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Chinese food: wine and beer choices

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It’s the eternal question for Chinese food lovers: what do you drink with Chinese food, especially when the dishes are spicy?

There are sparse mentions of either wine or beer in the Culinaria China, a comprehensive guide to all things culinary and Chinese. Though that’s not to say that Chinese people don’t drink alcohol. In China, historically wine was not the first choice to drink with a meal. But that’s changing – wine consumption is on the rise and many world-class vineyards now have Chinese investors buying up hectares of grapes and wine-making expertise to cater for the wealthier classes in China. The attraction of Bordeaux wines for example may have less to do with its ability to partner Chinese cuisine and more to do with amassing Western social status and of course, Bordeaux’s investment value.

Fruity whites work well with spicy dishes, especially if they contain chillies. Gewürztraminer, a Riesling or a Spanish Verdejo is a good choice. Jancis Robinson, the wine critic says on her website jancisrobinson.com: ‘There was a time when it was accepted wisdom that Gewürztraminer went well with vaguely Asian, vaguely-spiced food. But that was when western knowledge of the many hundreds of Asian cuisines was extremely limited. Today we understand a bit more, and I think probably realise that it’s no good simply prescribing one grape variety for a whole, particularly vast continent.’

Beer is superb with Sichuan and any Chinese cuisine. The Chinese Tsingtao beer is one to try and there’s no need to stick with China. Try Japanese, Hawaiian, Belgian or any Irish craft beer. Tsingtao beer (pronounced Ching-Dow) was created by German settlers in Qingdao in China in 1903 and according to the company was most probably first served at a live kung-fu fight.

According to Culinaria China Qingdao was still a small fishing village at the time that Kaiser Wilhelm 11 forced through a 99-year lease after two German missionaries were murdered. Tsingtau (where the beer was invented) became a German colony in China and was made in the image of a German town, under the authority of the Imperial German Navy. Here the Germans, presumably in search of something to remind them of home, created the Germania brewery using water from the mineral springs in the nearby Laoshan mountains. The Japanese commandeered Qingdao at the beginning of World War 1 and in 1922 the Chinese got it back again. But the roots of beer production in China were obviously robust and to this day, Tsingtao beer is sold across the world. How would the Germans ever have known that over a hundred years later their beer would be sold in Chinese restaurants on an island called Ireland.

A note on Chinese Harbin beer

Harbin Brewery (now owned by Anheuser Busch) was invented by the Russians and it was the first brewery founded in China, three years before Tsingtao brewery. The people of Harbin are particularly hardened to the intemperate weather of the Heilongjiang region – about 8 months of the year are frosty, summers are short and wet and to counter the cold desperate conditions, they eat fatty meat and drink alcohol, lots of it. In fact, the people in that region are the largest consumers of beer in China.

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