BYOB and the Great Pairing Conundrum

Here in Hawaii, we love to eat. A lot, frequently, and with friends. To facilitate a modicum of fiscal responsibility in my culinary enterprises, I often search for that magical acronym jotted on Yelp pages and restaurant windows: BYOB.  Don't concern yourself with the typical 400 percent markup for alcoholic beverages. Just bring your own.


One problem. With BYOB, there is no sommelier to offer recommendations; you are on your own. Most wouldn’t find tremendous difficulty pairing their bœuf bourguignon or spaghetti alla puttanesca with a tasty vinous beverage. But for the more adventurous, where do you begin when attempting to pair sashimi, papoutsakia, or Evil Jungle Prince Thai Curry?

In this post I outline a few challenging categories of cuisine (Southeast Asian, Japanese, and Mediterranean) along with some general pairing tips. The goal is to keep you in the pairing ballpark for your next evening on the town. Eat well, pair well.

Southeast Asian Cuisine: I’ll take your Evil Jungle Prince and raise you a Gewürztraminer.

There is no better way to enjoy life (and food) than to embark on a culinary adventure through the various street stalls of Southeast Asia. Culture, food and beverage collide in a wonderful accord of flavor, vibrancy, and excitement. Without hesitation, this is my favorite regional cuisine.  

Lime, chili, fish sauce, coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal. The flavors and spices of these countries are fresh, exotic, expressive, and of course, hot. While incredibly flavorful, these ingredients can create a daunting task when attempting to pair with wine - a beverage whose origins and culture are found on the other side of the world.

For the best Vietnamese and Asian fusion, try The Rice Place in Honolulu. And its BYOB!

Fear not. Read on.

First and foremost, Southeast Asian cuisine tends to be spicy. Even when the waitstaff insist that it isn't, it is. Heat and spice are complicating factors when wine pairing, and there is plenty of both on the menu. Admittedly, you could cheat and choose a light, refreshing beer. The temptation is understandable; I acquiesce with surprising regularity. Local brews such as Tiger (Singapore), Chang (Thailand), Angkor (Cambodia), and Tsingtao (China) all have common characteristics of light, crisp, gentle sweetness, and low alcohol that stand up to the Asian spice and heat. Beer is predictable and effective. It just works, brilliantly. With a little practice, however, wine can offer complementing flavors with this regional cuisine that uniquely entice the palate. A few tips.

1. Alcohol + Spice = Raging Fire (Frowny Face).  

Select wines that have a low to moderate alcohol content. The alcohol in the wine is exaggerated with food, especially with salty and spicy dishes. Choosing a powerful, alcoholic wine to pair with a spicy dish is the equivalent of adding oil to the flames. Result: unpleasantness.

2. The Less Oak, the Better.

Choose a wine with minimal or no oaking. Like alcohol, oak flavors are intensified when paired with food.  As a result, oaked wines require creamy, hearty dishes that will balance the oak flavors. Southeast Asian cuisine just doesn’t fit the profile. Leave the California Chardonnay at home.

3. Sweet Sensations.

Include a wine with some residual sugar. Sweetness can be an effective counterbalance to heat and alleviates the burning sensation on the palate. Moreover, sweetness can coax out the flavor of the spices, and in so doing garner more depth and complexity to the spice on the palate.


"Off-dry whites, such as Chenin Blanc, Muscadet, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, make great pairings with Southeast Asian cuisine."


So, how do these principles translate into a decent wine selection? Off-dry whites, such as Chenin Blanc, Muscadet, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, make great pairings with Southeast Asian cuisine. Rosés and sparkling wines can also pair well, provided they retain sweetness and are not too dry.

Ready to order that Evil Jungle Prince Thai Curry? I’d recommend a Gewürztraminer, as it pairs well on a spectrum of spice levels, and is a safe selection for curry pairings. Further, the tropical lychee notes famous in Gewürztraminer complement the coconut milk, lemongrass, and lime flavors of the curry. Some caution is in order, however. For some dishes that are on the extreme end of the gamut (e.g., Thai hot), wine simply may not be able to keep up. Time to break out the beer...

Refresher Deluxe at The Rice Place in Honolulu.

Not all Southeast Asian selections require gentle taming. For many cold dishes and appetizers, this region affords a beautiful and refreshing balance of citrus (lime) and saltiness (fish sauce), combined with fresh ingredients (ginger, seafood and vegetables) and bright herbs (basil, cilantro, mint).  My most frequent accompaniment for these dishes is a Chenin Blanc from South Africa or the Loire Valley in Northern France. The balanced sweetness and minerality pairs wonderfully with the citrus and salty flavors, and can stand up to a bit of heat if a few stray chilis attempt to commingle. Riesling would also be a worthy stand-in.

Japanese Cuisine: Sushi ❤ Sake.

The rich Japanese culture in Hawaii, coupled with our abundance of fresh, locally-caught fish, translates into sushi paradise. I will gleefully admit, we are completely spoiled. Outside of Japan, I have not found a better sushi haven.

Sushi and nigiri platter from Ginza Sushi in Kaka'ako District of Honolulu.

Sushi prerequisites are twofold.

First: omakase. Sit at the sushi counter, tell your local sushi chef that you want omakase (loosely translated, “I’ll leave it up to you”), and let his culinary genius carry you through the night. Be courageous, be daring, trust that it will be good. It will be.

Second: sake. You can pair sushi with beer or wine with relative ease, but on this night, procure (pilfer, if necessary) a bottle of sake instead. As a mild disclaimer, sake is one of my favorite beverages on the planet, and I could (and do) pair this with a lot more than sushi.  While my proclivity toward sake may result in potential pairing bias, sake is unequivocally the preeminent pairing for sushi. A few tips.

Hakutsuru Junmai Ginjo

1. Match Quality of Sake to Quality of Sushi.

For high-end sushi, you need a high-end sake. Sake quality depends chiefly on the amount that each grain of rice has been polished (or milled). Milling is the process of removing the outer layers of the rice grain, which include fats, proteins, minerals and other compounds that distort flavor, to reach the more concentrated inner layers of starch. Simply stated, the greater the percentage of each rice grain that is milled away, the higher the sake quality (and the more expensive). A sake’s designation on the bottle (e.g., Junmai, Honjozo, etc.) will indicate its quality. The table below summarizes:

2. To Distill or Not to Distill?

Sake that contains distilled alcohol (a practice that began during World War II due to country-wide rice shortages) doesn’t significantly change the alcohol content of the sake, but can provide different aromas and tasting notes. The traditionalists are quick to condemn all who are not sake purists, but in reality it is a matter of taste and preference. Experiment with a few varieties to determine what delights your palate.

3. Old Sake is Bad Sake.

Be sure to check the label for the date of bottling. Unlike wine, sake is not usually aged for long periods and should not be purchased if more than 12 months old. Ideally, purchase sake that is less than 6 months old.

Although it is no BYOB, Ginza Sushi has a fine selection of sake to pair with your sushi.

4. Not All Sushi is Created Equal.  

Sushi is not a ubiquitous term. Are you in the mood for traditional, Japanese-style nigiri and sashimi? In that case, pair with clean and crisp Ginjo or Daiginjo. For this style, I personally prefer a dry sake that contains floral and grain elements, but some residual sweetness and fruit characteristics can balance the shoyu and wasabi. Or are you craving more Western-style fusion sushi rolls with a myriad of sauces, spices, and modish garnishes? The flavor profile has a much wider range, but a safe selection would be a Junmai that has more earthiness and body to round out the flavors. For spicier concoctions, there is plenty of room for the sweeter side of the sake spectrum to counterbalance the heat. And as stated above, when heat is involved, lower alcohol will keep the raging fires at bay. No genshu for you.


Mediterranean Cuisine: Eat Local, Drink Local.

Everyone loves a good falafel, available at Kan Zaman in Honolulu's Chinatown District.

Mediterranean cuisine is often treated synonymously with Greek.  A broad label, however, significantly underestimates this marvelous and remarkably complex region. The Mediterranean is vast and ancient, encompassing many cultures that include Maghrebi, Turkish, Lebanese, Israeli, Greek, Italian, French and Spanish. The varied cultural interactions, conquests, and local climate and geography have all played vital roles in shaping the region’s diverse cuisine. Mediterranean meals are primarily plant-based, and utilize simple cooking techniques and fresh, healthy ingredients. Olive oil and local vegetables (such as artichoke, tomato, eggplant, cucumber, okra and others) take center-stage, with meat used sparingly (although seafood is common and popular). The vegetables are flavored with garlic and brightened with fresh herbs, such as basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, parsley, dill, sumac, mint, cilantro and saffron.

With such a diversity in flavor, wine pairings can be equally diverse. The Mediterranean is a perfect demonstration of the longstanding principle that pairing food and wine from the same region can be the best, and easiest, solution. It may sound simple, but regions produce certain styles and varietals of wine for a reason. Principally, it is because they pair well with the dishes that locals consume on a regular basis.

"The Mediterranean is a perfect demonstration of the longstanding principle that pairing food and wine from the same region can be the best, and easiest, solution."

Going out for Greek? Pick up an Assyrtiko from Santorini, one of Greece’s finest white wines. Can’t locate a Greek wine shop? Other local varietals and blends, such as Vermentino from Sardinia, Super Tuscans from Italy’s western coast, rosé from Provence, and the red and white blends from Southern Rhône and Languedoc, can all pair wonderfully with your meal.

Baba Ganoush and Tabouleh, two Lebanese staples, at Kan Zaman. Don't forget to bring your wine...

Many of these regional dishes are light, fresh, and vegetable (or seafood) focused. For these, try crisp white wines with bright acidity and harmonizing salinity typical of the coastal terroir, such as Vermentino or Assyrtiko.  

Going for the grilled lamb kebabs instead? Super Tuscans or Rhône Valley Grenache blends will stand up to the charred flavors and heartier herbs (such as rosemary and oregano), while presenting balanced red and black fruits on the palate.

Sometimes the safest bet is to eat local, drink local.

A Harbinger of Pairings to Come

Hopefully this post can provide a few basic tips for the next time you are strolling through the grocery aisle on your way to a local BYOB restaurant. But greater insight is on the horizon. Stay tuned for in-depth food and wine pairings and tips at my favorite BYOB spots in town. Until then, cheers!

Do you occasionally find yourself in a BYOB pairing conundrum? What is your BYOB strategy?