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Pinoy Foods and US wines: A perfect combination

By Gesel Pereyra-Mangilit as written for The Daily Tribune (www.tribune.net.ph).

Despite more than a hundred years of Spanish rule, it is odd that Filipinos -- with the exception of those who have lived in Europe for a length of time or in places in the world where wine drinking is the norm -- have not acquired the European's penchant for wine drinking, especially during meals. Considering the Pinoy's propensity for copying or imitating their colonial masters, no matter how ill-suited it may be to our climate and culture, wine drinking somehow never caught on.

Except for the occasional red wine, drunk more for healthful reasons or during special occasions, the average Pinoy, as described by restaurateur and chef Margarita Fores, would rather "wash down food with Coke," a habit borne out of our love for anything American and our belief that wine, being expensive, is only for the high-brow.

It is quite ironic then that the first shot ever of pairing wines with Filipino food came from the collaborative efforts of an American food and wine expert named Chef Kelly Mullarney, brought in by the United States Department of Agriculture, and local Chef Fores. The place? No less than Fores' Pepato restaurant at the Greenbelt 2 in Makati City.

USDA trade officer and director Mike Woolsey first gave guests a short history of US wine production. He said some of the best wines in the world actually come from the United States, which is one of the wine regions classified under the New World, along with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and Argentina. Old World wines refer to those produced in Europe, particularly in France, Italy and Germany. These wines are made from the same grapes used in making New World wines, so one may get it confused with the other category. But one telling difference between the two is that Old World wines need longer time in the bottle to develop properly.

"Although the US, particularly Napa and Sonoma vineyards in California, has been making world-class wines longer than most other countries, wine was still a new industry from a connoisseur's point until 25 years ago," he added. Average US wine export amounted to 260,000 cases a year, but this has surprisingly doubled in the last two years. This happy turn of events led the USDA to believe that, yes, there is a huge market out there, albeit still untapped, for US wines. "Because novices to wine drinking find the taste of American wine friendly and adaptable, casual diners can actually pair them off with anything, even Pinoy food," he says.

Fores, owner of highly regarded dining places such as Pepato, Cibo and Café Bola, the latter featuring Pinoy comfort food as a way to reach the masa, couldn't agree more. "Chef Mullarney and I really put our heads together in creating this afternoon's menu. Three dishes were inspired by Café Bola -- the Pan Fried Bangus Belly, the Laing Bath we used on the Bistek Tagalog and the Sinigang na Lechon, which we have yet to introduce to our Café Bola diners," she says.

The recipe for the sinigang she got from friend, architect George Yulo. "It's a great way to use leftover lechon and, because I am Ilongga, I chose to sour the sinigang by using batuan sour, which had come all the way from Bacolod," she says. An unexpected surprise was the way the sourness of the sinigang had been tamed by chunks of ripe watermelon swimming in its broth, a tip from her friend Carmen delos Reyes -- "very summer American," she quipped.

"There is no heavy mystique to wine drinking," stressed Chef Mullarney. "In fact, if you ask me what kind of wine I prefer, what I would tell you is this: what's right in front of me at this particular moment." Wine drinking, he explained, is all about educating one's self through self-discovery and experimentation." Swirling the glass and smelling the bouquet before tasting is one way to acquaint one's self with wine because the olfactory senses can actually contribute to one's sense of taste, allowing one to appreciate fully the drink's different flavors or layers.

His one important advice: drink what you like. Wine, he said, can directly improve the flavor of food by bringing out the subtle flavor nuances or balancing otherwise overpowering ones. When food flavors are strong and distinctive, choose a wine with a contrasting flavor to act as a counterbalance to a dish. When food flavors are mild and subtle, choose a complementary wine to help enhance or draw out the key elements of the dish.

As to pairing wine with Pinoy food, Chef Mullarney said there is no hard and fast rule because, he explained, wines that go well with Western fare do not necessarily go well with Filipino food. While the general rule to wine drinking has always been to pair white wine with pork or fish and red wine with red meat, this does not apply to Pinoy food. Continental dishes are relatively mildly seasoned so whatever the meat is will dictate the flavor. But for Filipino food, which is very much dominated by strong sauces, seasonings and marinades, and in most cases, vinegar, the rule does not apply.
Take the classic sinigang, which is made of pork or fish. White wines like Sauvignon Blanc or very dry Reislings can counter the sourness of the dish. But for the Ilonggo's version of the sinigang called kansi, which is made of beef, one might get fooled matching it with red wine. It can be a bit tricky, but with practice and a few guidelines, one can get the hang of it.

For that afternoon's event, they chose to use pork instead, which includes the aforementioned Sinigang na Lechon and Braised Pork with Melted Cabbage and Leeks or what we simply call Nilagang Baboy, that had good ol' apple sauce and caramelized Spam, an American as well as Pinoy comfort food, on the side. The dishes were paired off with the very light, sweet dry taste of the Columbia Crest Sauvignon Blanc and Kendall Jackson 2003. Its bright, fruity taste is said to be a good way to start a meal and to complement fish, chicken or light pork dishes, even desserts.

The somewhat overpowering flavor of the pan-friend Bangus Belly, that had been marinated in vinegar, swimming in Chardonnay foam, baby crab fat and kamias relish, was balanced by the Beringer Stone Cellars Chardonnay 2001. Chef Mullarney said the common varietals of the Chardonnay tend to have a very strong flavor, hence, is good for balancing strong tastes. Although commonly described as oaky, he described the bottle of Beringer Stone Cellars Chardonnay as having none of the oaky taste because it had been aged in steel drums.

For those who love Pinot Noir, the Kendall Jackson is a good pick. The spicy, smokey flavor brought out the flavor of the seared Blue Marlin and jumbo prawns in Chef Mullarney's Cioppino or tomato-herb stew, while the robust, tannic Glenn Ellen Merlot went well to contrast the fatty Bistek Tagalog (in laing bath, young coconut shreds and Baguio Mountain rice pilaf) and the Roast Beef Tenderloin with truffle mash.

When dessert came around, I realized I had five wine glasses before me, including the Woodbridge White Zinfadel I had as an aperitif, which I thoroughly enjoyed with fresh grapes I kept munching on to stave off the acid on my tongue throughout the course of the meal. Also, I was feeling a bit drowsy, even though I had only managed to finish one-eighth of each glass I had been served. After the experience, though, I did pick up quite a bit of info about Pinoy food and the wine matches that go well with it. Call it Wine 101, and to cap off:

1.Sour dishes like sinigang should be served with Riesling (choose Chateau St. Michelle) or Sauvignon Blanc (Kendall Jackson and Columbia Crest are highly regarded).
2.Sweet and sour dishes like Asado and Escabeche should be paired off with light Chardonnay (choose from the following brands: Beringer, Corbett Canyon and Robert Mondavi).
3.Salty and sour dishes like Adobo should be matched with Chardonnay (rule also applies to curried dishes).
4.Pinoy barbecue should be served with a Shiraz or Sirah (choose between Cartlidge and Brown, Woodbridge and Kendall Jackson).
5.Grilled meats and dark-fleshed fish should be served with Merlot (Glenn Ellen, Columbia Crest and Judds Hill) or Sirah, while ligh- fleshed fishes like Lapu Lapu work better with Chardonnay.
6.Tomato-based dishes like Kaldereta should be served with either a Blended Red Wine or Sirah.
7.Creamy or cheesy dishes like Spaghetti Carbonara should be served with acidic Chardonnay.

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