Among life’s most fascinating experiences is matching whisky flavours with food aromas, which either enhances one taste or contrasts with the other. The world’s favourite tipple, whisky, speaks a common language of appreciation when it is matched with food, which is now being offered from global tables, tribes and traditions. From a humble beginning, the concept has come into its own. Nosing and tasting notes of single malts and pairing with matching flavours is increasingly being adopted across India. People in India are now approaching this concept, far more than they did a few years back. Drink less, but drink better seems to be the new motto.
I had introduced India to the art of whisky pairing with food, way back in 2007, when we paired a 16-course meal with whiskies. We had a lot of learnings and mixed experiences. Though, over the years, I felt that different single malts, with their distinctive flavours, were a good pairing with Indian cuisine. We worked with various styles of whiskies and felt that most whiskies were quite complementary.
Indian food is as old as mankind itself. Spices, herbs, and fresh ingredients have been an integral part of India for a few centuries. Whilst the rest of the world was still being discovered, food in the Indian subcontinent was already being appreciated. The legacy of the rich Indian culinary culture is an integral part of the world’s food history.
Recipes are passed down through generations, mothers and grand–mothers guarding family recipes in lockers to be handed over to the new keepers. It is not unusual to dine on dishes in traditional Indian homes which have been prepared with recipes handed down through generations from as early as the 18th century.
Interestingly, on the one hand, while Indian food gains a global footprint, a new revolution is taking place back home, wherein chefs are redesigning Indian food and bringing out what we will call the modern Indian cuisine. This captures the primary flavours, accentuates certain ingredients and presents the dishes in a more contemporary manner. To create a distinction, the presentation is more modern and appealing. In India, chefs are experimenting with ingredients, flavours and above all presentation, to lend a fresh new look to the food. Some chefs also feel that vegetarian Indian food goes well with whiskies.
While in the southern part of India, chefs are passionate about spice and herbs, and want them at the forefront, they are not sure if they want to pair them. In North India, pairing is widely accepted, so much so that whisky is paired with food most of the time.
The sensory experience is enhanced with a visual treat, with matching shades of food colour going well with the golden and copper hues of whisky. Sometimes the flourish and the swish of the whisky lashing the glass settles, almost reluctantly, to balance the great-tasting dishes.
A good-looking bar or restaurant, the crispness of the service, adds to the overall dining experience. Whisky is then served in small measures and enjoyed responsibly.
The whisky and chef pairing with celebrated Indian chefs
Executive chef Ivan Chieregatti
Hyatt Regency, New Delhi
Dish: Fresh salmon, sashimi, with a ponzu sauce or light teriyaki sauce
Whisky: Yamazaki Distiller’s reserve
Pairing logic: Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve has a mild flavour on the palate with fresh fruit notes. The nose contains notes of strawberry, cherry, and Mizunara (Japanese oak). The palate is fresh raspberry, white peach, and a touch of coconut.
The finish is sweet vanilla, with a clear finish and a hint of cinnamon.
Executive chef Elangovan Shanmugam
Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur
Dish: Traditional lemon meringue pie with Jim Beam Bourbon
Whisky: Jim Beam
Pairing logic: Since the pie in itself has a mélange of textures, we introduced the flavour of the whiskey to enhance the sweetness and complement the sourness of the lemon juice and zest. The tart and creamy lemon custard filling with whiskey is topped with mile-high billowy meringue; the magic of that whipped meringue topping that went into the oven like soft cloudy pillows and came out a firm golden brown. The alcohol does not evaporate much as the custard is covered with meringue, which can be torched as well. So, there is a burst of flavours as one tastes the pie.
Executive chef Ajit Bangera
ITC Grand Chola, Chennai
Dish: Sikandri Raan
Whisky: Talisker 10 Years Old
Pairing logic: Sikandri raan is a whole leg of lamb, slow-cooked with flavoursome notes of malt vinegar and red chili. This robust meat is fragrant on the nose, with tarty notes from the vinegar and aromatic black cumin. A heavenly match made in the cask and tandoor, it pairs well with the Talisker 10 YO, with its bonfire of peat crackling and black pepper on the palate, as well as robust flavours of charcoal smoke. With sharp notes of vinegar and rubbed spices, the blend of Sikandari Raan and Talisker is an orchestra of robust and bold flavours on the palate.
Executive chef Manish Mehrotra
Indian Accent, New Delhi
Dish: Chicken tikka quesadilla, pink peppercorn raita
Whisky: Talisker 10 Years Old
Pairing logic: Chicken tikka quesadilla and pink peppercorn raita combined with Talisker is one of the food pairings which really works. The well-rounded flavours from the fresh ingredients used in the marination, and smokiness from the tandoor wrapped in tortilla sheets with the raita, is one of the combinations which makes the whisky pairing a wholesome experience on the palate.
Executive chef Vijay Thapliyal
The Lodhi, New Delhi
Dish: Twice-cooked teriyaki pork belly, with shallots and sesame
Whisky: Lagavulin 16 Years Old
Pairing logic: This meaty, hearty dish follows the cooking technique of Japanese cuisine, where it goes through an 18 hour slow-roasting process and is then grilled right before it goes onto the plate. The sweet teriyaki sauce flavoured with star anise seeds and ginger adds to the taste of the meat.
Chef Satbir Bakshi
The Oberoi, Mumbai
Dish: Chargrilled New Zealand lamb chops, glazed potatoes, creamed spinach, with butternut squash puree
Whisky: The Glenlivet 21 Years Old
Pairing logic: The sweet smokiness of the lamb chops has a lively freshness that announces itself to the long, delicious notes of honey, vanilla, pressed apples and a little cinnamon that are imparted by The Glenlivet 21 Years. The delicate creamed spinach flavours are beautifully punctuated with the firm sherry notes of the whisky. The butternut squash and glazed potatoes punctuate the texture of the lamb with a gentle spice on the palate and the finish.
Executive chef Sujoy Gupta
Taj Bengal, Kolkata
Dish: Pan-roast duck, sweet potato fondant, baby vegetables, and cherry Cognac sauce
Whisky: Chivas Regal 18 Years Old
Pairing logic: This whisky is well-rounded with chewy sultanas. A touch of fudge and gentle wisps of smoke. The palate is also full with the richness of chewy tannins. It finishes long and dry, with spicy oak notes.
Executive chef Dane Fernandes
The St. Regis, Mumbai
Dish: New Zealand Lamb Rack
Whisky: The Glenlivet Nàdurra
Pairing logic: With a fruity flavour and a palate of tangy marmalade, creamy vanilla toffee and toasted smokiness, this peated malt is my preferred whisky to pair with the smokiness of the lamb chops and is complimented by the charred dauphinoise. The subtle smoothness of edamame and truffle with the tang of the pan jus offers a balanced match.