Combining Our Love For Singapore’s Hawker Food With Champagne
I have always held a fondness for combining a love for hawker food—a quintessential illustration of frugality meeting speed and unmistakable deliciousness—with a passion for fine wine. While subjective by nature, such acts gleefully demand a deliberate disregard for pomp and price tag—like the time I discovered, quite by chance, the natural attraction my favourite Katong laksa shared with a 2010 Clos Saint-Jean Chateauneuf-du-Pape (though I shall neither confirm nor deny if it was a Deus Ex Machina).
My point is that this experience had led me to discover, on a different night some five years later, yet another prime suitor for this unabashedly flavourful bowl of noodles in a spicy coconut milk-based curry broth. It was the uniquely adaptable Dom Pérignon 2000, which was flaunting a vibrant and harmonious display of lush, ripe fruit flavours and creamy mouthfeel. To put it simply, the champagne’s fresh acidity, coupled with a distinct minerality, was for me the ideal counterpoint to the dish’s rich and slightly sweet profile. Some pundits might have instead preferred a quality demi-sec, but the fact is I genuinely enjoyed this duet of complex umami flavours.
It did require an unusual resolve, but like it is often the case throughout the history of successful romances, there’s beauty to be had in the odd couple. If you can disregard the disapproving glances you’d get if you were dining at a hawker centre with a bottle of champagne Jacquesson Cuvée 734 chilling in a bucket next to your plate of chicken rice or biryani, there’s much to glean from this meeting of two worlds.
(Related: The Best Wines To Match With Asian Food)
Given a Chance
This is not to say that such encounters are without unique complications. Writer and career wine geek June Lee will be the first to point out that while it seems perfectly apt on paper to have bubbly with chicken rice, there’s the matter of just how much of that tangy and garlicky chilli accompaniment to the dish you tend to prefer to keep in mind.
“Hawker food is considered tricky to pair with wine for a reason,” says Lee, noting the spice levels and flavourful sauces that can vary from hawker to hawker, and dish to dish would affect the pairing. “Many chilli sauces tend to cause good champagne to have a metallic or bitter aftertaste when paired together,” she recalls. “From personal experience, champagne works best with crispy morsels, such as prawn rolls, ngoh hiang and other customary pickings from the fried fritters stall, as it does with fried chicken from the nasi lemak stall.” Even a moist, seafood-filled dish such as Hokkien prawn noodles, she adds, pairs nicely, but is quick to reaffirm the importance of going easy on the sambal chilli.
(Related: The Best Hawker Food Delivery Options, as Picked by Singapore's Top Chefs)
Sometimes, though, as Simone Macri eloquently asserts, it is exactly the idea of “a beauty and the beast” pairing that is quite enticing. A trained sommelier himself, the general manager of Jaan by Kirk Westaway and Skai thought hard about it and posits how champagne and chilli crab might actually be a pairing he would relish. “But you’ll need a rich rosé to balance the flavours,” Macri clarifies, adding how a Krug rosé with its floral notes alongside a palate of berries, would be a great match to ginger. “Usually, you’d think about aromatic whites like a riesling or traminer to be a good pairing with spicy food, or even some shiraz from Australia,” he continues. “But we must also be curious and try new things,” he insists with a laugh.
Indeed, the only way we can truly appreciate the advantages of an unexpectedly complementary pairing is to approach the possibility with an open mind and a sense of wonder. Here, several industry experts walk us through their recommended hawker dish-bubbly pairings, and we are definitely surprised, for good reason, by some suggestions.
(Related: Penfolds And Champagne Thiénot Make History With New Partnership)
Pairing suggestions by local pundits
Egly-Ouriet Brut Rosé Grand Cru NV with char kway teow and satay
“Char kway teow is a complex and intense dish. To pair it with champagne, you might need a similarly complex and satisfying bottle. This non-vintage rosé from Egly-Ouriet contains 65 per cent pinot noir and 35 per cent chardonnay; 90 per cent of its base wines is from grand cru in Ambonnay, which is famous for top-quality pinot noir, ensuring an intense representation of pure fruitiness. It is also aged on lees for over 60 months, with completely no malolactic fermentation. This results in an extremely complex product, while still retaining enough acidity for a fresh and crisp aftertaste. The considerable amount of chardonnay in the blend also contributes sharp minerality and roundness to this champagne. While robust enough for all occasions, I think it is a great pairing for many intensely flavoured dishes like char kway teow and even satay.”
—Jack Cheung, family sommelier and beverage director of Parkview Group
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé with satay and dry char siew wanton noodles
“The savoury, rich and flavourful grilled satay goes well with this rich rosé champagne. Its orange peel aroma complements the sweet and savoury flavour of the satay and the accompanying peanut sauce. It also has a refreshing minerality and hints of ginger, while its excellent acidity cuts through the oiliness of the dish. For wanton noodles, the acidity alongside the champagne’s flavours of wild raspberries and spices go hand in hand with the deep flavours of the char siew and dark sauces used to dress the noodles.”
—Celine Jung, senior sommelier of wine retailer Grand Cru Wine Concierge
H Billiot Fils, Brut Rosé Grand Cru NVwith chai tow kway (dark version) and Teochew braised duck rice
“A fruit-driven rosé champagne is one of the most versatile food companions, pairing well with a wide range of meaty dishes as well as some slightly sweetly sauced dishes. Henri Billiot’s rosé is made with all grand cru fruits from Ambonnay, and its open-knit, ripely fruited classical style works particularly well in livening up the flavours of dark carrot cake; the caramelised soy sauce-coated bites feel less greasy now, and the extra weight of a rosé feels in balance with these hearty mouthfuls. The same principle applies with the saucy Teochew braised duck dish—the fruit complements the slightly herbal sauce, while the red fruit element matches the texture of the meat perfectly.”
—Henry Hariyono, co-founder of Artisan Cellars
2013 Dhondt-Grellet, Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs 1er Cru Les Nogers with ngoh hiang and nasi lemak
“A crisp and fresh champagne with flavours of green apples, lime zest and lemon drops, this pairs lovely with fried snacks. Acidity is a great counterpoint to greasy foods, and the lively effervescence of this champagne lends a palate-cleansing sensation. Nasi lemak has many components, including fried elements like crispy chicken wing, bergedil, ikan kuning and crispy ikan billis and peanuts; the sambal on the side is key too. A crisp 100 per cent chardonnay champagne would be a lovely pairing with the fried components and a great wine to cool off the spice from the sambal.”
—Yeo Xi Yang, regional co-head sommelier of Park90 wine bar
Chartogne-Taillet, Sainte Anne Brut NV with Hainanese chicken rice and bak chor mee
“I find that crisp but expressive champagne works best with Hainanese chicken rice. Stay clear of blanc de blancs though, as they’re mostly not full-bodied enough to handle our local fares. Chartogne-Taillet’s Sainte Anne is a blend of all three varieties—chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier—and it’s done in a pure, crisp but vinous style, which lends it both freshness and body. This champagne handles the limey piquant chilli sauce that accompanies chicken rice well, yet it is also delicate enough not to wash out the fragrance of your beloved rice. With bak chor mee, usually the trickiest part is to balance out the tang of the vinegar without subduing it unduly, but with the Sainte Anne, its chalky lemon curd and lush apple flavours blends in easily and lifts the savouriness of the flavourful dish.”
—Henry Hariyono, co-founder of Artisan Cellars
Marie-Courtin, Résonance Extra Brut NV with char kway teow and soon kueh
“Texture is key in this pairing. Marie-Courtin’s Résonance is an all-pinot noir champagne grown in the Aube region which, by proximity, shares more similarities to the Burgundy soils than the mainstream area of Champagne to its north. It’s bright, apple-like fruit-driven notes feel ample and ready to take on robustly flavoured, starchy dishes like char kway teow. The champagne’s fresh acidity handles the briny cockles well and its broad texture marries well with the wok hei and Chinese sausage used in the dish. With soon kueh, the pungency of bamboo shoots and dried shrimps, and the chewy softness work seamlessly with the pinot noir here.”
—Henry Hariyono, co-founder of Artisan Cellars
2015 Adrien Renoir-Les Epinettes Verzy Grand Cru with salted egg prawns and roast pork rice
“This blanc de noirs style is focused on red fruits, resulting in a stronger body of the champagne. It’s made from grand cru pinot noir grapes, and it helps to cut through the saltiness and oiliness of the salted egg prawn dish. The champagne’s rounded red apple characters and toasty notes lend texture to the overall pairing with roast pork rice, too. Want to better imagine it? Think roast pork with apple marmalade sauce.”
—Joel Lim, head sommelier of wine retailer Grand Cru Wine Concierge
- Photography Jason Ho