Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Baijiu: Food Pairings (Part 5)

Can you pair food with Baijiu?

That is a fascinating question and a potential route to get Americans to taste Baijiu. I've received a couple different opinions on the traditional role of Baijiu and food. The first opinion is that Baijiu is more for a social bond that for any specific pairings with food. In addition, as the usual Chinese meal entails lots of different plates with a wide variety of flavors, textures and types, pairing would be difficult. As such, the food is considered secondary to the Baijiu.

The other opinion, offered by Derek Sandhaus, though is that Baijiu is intended to complement the food, and that the food thus takes the primary role over the Baijiu. Though Chinese meals tend to be served family style, with lots of different dishes, each region tends to create an array of dishes that share a cuisine type so they are not as disparate as you might think. The Baijiu produced in each region tends to match the style of that region's cuisine, similar to how wine tends to match the cuisine of the region where it is created. The Baijiu is not intended to pair with any specific dish, as we do with wine pairings, but rather it is intended to pair more generally with a specific regional cuisine.

For example, Sichuan cuisine tends to be very spicy and pairs well with the Strong Aroma Baijiu produced in that region. That style of Baijiu tend to be fruity and assertive, helping to cut through the spiciness. On the other hand,  Kweichow cuisine, which is more spicy and sour, pairs well with Sauce Aroma Baijiu, which is produced in that region. That style of Baijiu tends to have stronger fermented aromas and more umami, complementing the cuisine. Thus, Derek suggests pairing Baijiu with the regional cuisine of where it is produced. Manny from Private Cask Imports also states that spicy and salty foods from northern and southwest China pair best with Baijiu.

What about pairing Baijiu with non-Chinese cuisine?

This appears to be an area ripe for experimentation as not as much study has been done yet concerning such pairings. Derek recommends pairing Baijiu with strong flavored foods, such as spicy foods, cause of the Baijiu's strong flavors. For example, he suggested trying Buffalo Wings or barbecue food which has a spicy sauce or rub. Manny also suggests pairing Baijiu with food that tends to be on the heavier side, like meats, noting that Baijiu cuts through fat and heavy sauces really well.

I think that some of the newer, lighter style Baijiu that is being produced, such as HKB, can be paired with lighter dishes, from seafood to chicken. The fruity flavors in many of these Baijiu would help to enhance some of the flavors of such dishes. Oysters and HKB? I think that might work and I look forward to trying that pairing. Even something as light as a salad might work with HKB, especially if the salad has some bright citrus elements. I'd encourage you to try a light Baijiu like HKB with a wide range of dishes and find what you think works well.

With the stronger flavored Baijiu, you need to work a little harder with food pairings and the advice of Derek and Manny make sense. In addition, I am intrigued about the umami potential of Baijiu as it definitely seems to possess, based on what I've tasted, a strong sense of umami. I've also heard from others who also believe it often has an umami element to its taste.   

However, this seems to be another issue largely neglected and it is near impossible to find any sources online that discuss the topic. The fermentation process, especially due to its length, of Baijiu is conducive to the creation of a high amount of glutamic acid, which is an important source of umami. In this regard, it is similar to Kimoto/Yamahai Sake, which has high levels of glutamic acid, partially due to its lengthier fermentation period. With its high umami, Baijiu would possess much of the food pairing versatility as Sake.

However, based on question I asked of a few chemists/scientists, the act of distillation would seem to omit those glutamic acids from the final spirit. Glutamic acid isn't volatile and seems to have a higher boiling point than alcohol so it wouldn't transfer to the resultant spirit. Could the process of aging though provide umami to the Baijiu? Does sitting in terra-cotta jars for a few years result in changes to the spirit, enhancing its sources of umami? Why do these stronger Baijiu tend to have a powerful umami element? I hope to delve deeper into this subject in the future and if anyone knows more about this issue, please contact me.

Hopefully, after my five-part series, you now understand the basics of Baijiu and are encouraged to give it a try. It is a fascinating spirit, with a more unique production process, and worthy of exploration. Start out with the lighter, lower alcohol versions, and maybe try some cocktails, and work your way up to the funkier types. I shall continue my own explorations and will post more about my experiences very soon. For example, later this week I will be writing about an American-made Baijiu, produced in Portland, Oregon. Ganbai!

Do you still have any questions about Baijiu?

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