Understanding the Basics of Pairing: A Comprehensive Primer

By | 5 April 2024

A crash course in how—and how not—to pair food and wine.

By Ch’ng Poh Tiong

Ch’ng Poh Tiong draws on a lifetime’s experience as he attempts to define the rules for successfully pairing food and wine.

The points I am raising in this column are from the flesh, bones, and spine of a booklet I am writing and publishing this year.

A Primer on Tasting is based on the discoveries, observations, experimentations, deductions, and reflections of nearly five decades of enjoying wine with food.

My maiden meal where fermented grape juice was lavished on cuisine was comfort home cooking. My mother was an intuitive cook. Though she was born in Singapore, her father hailed from Shunde, a district in the city of Foshan that is considered the beating heart of Cantonese cuisine by chefs and aficionados.


My father was brought to Singapore from Fujian by his grandfather. And he was a foodie who shared—if not the political—certainly the cultural aspirations of the United Nations. Thanks to him, I ate my way through other Chinese cuisines, Japanese food, Western cuisine, but most of all, Southern Indian cooking.

My longing for Indian food surpasses that for Chinese cuisine when I’m away from home. The influence of Southern Indian food is prominent, particularly in Singapore (also Malaysia), thanks to the laborers who migrated from the Indian subcontinent in the late 19th century. They primarily worked in the rubber and palm-oil plantation industry and the railway networks.

When talking about pairing food with wine, one must remember that it is essential to like the wine in the first instance. Else all pairing efforts could end up in vain as dislike towards the wine will overshadow any appreciation for the pairing. In such scenarios, the food plays a secondary role.

This idea dawned on me when a publisher from a renowned wine-magazine attended my first International Congress of Cuisine & Wine held in 2008. Even though the focus was on wine, I also indulged in introducing some pairings with single malt whisky. The event coincided with Beijing hosting the Olympics and it felt appropriate to pair the whisky with Beijing’s signature duck.

Introducing Macallan’s 12-year-old was, in my opinion, a thoughtful pairing. The Sherried richness from the Oloroso casks and the multifaceted spiced fruit of the Speyside malt neatly wraps up the crispy duck skin pancake perfectly accompanied with cucumber, scallion, and sweet bean sauce.

My brief moment of triumph was quickly extinguished. The editor of the Indian wine periodical, utterly indifferent, expressed her fierce dissatisfaction: “They don’t go together at all!” Just like the delicate duck, I was fatally wounded. But I attempted to comprehend which element of the match she objected. “I don’t like whisky!” From the beginning, the game was lost.

I refer to pairing 101 as logic and sensitivity. To put it simply, if someone doesn’t like something, it won’t work, no matter what you pair it with. Wine or food. Food or wine.

The next key notion to know when matching wine with food is to taste the wine first. Familiarize yourself with the wine’s flavor, so that when it’s served with the food, you can ascertain if they are compatible or not—if they cooperate or conflict.

There are three possible outcomes when wine meets food.

Scenario 1: Collision

Occasionally, the incident’s impact is massive, a direct collision. Such incidents draw comparisons to raw oysters teamed up with a robust red, or a rib-eye steak paired with a crisp, acidic Champagne brut. A non-wine analogy could be likening Donald Trump with Audrey Hepburn for a blind date; an unlikely and contrasting duo!

Scenario 2: Happy coexistence

The wine preserves its flavors even when joined with the food, and vice versa. This state of peaceful accord is certainly preferred over a collision. However, it’s important to note that in Scenario 2, the wine and food slightly influence each other when combined. There will be a minor alteration in the taste of the food and wine. Despite this change, Scenario 2 maintains harmony. Neither the food nor the wine outshine each other, making it a delightful coexistence rather than a perfect blend.

Scenario 3: A blissful marriage

In this scenario, all the barriers fall away. The clouds part, revealing a beautiful blue sky. The wine enhances the taste of the food, drawing out flavors that remained uncovered when alone. In return, the food draws out depths and nuances from the wine that were concealing within it. That’s the chemistry!

This scenario is the epitome of perfect pairing. The once strangers, now new lovers. This extraordinary occurrence is worth a grand celebration. And nothing could be more appropriate than The 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” The rhythmic beats create an ideal atmosphere. The excitement builds up. And when the final verse of the hipster classic is introduced with loud trumpets, it’s definitely time for another bottle.

A note for the readers. Last year, I had created an event “PS I Love You” or “Port Sichuan I Love You”. I, along with Quinta do Noval, had paired its 10 and 20 Year Old Tawnies and 2007 and 1997 Colheitas with Sichuan cuisine in different cities like Shanghai, Tokyo, Yokohama, and Singapore. And guess what, there were numerous “Happy Marriages” that couldn’t resist coming again.

A Primer on Pairing will be launched in Jerez and the Douro in December 2024. Sherry and Tawny Port are the two most versatile wines in the world with Sichuan, Hunan, Indian, Korean, and Thai cuisines. Let the Sunshine In!  ▉

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