Eating my way around Taiwan for a week in August—from bustling Taipei to serene Sun Moon Lake—I couldn’t ignore that something was missing. Baskets of steamed dumplings and buns, exotic mushrooms, and dishes with green onions woven in were placed in front of me several times each day, all delicious and well thought out.
Tea was hitting my lips—but not wine. By the end of the trip, I craved a crisp Riesling or an earthy Pinot Noir, imagining how the two would work in tandem to bring out the nuanced flavors of the foods.
Asian cuisine is perhaps the furthest behind at executing food and wine pairings. One could blame the casual path this cuisine has taken across America, opting for take-out status over fine-dining settings, or that China, Taiwan, and Japan really aren’t celebrated for their domestic wines. But slowly the tide is turning, with Taiwanese concepts—a mash-up of Japanese and Chinese influences—leading the trend, bringing fried chicken, Peking duck, hot pots, oyster omelets, dishes laced with tea, green-onion pancakes, and more to American palates.
Last spring the country’s first Taiwanese food truck, Bian Dang, started rolling around New York City, selling out of its fried chicken during its first stop in Midtown. Also in spring, Win Son—with an American-Taiwanese twist—opened in Brooklyn’s hip Williamsburg neighborhood, with dishes like marinated cucumbers, scallion pancakes and oyster omelets—proof that Taiwanese food is moving farther east, beyond Asian-restaurant clusters in Washington, Oregon, and California. (And, yes, wine is served at Win Son.)
A week after returning from Taiwan, I found my bliss when I walked into the recently opened DanDan in Milwaukee, where the chefs marry Taiwanese and Chinese Sichuan cuisines for lunch and dinner. Dan Van Rite and Dan Jacobs have long had a love affair for Asian food, and wanted to give it the same attention they did while cooking at Odd Duck and Hinterland, two fine-dining eateries in Milwaukee.
It’s where Sara Nardi, who builds the wine list and develops pairings for DanDan, proved the hunch I’d held all along: that wine and Taiwanese food do mix. With the veggie momo with spicy peanut sauce, she matched Navarro Vineyards and Winery’s Edelzwicker, an Anderson Valley, California, blend of Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Muscat. The wine’s orange blossom and honeysuckle notes didn’t compete with the spicy sauce.
Other wines I drank that night were Drouhin Pouilly-Vinzelles (Chablis, France)—the chalkiness and preserved lemons in this white wine a nice match with the salt-and-pepper squid with Serrano peppers—and three reds: Domaine Bulliat Beaujolais (France), Cavalchina Bardolino Corvina (Veneto, Italy), and Preisinger Zweigelt (Austria). Nardi strives to find boutique producers that aren’t necessarily familiar to U.S. diners. What’s also unique about the wine list at DanDan is the permission to play with pairings, thanks to 21 wines being available by the glass. Nardi’s choice to pair the Zweigelt with Mushroom Three Cup really brought out the mushroom’s earthy layers, thanks to cherry and cigar-box notes and soft barely discernable tannins. “This ended up surprising us as a wildcard pairing with intensely savory, deep, and earthy flavors like wild mushrooms and black garlic, and even lamb,” she says.
To prepare for the opening of DanDan, Nardi and the two chefs visited Chinatown neighborhoods around the U.S. and also frequented restaurants with modern takes on Chinese food. “There wasn’t always an option to try wine with the food, especially in Chinatown, but when we did, it was certainly eye-opening,” says Nardi. “When we got home, we would have dinners at our houses to try food and pairings and put our heads together with fellow restaurant friends.”
“We tried to follow the rules of pairings as we know them, and eventually threw them out the window. It was like trying wine for the first time again, which made it challenging, but also fun. There are different flavors, but also different types of spices: not just heat, but numbness, brightness, sweetness.”
Many questions had to be addressed: “Do you juxtapose or make it harmonious? A bad or weird pairing could turn you off to the wine or the food and really compromise the experience,” Nardi says. “If it’s done right, it doesn’t mess with the complexity of the cuisine. In our case, really bold, in-your-face flavors that really work your palate.” Of the Navarro wine she paired with dishes during my visit, Nardi says, “It’s our go-to for spicy dishes like DanDan noodles and happy chicken (a dish with dried chilies and five spice) and even stands up to accompanied sauces. It’s a complex wine with layers, much like our food.”
With the Char Siu Pork Pancake, Nardi is a huge fan of the Calvachina Bardolino Corvina. “It’s just light and acidic enough to balance the richness and spice of meat dishes such as mapo tofu and even Peking duck. Italian wines, in general, have been our favorites to pair with everything Chinese. Even orange wines,” Nardi says.
The spicy flavors from DanDan melding in my mouth, I was transported back to a fourth-floor apartment a few blocks from the gourmet indoor Shidong market in Taipei. This is where Ivy Chen teaches global travelers—including me a few weeks earlier—how to cook Taiwanese food through her business, Ivy’s Kitchen. Before the class, we met at the market for a primer in shopping for exotic fruits and vegetables, plus meats and fishes, all of these staples in many Taiwanese dishes. This includes seemingly minor ingredients like goji berries, dragonfruit, cilantro, basil, green onions (the Taiwanese ones are longer than what are sold in the States), and short-grain rice that are chef staples in Taipei—and often the star in the dish.
That afternoon we made Three Cup Chicken, Chinese Spring Onion Pancake, spicy cucumber salad, and steamed fish with preserved Sebastan plum cordia. For Chen—a cooking-school graduate—teaching others to cook with a Taiwanese twist is a gift that keeps on giving. “The more I teach, the more I want to learn more and more,” she says.
It’s the same for Nardi, who is having a blast developing wine pairings with spicy Sichuan food. And she’s passing that energy on to her staff in a variety of ways that go beyond formal training by consulting books, maps, quizzes, and DVDs about wine. “The only thing that really works for me is drinking (wine) and comparing it,” she says. “When I see staff ordering food at the end of a shift, I put a couple of tasting pours in front of them and have them talk to me or each other about it. … I make it interactive and give them control. I see them get excited about discovering their own palates.” The biggest hurdle, she says, is to avoid being intimidated by wine. Simply explore and enjoy.