How to Pair Wine with Singapore's Iconic Foods
We asked one of Singapore's most esteemed sommeliers how to pair wine with a few of the city-state’s most popular dishes.
"Naked" bee hoon. All photos by the author.
Singapore, the Lion City of Southeast Asia: Bourdain loves it and so do we. Since we love wine too, we thought we'd ask one of the city's most esteemed sommeliers how to pair wine with a few of the city-state's most popular dishes.
Gerald Lu is an award-winning wine pro who serves on the board of the Sommelier Association of Singapore. He's currently the general manager and head sommelier at Praelum Wine Bistro and has been working in the beverage industry since he was 17 years old.
The Singapore native has noticed wine's recent rise in popularity.
"Everything has changed so rapidly and assertively in the last ten years," he said. "The best wines used to be only available in the top hotels and fine dining restaurants (maybe ten to 15 of them) and the best sommeliers were all found there."
Ten years ago, there were about 100 wine importers, wholesalers, and distributors. Now there are more than 500 listed in Singapore. They're not just bringing in the classics, either. Bottles from Bulgaria and lesser-known regions are popping up on wine lists, too.
"It's crazy for a country which became independent 50 years ago to be where it is today," Lu said.
"With Michelin in the works this July, food tourism will be on the rise and no doubt, some of the best wines in the world will want a position here in Singapore, and we will be ready for it."
When I asked Lu what wines he would pair with the city's staple eats, it wasn't something he had thought about before.
"I feel that a lot of local dishes came around from extremely humble beginnings, while wine started off in Singapore as a luxury good introduced from abroad," he said.
"While it's definitely not impossible, I just never had a moment where I felt 'This is magic with this vinho verde and we should totally set up a wine stall in the hawker center with recommended pairings.'"
Nonetheless, he offered his expertise in case you want to BYOB of something special to a hawker center.
Char Kway Teow
"Ah! The dying dish of Singapore's hawkers. A messy looking plate of cholesterol holding on to the divine flavors of both the humblest beings of the land and sea," poetically waxed Lu.
"It's sweet, salty, and usually spicy all rolled into one. The tricky thing is the kway teow [flat thin rice noodles]," he said. "While the dish is rich in flavor, you eat relatively small bites of it with little to chew, so you need a wine with a light, fleeting body but still packs a bit of a punch."
"For me, rieslings and gewürz are always safe, but so far the most enjoyable—and affordable— choice I've had is with vinho verde (the modern style, happy-cheapy types).
"Lightweight, slightly effervescent with just flavors of lime and apple with hints of flowers and leaf. It just gives it enough acidity to help with that oiliness and not too complex on flavors to fight with the dish."
"You really don't want to interfere with CKT's deliciousness. Just go easy, drink it chilled and with good acidity, and you're gold."
"Only one wine takes the cake for me," Lu said. "German riesling at Kabinett levels and above. The acidity just zips through the rich egg-laden gooey-ness of the sauce—which is the essence of the dish. I know people who order chili crab for the sauce and do not give two hoots about the crab."
"That residual sugar (RS) just balances out the chili spice. Riesling's beautiful stone fruit and floral characters just lift that juicy, fat Sri Lankan crab together with spices and savoriness from the dish itself. Depending on which chili crab place you go to, you gotta adjust that prädikat level."
"Well, there are generally two commonly found types," Lu said. "One is the one with coconut-intensified broth and the other with lots of tamarind tanginess called assam laksa."
"For the former, it has always been a toss-up between rieslings and gewürztraminer. Rieslings are similar idea and concept to chili crab, but somehow the flavor profiles are not as exciting as gewürz, whose in-your-face tropical fruit and spice add more dimension to laksa."
"But because some laksas are quite spicy and some people love adding more chili to it, the RS [residual sugar] of rieslings help.
"For the latter, definitely off-dry riesling," Lu said. "You need that sweetness to balance off that sourness. Spätlese from the Mosel has worked best for me with assam-based dishes so far."
"If I must pair wanton mee with a wine—assuming it's the dry style of noodles with a bit of chili and dark soy, roasted char siew, and wantons with prawns in soup—perhaps an Austrian riesling from Wachau, Smaragd classification for more intensity."
"Something dry but with some body weight and a little bit of RS, slight spice, and vegetal nuances. Young for sure, nothing too aged or developed. Served nice and chilled."
Fried Bee Hoon
"OK, I would like to take the opportunity to clarify that fried bee hoon is in no way a national dish," Lu schooled me. "Bee hoon is just thin rice vermicelli noodles—like angel hair pasta—and is one of several noodle types that we cook with here."
"In Singapore, the bare bones version is just fried with soya sauce and beansprouts and served naked for about SGD $1, or you can add items like egg, chicken wings, sausages—whatever you want with it and eat it."
"That being said, this dish could go with anything light and fresh with a bit of good fruit to it," he said. "If it's naked and bare, perhaps a grassy, blackcurrant leaf sauv blanc from New Zealand might give it a little more character."
"If it's a more complex version with seafood and meat, perhaps a viura or chenin blanc might work. Always best to pick something a little fruitier and higher in RS to help in case of the spice and flavor intensities from the mixture of seasoning and food ingredients."
Hainanese Chicken Rice
"This is also one messed up dish that people consume in a variety of ways that changes the selection of wine," Lu said.
"Assuming it's the classic boiled white chicken served with the breast or rib segments chicken meat with fragrant rice and using moderate amounts of ginger chili and dark soya sauce as a quick dip for the chicken, I would go with viognier from Australia or New Zealand."
"The bright stone fruits add dimension with the simple salty and spicy flavors. The wine holds itself in terms of weight with the chicken, while the new world RS gives balance to the chili kicks."
"And somehow or other, like how chicken rice usually comes with a serving of cucumber, I find the slightly green, bitter tangerine peel notes of viognier play quite a similar role."
"I usually drench my rice with the dark soya sauce with chili and ginger paste; therefore, doing so will greatly exaggerate the spice and umami levels," Lu said. "Thus the wine needs to go back to the saving grace of Southeast Asian dishes: riesling."
You don't need to be a master sommelier to make a good call on your wine brown-bagging in Singapore. Lu suggests taking a cue from your surroundings.
"If you look at local drink stalls, 90 percent of the drinks we drink are sweetened drinks," Lu said. "Follow the local palate and it shouldn't be wrong."
The generously seasoned cuisine, heavy with chili and spices, just goes with sweeter beverages. Wine is no exception.
"Whites work the best here in Singapore due to temperature and acidity," Lu concluded, "and off-dry styles are great with the local food and for a reason."