When one contemplates classic wine and food pairings, tofu seldom comes to mind. But that’s a shame, as this soybean-based food has many deliciously synergistic combinations with wines. This week I’ll take a look at some popular tofu dishes and their ideal wine partners.
The origin of bean curd or tofu as it is more commonly known is a mystery. Some claim Lord Liu An of Huainan was the first to make tofu around 164 BC during the Early Han period, but this popular tale lacks supporting evidence. As with cheese and butter, the origin of tofu is likely to remain enigmatic. We do know that tofu popped up in China’s culinary vernacular during the later Han Dynasty and was widely produced and consumed during the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127).
The spread of tofu to other Asian countries coincided with the growth of Buddhism and, by the mid-12th century, was well established in Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. European traders introduced tofu to their native countries in the 17th century and, in a letter from 1770, Benjamin Franklin was the first American to mention tofu. He referred to it as cheese from China. The West didn’t really embrace tofu until the later part of the 20th century, when increasingly health conscious Westerners discovered the delicious virtues of bean curd.
Despite its popularity, there’s still a general dearth of information on pairing wines with tofu dishes. Perhaps this is due to the multitude of manifestations of tofu. The countless preparation methods, flavors and textures of tofu dishes would easily overwhelm the allotted space of this weekly column. So, for the purposes of simplification, I’ll focus on two broad categories of tofu dishes, namely mild and strongly flavored.
Depending on the coagulating agent used, bean curd itself is quite neutral in flavor. The most delicate Chinese and Japanese soft tofu dishes may offer only a slightly salty or sour flavor depending on the dipping or marinating sauce. These subtly flavored, soft tofu dishes are lovely with fairly light bodied, clean white wines. Good examples are Italian Ovieto whites from Umbria and Tuscany or Rioja whites made from the Viura variety. Unoaked New World Chardonnays also work nicely. The pairing objective here is to pick a white that will augment yet not overwhelm the delicate flavors of the tofu dishes. Oaked whites and reds with ample tannins should be avoided.
More firmly textured, dry tofu dishes are often stir fried with different ingredients, so in these cases it’s the other ingredients that will dictate the wine choice. When stir-fried with pork or chicken, white Burgundy or other Chardonnay wines make good companions. Try a reasonably priced Macon or village level Cote de Beaune white. The acidity in these whites will accentuate the flavor and texture of the dish. If red wine is your preference, stick to the Burgundy region and choose a fresh village or Cru level Beaujolais.
Two of the most flavorful tofu dishes are also two of my favorites. Mapo tofu is a Sichuan dish consisting of cubed tofu, minced meat and fermented black beans with a spicy chili sauce. Different interpretations exist but in all cases this is a spicy and oily dish that begs for an acidic white or red wine to cleanse the palate and facilitate digestion. Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling whites both work quite well as do reds that you can chill like a Chianti, Barbera or young Pinot Noir.
Another favorite is the aptly named stinky tofu. It’s one of those dishes that you either love or hate. I belong to the group of people who love it, especially with a sweet wine. This may surprise some readers but all I’m doing is borrowing from the tried and true practice in the West of paring the stinkiest of cheeses, think Stilton, Roquefort and Gorgonzola, with sweet wine. The principle is the same; the sweetness of the wine assuages the stinkiness while accentuating the rich flavors. Therefore, whenever I enjoy stinky bean curd, I’m sure to have a bottle of sweet wine nearby, preferably Sauternes.
Sauternes is located in the southern region of the left bank of Bordeaux and is one of the few wine regions in the world where a combination of factors often leads to grapes being affected by Botrytis Cinerea, more affectionately known as noble rot. This rather disgusting sounding and looking fungus actually plays a critical role in making one of the world’s greatest sweet wines, including the world’s most famous and costly sweet wine, Chateau d’Yquem.
Like most other sub appellations of Bordeaux, Sauternes enjoys a maritime climate with two rivers boarding and intersecting the region. The warmer waters of the Garonne River flowing to the Atlantic interact with the cooler spring waters of the tributary Ciron River to form a mist that envelops the vines of Sauternes. Before harvest, from the late evenings until sunrise, the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes are coated in a light mist. This moisture helps activate dormant spores of the Botrytis Cinerea fungus that in turn dries the grapes, leaving super concentrated, high sugar fruit.
The noble rot wines of Sauternes offer dramatic sweet apricot, peach and honey flavors along with a healthy dose of acidity that prevents them from being cloyingly sweet. When enjoyed with a pungent serving of stinky tofu the result is a wine and food pairing masterpiece.
While the great Chateau d’Yquem stands alone in terms of reputation, there are several other outstanding Sauternes wines that are eminently more affordable. One of my personal favorites is Chateau Rayne de Vigneau. This 1855 first growth Sauternes is about 75 percent Semillon and 25 percent Sauvignon Blanc and offers a splendid combination of opulent sweetness with a solid acidic backbone. Even those of you who find stinky tofu the most egregiously malodorous of dishes, a glass of Chateau Rayne de Vigneau is sure to sway your opinion.
Where to buy in Shanghai
Altavis Fine Wines (641 Taishan Rd, 6228-8609)
Chateau de Rayne Vigneau
Vitocelli Chianti DOCG
Chateau Séduirait Sauternes
Chateau Guiraud Sauternes
Chateau Lafaurie Peyraguey Sauternes
Everwines (200 Taizhou Rd, 3208-0293)
Castello d’Albola Chianti DOCG
Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba DOC
Joseph Drouhin Beaujolais Villages