Khmer cuisine is one of the world’s oldest living cuisines and one of the most resilient on the planet. Pairing wine with Khmer cuisine can be fun and can bring a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction, although certain accepted wine pairing norms must and can be successfully abandoned
Spices are often exquisite in quality, yet restrained and understated in their use. Regional flavours and dishes prevail: turmeric from Battambang, Salt from Kep, and of course Pepper from Kampot, which is internationally renowned for its intensity and unique characteristics. Saffron is valued for medicinal qualities as well as flavor and aroma, whilst tamarind also forms the basis of many sauces and marinades.
An assortment of freshwater fish from the Tonle Sap, Mekong, Bassac; seafood from Kep and beyond are sought out and savoured. There are influences in the cuisine from China, (the Chinese began moving in Cambodian circles as far back as the thirteenth century), Vietnam and Thailand; as well as the impact of French colonialism on dish construction and cooking technique.
Chili is widely used in Khmer cuisine although more sparingly than its neighbours.
Prahok is a national institution made from fermented fish and used much in the way westerners would use salt to season their cooking.
Kroeung is a widely used curry paste, made from the skillful art of spice blending; common ingredients in Khmer Kroeung are cardamom, star anise, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, cilantro and kaffir lime leaves.
Rice is the staple, and then the meal consists of a number of different dishes that individually highlight certain flavor components, (salty, sour, sweet, bitter, hot, umami) which, when combined as a single degustation, offer a sense of having a complete and satisfactory meal.
Wine and Khmer Cuisine
Pairing wine with Khmer cuisine can be fun and can bring a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction, although certain accepted wine pairing norms must and can be successfully abandoned.
For a start, it’s not going to work trying to pair a certain wine to a certain dish given that the meal usually consists of a selection of dishes, that when eaten as a whole form the complete meal. If you are trying to match glass-for-dish you will have an awkward table cluttered with multiple glasses per person!
So, what we are looking for here are good all-rounders, wines that can pair well with the fresh clean flavours of Khmer food across multiple proteins and styles. Wines that can be paired to bitter, sour ingredients and pungent, salty and spicy foods.
Look at aromatic whites, which positively zing paired with the fresh herbs, greens and spices abundant in Khmer soups, salads and other dishes, the wide use of freshwater fish and seafood also make these wine styles perfect partners: think Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Alberino, Pinot Grigio, Verdejo and you are on the right track.
Rose can work well, particularly with the standard pork and rice, or with spicier chicken or pork dishes: look for the slightly off dry styles, as that fruity, sweetness ameliorates the heat.
If it has to be red, then I adore Pinot Noir with Khmer cuisine, its lush fruit characters, lively acidity and only faint tannins make it a wonderful food wine across many dishes and styles. Although, most fruity and fruit driven reds will work well. For the fuller-flavoured, dishes, look for wines made from Merlot, Carmenere, Grenache, and GSM (Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvedre) blends. For the heavier, meaty dishes I like a Malbec from Argentina, a juicy Aussie Shiraz, a rustic Cote Rotie from France, or a Touriga Nacional from Portugal.
I personally find the main trick is to stay away from high alcohol wines, from oaky wines or big, tannic reds, high alcohol amplifies heat, whilst tannins and new wood characters tend to be amplified by dishes involving bitterness, sourness or spiciness.
Instead, look for pure, fruit driven wines with good, vibrant acidity to enhance your Cambodian culinary odyssey and enjoy.
Written by Darren Gall