Thursday, 3 June 2010

Sake and indian food matching at Moti Mahal

When an invite pinged into my inbox asking me to a dinner matching Indian food with saké, I rsvpd immediately, curious about what would be in store.

It sounded radical, audacious even – I loved the idea. Dinner was served at Moti Mahal in Holborn, a plush Indian restaurant that's had the Kelly Hoppen treatment - tasteful beige and taupe abound. Head chef Anirudh Arora has created a menu inspired by his childhood travels along the Grand Trunk Road, a 2500km stretch built in the 16th century that navigates the breadth of the country, pumping life through it.

Six of his dishes were on show, each of which had been matched with an appropriate saké, which were chosen to compliment the dishes rather than vice versa. Matching wine with Indian food has always been problematic, with reds often proving too tannic, and whites completely overpowered by the strong spices. Perhaps saké would emerge the ultimate wine match?

On arrival we were offered a strong Sakétini served with a slither of cucumber. Taking our places at a long dining table in the basement, I found myself next to Anthony Rose of The Independent, who knows a thing or three about saké, so was in safe hands. To my left was Bob Tryer, the new(ish) wine columnist for The Sunday Times, and Pritesh Mody of Love Food Love Drink, who confessed he was nervous at having flagged up the 7p afternoon tea at The Langham to thousands of subscribers in his newsletter. 'The phones are going to be off the hook'.

The first dish was the most experimental, and my favourite of the evening: crisp fried pastry and chick peas with yoghurt, tamarind and mint chutney. A tea time tradition from the streets of Old Dehli, it was served in a mountainous pile, the yoghurt like melting snow on top, with pomegranate seeds glinting like rubies amongst the green. Sweet and savoury, hard and soft, it had such wonderfully diverse texture and flavour, as the best indian dishes do. But what of the saké match?

It was paired with Aki no Ta (Autumn Fields) saké from the Hideyoshi Brewery. Soft, fruity and refreshing, it had powerful notes of green apple on the palate which lightened the dish, while the chickpeas reduced the sweetness of the saké.

Next up were seared scallops with sesame seeds, coriander and tamarind on a bed of cumin peas paired with Fukurokuju Junmai – try saying that after a few sakés. A southern Indian speciality, the juicy scallops paired well with the salty saké. Notes of pear on the palate triggered the sesame in the dish, and the two played well together.

Another fish dish followed: jumbo prawns with pomegranate and saffron paired with a very special saké: Isake 19 from the Naniwa Brewery, which sells for £475 a bottle in Selfridges. The special saké required special glasses, so we swiftly moved from cups to Riedels.

The quality of a saké depends on the amount it's been polished, and Isake 19, as the name suggests, is polished down to 19% of its original size in a laborious, seven-day process. The result is a delicate saké with a Chablisian mineral core. The tasting note suggested hints of green chilli and wasabi on the palate, but I'm not convinced I found them.

For all its pomp and ceremony (it comes in a gold-topped bottle with a regal purple tassel), I was far more taken with the Dance of the Lotus Flower saké, in its fetching ice pink bottle that would make Hello Kitty weep with joy. Feminine and floral, it was paired with stewed venison and crunchy fried lotus flower – a typical Punjabi snack.

Flavour wise, the most interesting saké was saved until last. Impossible to get hold of the in the UK, the Akashi-tai Genmai Koshu, served in a round bottle, was a fascinating find. It was the fist time I'd tried and aged saké, and time had done strange and wonderful things to it.

A tawny brown colour, the nose was very Amontillado-like, with dried fruits, plums, figs, sultanas and Christmas cake all wafting out of the glass. Savoury on the palate, it retained that saké soy sauce saltiness and umami savoury notes, but there were also hints of nut and banana.

Discovering such an off key saké was exciting, showing me I'd only scratched the surface of the saké flavour spectrum. The evening proved an intriguing experiment, with most of the pairings working extremely well. In saké we seem to have found the perfect bedfellow for Indian food: there are no aggressive tannins getting in the way, and it manages to hold its own against the might of the spices, often giving the dishes additional lift and freshness. Japan needs to jump on this bandwagon and start targeting Indian restaurants, because the guys at Moti Mahal are seriously onto something.

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