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Forget beer, choose right wine for spicy hot pot

By John H. Isacs (Shanghai Daily)

19:32, January 04, 2013

Ma la hot pot which involves various Sichuan chillies and hot peppers, is an exhilarating culinary experience that uniquely challenges diners' senses. (Shanghai Daily)

I first experienced ma la (literally numb and spicy) hot pot about 25 years ago and, like many lovers of this Sichuan treasure, my culinary life was forever changed.

For the uninitiated, it's hard to describe the unique and addictive qualities of this special meal. Much more than a dish, ma la hot pot is an exhilarating communal culinary experience that uniquely challenges your senses.

Ma la hot pot is also a bonding experience and an essential rite of passage for lovers of spicy foods. During my frequent wine travels abroad, the first week away from home I happily savor all the local ingredients and dishes, then sometime during the second week I start craving the flavors of China.

The first night back I rush to a local eatery to experience real Chinese food. A ma la restaurant is often my first stop.

Wine and ma la pairing

The topic of pairing wines with spicy foods always creates controversy. Many food and wine pairing traditions emanate from Western wine connoisseurs who resolutely claim that wine is too delicate for spicy foods. They counsel either beer or tea as more suitable solutions.

I don't buy this thinking for two reasons. First, most Western wine connoisseurs neither know nor like spicy Chinese cooking, regardless of what beverage accompanies the dishes.

Secondly, the predominant influence on food and wine pairing rules were made with traditional French wines like Bordeaux and Burgundy in mind. While these regions make some of the greatest wines in the world, they are not the most flexible in food pairing and certainly not the most appropriate for spicy foods.

Picking beer to accompany a ma la hot pot is an easy yet imperfect compromise as beer, even at its best, is merely a neutral companion to spicy foods, never an embellisher like the appropriate wine.

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