bitter-to-Bitter, Salty-to-Salty, too much Acid-to-Acid
Enduring: Sweet can go with most other flavors. When was the last time dessert after any meal tasted bad…
This is why wine pairs so well with food, with all taste components on the “good” list. Wine has acid (tartaric, malic and citric), bitter (tannins), and sweet (residual sugar or fruit flavors).
Similarly beer has all; acid from the CO2 and hops (alpha acids), bitter from the hops and grains, sweet from the malt; and modern craft beer often has spices and even salt added.
Generally about wine:
Red wines have more bitterness and tend to complement food flavors. They pair better with heavy meat, pasta dishes, pizza and salty food, or sweet/bitter desserts (dark chocolate brownie).
White, rosé and sparkling wines have more acidity and tend to contrast food flavors. They pair well with fried foods, cheesy/fatty foods, and sweet/acidic desserts (fruit tart).
Sweet wines have more sweetness, and equally complement or contrast. They pair better with salads using vinegar dressing, lighter salty fish and chicken dishes, and sweet desserts (cheesecake).
Generally about beer:
In my humble opinion it is actually easier to pair beer with food than wine. With the combination of ingredients and the carbonation, it has always been easy to drink a beer with your food, and not offend your taste buds. In the beer industry it is often joked that the light macro lagers are fizzy yellow water. But because of the light flavor profile, they can actually be drunk with most foods, precisely because its flavor gets lost in the taste of the meal.
Here are some general guidelines about beer:
- Carbonation and hops cut through fat (beer and pizza).
- Slightly sweeter/fruitier cuts through spice (wheat/hefeweizen and curry).
- Bitter complements meats (brown ale or stout with steak or pork).
- Sweet complements sweet (vanilla stout with chocolate cake).
Quick Reference of Beer Style to Food:
- Belgian Styles - cheese, most meals, curry, sweet desserts
- Pale Ales – most appetizers, fish, and often salads
- IPAs – fried foods, BBQ, spicy foods
- Wheat Beers – fruit, dinner salads, grains
- Amber Ales – burgers, grilled meats and cheeses, roasted meats, and soups
- Stouts and Porters – Heavy BBQ, stews, meats, desserts with chocolate/coffee
Cross Reference for beer & wine
If you are accustom to pairing with wine (or beer) here is a quick reference as to which style corresponds.
Wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Barbera, Pinot Grigio
Beers: Lager, Pilsner, Wheat
Wines: Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah
Beers: Ale, IPA, Bock
Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Oaky Chardonnay, Zinfandel
Beers: Stout, Porter, Barleywine
So what about my daal bhat?
Since the components of daal bhat vary so much, here’s a cheat sheet for putting flavors together, depending on what you’ve cooked into the meal (or what you might be ordering out).
Meaty (buff or pork), smokey, sekuwa (BBQ), strong vegetables
Wine: strong dry red wine, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc
Beer: stout, porter, IPA might contrast well
Chicken or maybe jackfruit, mild, medium vegetables
Wine: light Chardonnay, pinot noir
Beer: light lager, pale ale
Saag paneer, creamier dishes
Wine: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris
Beer: Wit (Belgian light wheat), light lager
Normal curry (meat or veg, not too spicy)
Beer-Saison, Pale Ale, mild IPA
Fried fish, potatoes, salty
Wine: dry white, Sauvignon Blanc, oaky Chardonnay
Beer: Wheat, Pilsner, pale ale, IPA
Spicy curry (meat or veg, Indian)
Wine: fruitier, Merlot, Reisling, Sauvignon Blanc
Beer: Wit, IPA, sweeter Plisner, maybe a stout
Meat and cheese platter
Wine: sweet white, Moscato, Riesling
Beer: Saison, most Belgian styles
Most Importantly Drink What You Like
If you love a good IPA or Cabernet Sauvignon, you'll probably like it with anything you eat. There are no wrong answers, it’s what you prefer. Are there better and worse flavor pairings? Sure! Just remember that your own taste is the final judge.